Category Archives: Sophie is reading

Emerging literacy

The unschooling diaries: weeks thirty-two and thirty-three

Arthur hasn’t been exposed to anything yet that might constitute formal literacy teaching. And that’s totally as it should be in my opinion – he is after all not yet four, and both my instincts and my research tell me that he is far too young for his ever-expanding conception of his world to be constrained by the often clumsy rules of language we inflict upon it.

There are though still times when my conviction wavers: when I see children his age and younger already trained to write shaky letters and even words, or hear others confidently identify the majority of the alphabet.

I know that he will master these things when he’s ready, that in the meantime his overflowing imagination and fascination with the universe is more than enough to both demonstrate and drive his learning. But I have wondered whether there is more I could be doing to help him along.

Except actually, in the past few weeks, he’s been helping himself.

It started with Alphabites, milk-drenched letters held up from his breakfast bowl as he asked me what they were. We named them, and explored their sounds – finding different words he could apply them to.

Then there is ‘I Spy’. We’ve actually sort of played it for months, but recently he’s really started to get it. We’ll use the sound of letters rather than naming them, and it’s a brilliant way to pass the time on long journeys or when we’re out and about.

He’s started expressing an interest in the phonics apps on his iPad too, carefully tracing letters to win fireflies.


Through his app, and through various ‘ABC’ books we have floating around, we’ve begun to explore the notion of capitals and lower case. He wouldn’t believe me at first, that ‘a’ was actually ‘A’. But he’s starting to get it, and we’ve had interesting discussions about the ways that the different versions of each letter are similar and different.

Of course alongside this the most important influence on his emerging literacy is reading. We love to read together, and we are never far from a book when we’re at home. He picked one of Leigh’s up last week and said he wanted to be able to read it – not to have it read to him, but to read it on his own. So we talked about the process that might get him there, how all the games and activities he was exploring would help him break the code, but that there really was no rush.

And actually reading is about way more than decoding anyway, and he’s learning all the stuff that goes around that without us even trying.

On a rainy day at the weekend, stuck in the campervan to escape the relentless drizzle, his friend picked up one of Arthur’s Star Wars books (a current fave), and Arthur offered to read it to him. They sat side by side as Arthur told him the story from a combination of memory  and interpreting the images. His friend asked him questions about characters and plot, and Arthur answered. It was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.



It’s good to reflect on how much of this more ‘formal’ learning Arthur is managing to discover for himself, and I am way more excited about him finding his own path to reading through fascination and wonder than about navigating the thorny and often irrational world of synthetic phonics to force him there before he’s ready.

Forcing learning is after all a bit of an oxymoron, and I have no doubt that there is way more going on beneath the surface than I will ever really know.

Library love

The unschooling diaries: week six

I used to visit the library all the time as a kid. I loved to read, and it was the perfect way to feed my insatiable appetite for books. My mum tells me that she used to take me and my three brothers every week: we’d each choose our books, and when we got home I’d power through my selection before hoovering up everyone else’s.

I’ve never stopped loving books, but somewhere over the years my enthusiasm for the library (at least as a source of stories) faltered. I’m pretty sure it had something to do with all the fines I managed to amass as a teenager…

And then libraries began to fulfil a different need as I began to study. I savoured the quiet and calm they offered in the midst of my frenetic student life, but I would use them to sit and pore through piles of reference books instead. Before Arthur came along it had been many, many years since I had given the fiction section more than a passing glance. And it has taken us until very recently to begin to see its full potential.


We signed Arthur up to the library when he was tiny of course, and enjoyed several sessions of ‘rhythm and rhyme’ until somehow other things started to take over. There were so many other activities to go to, playdates to be had – and that’s all before the irresistible pull of the beach come rain or shine. He’s always loved books, but there have always seemed to be plenty at home.

Except when I started to think seriously about unschooling the library started to take on a whole new significance. What better place to let Arthur loose on the captivating potential for human learning? A place where he was not restricted by prior choices I’d made on his behalf and could truly follow his instincts to find the things he was interested in and wanted to learn more about.


On our first visit a couple of weeks ago that meant mainly playing with puzzles and looking at the globe whilst I picked out a few books I thought he might like to read at home.


But this week was different. To start with the trip was initiated by him – he’d been flicking through a ‘Thomas and Friends’ magazine we’d picked up and come across an advert for ‘Bob the Builder’. He’s never actually watched or read anything about the eponymous handy man, but still somehow he was on his radar, and he wanted more. I said maybe we could go and see what we could find at the library, and his eyes lit up with enthusiasm.


He gravitated straight for the board books when we arrived, finding one all about construction which he began to read to himself. We then went together to the longer picture books and found a brilliant book about demolition. The new concepts and vocabulary he learnt has influenced his play all week, and talks are now afoot with his dad about building a crane…


We chose some other books together too, read one on the sofa in the library and took the rest home. Not only has he enjoyed the ones we picked out, but he’s also found a renewed enthusiasm for reading his own collection. It’s made bedtime a bit more of a protracted process, but I reckon on the whole it can only be a good thing.




My most common lament over the past two years is how little time I’ve managed to set aside for reading. It’s been such an important part of my life – I’ve written before about some of the books and authors that shaped me, and obviously in my ten years as an English teacher it was at the very core of what I did.

But since becoming a mum books have taken on a somewhat soporific quality. The pile of things I want to read has been growing bigger and bigger, but no sooner have I got a few pages in than my eyelids have begun to close. That hasn’t been universally true – I have managed to finish some books – but certainly nowhere near as many as I would have liked.

This state of affairs is particularly ridiculous given my current ambitions to be a published novelist. I may not have read many novels since Arthur’s been born, but I have written two! In some ways this is part of the problem. I don’t really like to read fiction when I’m in the midst of working on a work of my own. I think I’m worried that too much of what I’m reading might seep into my words. But I can’t be a writer without being a reader, there’s just too much I still have to learn.

So this week I decided, whilst mulling over the feedback I’ve been given and my own ideas for the next edit of my novel, that I would make time to read. And it’s been awesome!


It’s been surprising how many moments I’ve actually been able to find to lose myself in a book. And also how long I’ve managed to read for without falling asleep when my reading time wasn’t relegated to when I was already tucked up in bed…

I’ve read two novels already since last weekend, and I’m just getting stuck into a third. The first two were thrillers I hadn’t read before – You Should Have Known and The Book of You, both fantastic and more than a little bit creepy. The third is an old favourite of mine, The Time Traveller’s Wife. All three have certain things in common with the novel I’m currently working on, and being immersed in their worlds has helped me realise things about the one I’m trying to create – an added bonus to what has generally been an immensely enjoyable week.

My reading certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed by Arthur either: he’s been increasingly curious about what I’ve been up to (when he’s been awake) and has often crawled into my lap to take a closer look. I think he’s been a bit miffed by the lack of pictures, but it’s inspired him to pick up his own books too.


He loves books anyway, and adores being read to, but there’s been something very special about both sitting quietly reading. Arthur has actually discovered a new favourite book in The Little Engine That Could. We discovered the film a couple of weeks ago – it was kind of inevitable really given his general train obsession, and we’ve both really enjoyed it. He was thrilled to find the characters also existed in the pages of a book, albeit in a slightly different story.


It has been so brilliant to break through the barriers I’d put up for myself and sink into some really good books. I should do it more often I realise, though I think I’m pretty much ready now to get back into my own. In fact I’m really looking forward to it.


The Reading Residence


My book-eating boy


I have once again been struck by Arthur’s appetite for books. Not in a literal, chewing on them sense, though you’d be forgiven for thinking that with his general partiality to eating inanimate objects. No – the appetite I am referring to here is for what the books contain, the pictures and increasingly the words upon their pages.

He’s been interested in books since he was very small, enjoying being read to and curiously seeking them out as soon as he was able to move around. Now he’ll happily sit and ‘read’ to himself – carefully turning the pages, pointing at things he recognises and saying their names. But what he really, really loves is when someone reads with him.


He’s developed this super cute and utterly irresistible technique of finding a book, bringing it to me or Leigh, holding it up to us until we stop whatever we’re doing and sit down, and then climbing into our lap expectantly.

Yesterday his appetite was almost insatiable. In between writing the penultimate chapter of the novel, a lunch time beach picnic and a spot of collage making we read: Dear Zoo, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, The Snail and the Whale (twice), What can you See Spot?, Hugless Douglas finds a Hug, That’s Not my Reindeer, Eating the Rainbow, Goodnight Moon and It’s Time to Sleep my Love. Oh, and whilst we were at the beach my friend produced a book and he virtually clambered over her two boys to get into her lap ready to be read to!


I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to manage to keep this pace up, but I’m loathe to start refusing Arthur books. It makes me very happy that he enjoys not only the stories, which in our multimedia technologically savvy world could come from a multitude of sources, but that he so appreciates the tactile nature of the books themselves. I hope it’s something he manages to hold on to as he discovers all the other distractions that are on offer, and in the mean time I will do all I can to stop and read to him whenever he approaches, book in hand.

After all, quite aside from how much I enjoy it too, I’m not sure there can be many more important things I should be doing at any given moment than sharing a book with my child.

My Fictional World


It’s been hard to find the time to read since Arthur came along. As an English teacher my working life was filled with books, and that was always one of my favourite parts of the job. Now that I’m a writer, reading’s taken on a whole new significance: analysing how other writers use language, create characters and weave whole worlds on the page, borrowing ideas – and seeing what doesn’t work so well too. But there are still few things I like better than to lose myself in a good book, and the middle of the night will often find me sandwiched between a sleeping husband and baby, book in hand, snatching a few precious minutes to myself.

Thanks to Jocelyn at The Reading Residence‘s Q & A meme I have the perfect opportunity to share some thoughts about myself as a reader – not just of picture books, but of real, full length novels! 

What were your favourite reads from your childhood?

There was one particular book that fascinated me called La Corona and the Tin Frog, a collection of strange and magical stories by Russell Hoban and Nicola Bayley. I also loved Enid Blyton as a child – I was slightly obsessed with anything to do with fairies, and especially loved The Magic Faraway Tree, though I enjoyed her adventure books too. I also read everything written by Roald Dahl, who spent some of his childhood near to my grandparents’ home in Radyr and was most definitely a genius. I think The BFG was probably my favourite book of his, though Matilda would be a very close second.

There are always those books that defined your teen reads and stay with you – what were yours?

I had fairly eclectic tastes as a teen. I loved freaking myself out with horror, especially Stephen King. I also enjoyed John Grisham’s novels which convinced me at the time that I wanted to be a lawyer. And then there was Judy Blume, who furnished me with a significant amount of my sex education – I remember Forever making a particular impression on me.

Who are your favourite authors currently?

There are quite a few… Ian McEwan, Iain Banks, Will Self, Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami, Neil Gaiman, Maggie O’Farrell, Esther Freud, Monica Ali and Kazuo Ishiguro would probably be my top ten!

Which 3 genres do you gravitate towards most often?

I love the escapism of magic realism and science fiction, especially dystopias – the sense that literally anything can happen, and the way in which a world a million miles away can tell us so much about our own. I also enjoy contemporary realist fiction, both books set in the UK that hold a mirror up to our society and those by foreign authors which give me an insight into cultures I know little about.

Can you choose your top titles from each of those genres?

Hmmm… Narrowing down favourite books is really rather tricky! In terms of magic realism, I love Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, an epic and engrossing tale told against the backdrop of the birth of modern India. Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, whose protagonist’s emotions infuse the food she makes, is also captivating. For dystopian science fiction, I found Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, with its dark secrets hiding behind a boarding school’s doors, totally compelling. And then there’s Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale with its devastating representation of the place of women on society. And when it comes to realism the book I most recently read was fantastic – Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave with its beautifully drawn portrait of a family in crisis. I also love Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, a fascinating and moving story of life in Afghanistan.

And your least favourite genres?

I’m not sure I have any ‘least favourites’. I’ll read anything given half the chance!

Of the many, many fictional and fantastical worlds, where would you most like to visit?

I’d love to hang out with any number of Murakami’s protagonists in Japan. I always find myself craving sushi and Sapporo beer after reading his books. I’d also be intrigued to visit the mythical land of Gaiman’s American Gods.  I like the idea of mythological beings existing alongside humans in the modern world – though I’d have to be careful not to get on the wrong side of them!

Everyone loves a villain, right?! Who would make your favourites list?

I really love to hate the Magisterium and The Authority in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I think he has important things to say about the darker sides of religion and society’s desire to constrain children to its will, and the characters he creates to embody his views are compellingly corrupt and cruel.

Share the books that have had you sobbing?

One of my favourite books ever is Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time, about a man struggling to cope after the loss of his daughter. I’ve read it more times than I can remember and it never fails to have me in tears.

And let’s end on a high! Which books leave a smile on your face, and maybe elicit a few laughs?!

Pretty much anything by Jonathan Coe – I especially liked A Touch of Love. I also remember laughing quite a lot at Will Self’s How the Dead Live, but he does have a very particular sense of humour…

I think that just about covers it – there are many more books on my shelves that haven’t quite made it into my answers here, but the ones I’ve picked should definitely give you a taste of my fictional world.

The Reading Residence

The magic of storytelling: part one

Arthur with books

Storytelling is magic. No really, it is.

I’m being reminded of this on a daily basis at the moment as Arthur’s understanding of language progresses in leaps and bounds. He increasingly comes crawling or knee-walking over to me with a picture book in his hands, sitting expectantly in my lap as I prepare to read the story to him. I’m not sure how much of the detail he picks up, but he responds to the rhythm and rhyme of the text, the intonation in my voice, points at pictures with me as I name the things they show, turns the pages with anticipation as the tale progresses.

As a child I loved being read to – my mum recounts how dad would come home after a long days work and disappear for hours as I demanded book after book before I would eventually fall asleep. Now that it’s my turn I’m reveling in the chance to sit and read books out loud to my son, so it’s very handy that he enjoys it too.

What with it being National Storytelling Week, and what with the weather being so shocking that curling up with a good book is really the only thing to do, I thought it might be the perfect time for a round-up of mine and Arthur’s favourite books to read together.

Now there are plenty of popular classics that he loves – The Gruffalo, The Snail and the Whale, Peepo, Guess How Much I Love You and Goodnight Moon would top that list. But the stories I want to explore here are the ones which maybe aren’t quite so popular but in our opinion definitely should be. And so, in no particular order, here are Arthur’s five favourite stories to read aloud.

Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers, illustrated by Marla Frazee

We picked up this book in Toronto last summer, and what I love about it most is its global outlook on the very important business of being a baby. It celebrates difference – of background, race and experience – through its cute illustrations of babies and families of all shapes and sizes.

everywhere babies

It is one of the only books I’ve found that includes breastfeeding and babywearing as part of the normal range of choices parents make, and I think it’s important for Arthur to see his experience reflected back at him.

The language is simple but lyrical with great use of repetition, and there is so much going on in the images on each page that there’s plenty to pause over and discuss.

All in all a heartwarming book that reminds me just how much our baby, like babies all over the world, is learning and growing every day.

Barnyard Dance by Sandra Boynton

This is a riot of a book, the energy of the words and the illustrations never failing to infect us when we read it aloud together.

barnyard dance

The simple illustrations of farm animals are brilliantly expressive and there is endless potential for sound effects and actions as they strut and promenade and skitter around the yard.

This book accidentally found its way into the bedroom for a while, and it was invariably the one Arthur would go for just as we were trying to wind him down for the night. Needless to say that whilst those evenings were lots of fun this is not the most calming of books. But it was just so hard for either of us to resist!

Barnyard Dance was a gift from Arthur’s Canadian Oddmother, and she has since added to his collection with several more wonderful books by Sandra Boynton. Irreverent and quirky and full of fun they’re definitely worth checking out.

Wow said the Owl by Tim Hopgood

I was initially drawn to this book by my general owl obsession and it has come to be a firm favourite for both of us. It was the first book that Arthur recognised by name, and it’s often the one he’ll independently pick up and bring to me to read.

Reading it aloud, the assonance is really powerful – the word ‘wow’ is so much fun to say and is at the heart of the story here. The book captures the wonder of a little owl at the everyday world that we take for granted, and as such perfectly mirrors the experience of a baby seeing everything through fresh eyes.

wow said the owl

Its a beautiful book for learning colours, and whilst Arthur might not quite be there yet he certainly appreciates the vibrant illustrations which are also satisfyingly unique so I can enjoy them time and time again.

A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton

Another find born of my owl obsession, this is the sweet and touching story of a little owl who falls out of his tree and his ensuing search for his mummy.

a bit lost

The language is simple but engaging, focusing in on physical characteristics that Arthur is just beginning to be able to understand. It’s easy to empathise with the little owl and his growing frustration at the well-intentioned but misguided helper who leads him through the forest.

The illustrations are gorgeously stylish and retro, the subtle palate a refreshing change from some of the more garish offerings for babies. Though simple they communicate the story and emotions in the text perfectly giving lots of opportunity to explore the interplay between words and image.

This is a book for reading and re-reading: though we both know what happens in the end it’s impossible not to get sucked into the little owl’s journey.

It’s Time to Sleep, My Love by Eric Metaxas, illustrated by Nancy Tillman

Arthur was given another Nancy Tillman book by my parents, Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You, and we enjoyed the sumptuous illustrations and heartfelt emotion so much we had to go in search of more of her work.

It’s Time to Sleep, My Love has become our go-to bedtime book, the perfect book for snuggling with and calmly packaging up the day before drifting into sleep. It’s never an easy transition for Arthur – like me he’s a bit of a night owl – but he’s come to love the gentle alliteration and hypnotic repetition of this simple story of a world preparing to rest.

so go to sleep my love

Whilst the words of this book work together to form a potent lullaby, it’s the images that are particularly striking. They are drawn in such exquisite detail, are so rich and textured, that oftentimes I find Arthur prompting me to turn the page as I have got lost inside the illustrations again.

It is this that makes this book so special, and so lovely to share before bed: it calms us both, and no doubt enriches our dreams.

So there you have it! Our top five magical stories for sharing and reading aloud. Please feel free to add your favourites in the comments – we’re always on the look out for new ideas! But in the meantime I think we might just go and have a read…

Actually Mummy