Great expectations



Great expectations

Parents are in the privileged position of being their child’s first and longest serving teacher. What you do at home to support their learning can make all the difference to their future success and fulfilment.


writes Wendy Berliner



Don’t just rely on what goes on at nursery and school, great as that is. You can make a difference yourself, not with masses of extra time or money but in the way you bring up your children as young learners.


And it works. Decades of educational research underline that, with the right support at home, most children can shine at school and have the potential to be just as successful as those who might be considered gifted and talented.


In our new book Great Minds and How to Grow Them Professor Deborah Eyre and I have looked at the research in detail and come up with guidance that parents can use at home, fitting it seamlessly and easily into normal daily life.


So what’s the secret? What I’m going to talk about here is the first seven years of life because this is the period that parents can have the greatest influence. It doesn’t mean to say that parental influence ends at the age of seven – it certainly doesn’t. But those early years are built around a certain approach to learning – it’s known by researchers as the playful stage – and it is a stage at which all parents can have a significant impact.


These early learning years are important because they set the

pattern for the future. They determine whether, for example, children think of learning as pleasant or unpleasant, whether curiosity is fostered and whether they learn to focus and begin to stick with things. The early years are also a key time for establishing the foundations of literacy and numeracy so let’s start





The size of a child’s vocabulary when they enter formal education is highly predictive of how well they will do at school. The bigger the vocabulary, the more likely they are to be successful at school. Linguistic ability goes hand in hand with cognitive ability, so talk to your children and use the proper words for things – children are sponges who soak up any information they are given

and they are capable of complexity – so say ‘horse’ not ‘gee-gee’.


Think of a small child reeling off long lists of dinosaurs with complex

names – their brains are designed to learn language and they aren’t phased by new words unless you make them feel they should be. Listening comprehension comes before reading comprehension, so the more you talk with your children the more words they hear and the easier it is to learn to read.




Start reading to your children from birth and give them their own board books as soon as they can hold them. Use your finger to run underneath the words when you are reading with them, so that they begin to learn the direction in which to read.


As children grow, play games and do jigsaws that introduce them to the alphabet and core words. You can also point out words which are repeated in your locality – like the names of shops, road signs, your street name or car names – so that they begin to decode things themselves.


My son was able to recognise the phrase ‘emergency exit’ in the

local supermarket when he was just a toddler, because he’d asked what it meant and remembered. He was beginning to pick up the alphabet from games we played, but he learned the shape and appearance of the two words and looked for them on every door we encountered! He loved finding new word shapes and learning what they meant – like ‘push’ and ‘pull’ or ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’. He soon moved on to all kinds of other signs and was quickly looking out for words everywhere, so reading them in books came quite naturally.


Written language is all around us, so encourage your children to take notice and understand what words are for and what they mean.


Nursery rhymes help teach words, music and the rhythms of speech. Research indicates that you acquire language more quickly if there is a cadence to it. If children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they are four years old, they are usually

among the best readers and spellers in their class when they are seven or eight.


Go into any book or toyshop and you will find books, games and puzzles to encourage early reading – writing too. Or try your local book or toy library, secondhand or charity shop, or a jumble sale.




Learning at home


Research underlines how important it is for parents to provide a positive home learning

environment. Here are some ideas:


Talk to your children


Answer their questions – curiosity is at the heart of all learning.

Ask them what they think – encourage them to be open minded by being so yourself.


Read with them when they’re young


Ask them to:


Try to guess what’s coming next.

Give their opinions on the characters and their behaviours.

Reflect on what they might have done in a similar circumstance.

Say how they might have ended the story differently,

Talk about how the story makes them feel.


Feed curiosity


High achievement and curiosity are linked.


Always take the time to answer their questions as well as

you can.

Ask questions of them.

When they have a question you can’t answer (why is the sky blue?), look up the answer together. Soon

your child will start to learn independently from their own questions.



Again, you can buy or borrow the kinds of toys or games that help

develop early number recognition. These include shape sorters, stacking rings or beakers and they are particularly useful in helping your child to learn to predict which size (or number) comes next. As children grow, there are puzzles, jigsaws and tessellation games that all help to develop mathematical learning.


Just count anything together – the number of grapes on your plate, the number of doors in your house or flat, the number of steps in a shop, leaves on the floor, knives and forks you need

for dinner. Add them, subtract them, and later start dividing or multiplying them. Show children what triangles are, and ask where they can see them – you’ll find them everywhere, from house roofs to a corner of toast. The same goes for rectangles and circles.


Size and shape are important concepts to grasp too. Which is

bigger: a cherry or an apple?  Which looks more like a circle: an apple or a banana? Like words, numbers and mathematical concepts are all around us if we look for them – in speed restriction signs, clock faces, road signs, house numbers, shapes and sizes, weights and measures... the list goes on.




This requires manual dexterity as well as the ability to know what

letters convey. Young children need to develop their gross motor skills through climbing using their hands, throwing and catching balls and other activities that develop muscles in their hands and arms. Once they have acquired large movement skills, they can start to develop finer motor dexterity, such as holding a crayon.


To begin with, they can make marks on paper with finger paints – it’s a very exciting moment for children when they see for the very first time what they’ve ‘written’ – before moving on to learn how to hold crayons, paint brushes and pens and pencils.




Drawing, painting and modelling are obvious forms of creativity, and are an essential part of the mix of attributes that foster high performance learning. But so are the imaginary worlds that children create with their toys, stories and make-believe. Play along with their wonderful imaginations and help them to grow.


Work together


Work with your child’s nursery and school. Ask what support they need from you, and give it. Research clearly shows that children do best when parents are informed and involved. Good nurseries and primary schools keep regular contact with parents, explaining what the children are learning and encouraging a two-way dialogue so that parents can let teachers know about successes and challenges. Take advantage of this and your child will flourish both at home and at school.



About the book and its authors


Wendy Berliner is an education journalist with a special interest in why some children from similar backgrounds do badly at school whilst others don’t. Professor Deborah Eyre specialises in high performance learning in schools. Great Minds and How to Grow Them by Wendy Berliner and Deborah Eyre is published by Routledge, price £12.99.




Right Start readers can take advantage of a code offering a 20 per cent discount on the book. This is valid on print books until June 30, 2018 and can be redeemed at – enter code RSM8 at the checkout. Visit: https://www.








March/April 2018

All information is correct at time of publishing