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.
High achievement and curiosity are linked.
•Always take the time to answer their questions as well as
•Ask questions of them.
•When they have a question you can’t answer (why is the sky blue?), look up the answer
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
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 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 Routledge.com – enter code RSM8 at the checkout. Visit: https://www. amazon.co.uk/Great-Minds-How-Grow-Them/dp/1138284602/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1508780307&sr=8-1&keywords=great+minds+and+how+to+grow+them