Keeping words alive in Summer…

Schools in September are an exciting place but for a teacher there is always a little adjusting to do. She is promised a class of keen readers and avid writers and she is looking forward to a flying start. Instead, she has a confused looking gaggle of youngsters who act as though they’ve never read a book before.

Sadly, holidays can do that to children. Almost two months of sun and fun can leave even the most embedded literacy skills hazy come September. However, the answer is not rigorous revision or mindless workbooks. There are lots of really fun ways to ensure that come September children’s passion for, and ability in, literacy are even stronger than when school broke up. Here are some of my favourite…

1. Create a special reading space where children can enjoy a book in comfort but also with a sense of occasion. In summer set up a reading corner in their Wendy house - put in colourful cushions, posters of their favourite books and supply them with cool drinks. Tree houses are another brilliant place or, if you don’t have a ready made outdoor structure, create a secret space under a bush . If you don’t have a garden then visit your nearest park with rugs, yummy snacks and their favourite stories. Remember to bring your book as well and show them how much you enjoy reading too. To see more ideas of great reading nooks check out our finds here.

2. Encourage them to write a diary about their summer adventures - it’s the old classic and it works. Just a few sentences a day about what they’ve been up to can really help a child maintain their writing skills. Get them to draw pictures, stick in photos and collect tickets.  If they need a rather more unusual challenge try suggesting different text types - they might write a poem about their trip to the sea, a newspaper article about their holiday in Spain or a pamphlet explaining all the fun things to do in their local park. If you want a more hi-tech version and have a tablet then you can download book-making programmes that, with a little support, children should be able to use largely independently. They will have lots of fun adding text, pictures and designing their perfect layout.

3. Create fun activities around a book. For this you need look no further than the website Playing by the Book by Zoe Toft. It has hundreds of ideas around picture books including craft, food, games and drama and has a list of themes to help you choose the right books for your child’s holiday.  My favourite blog at the moment is her ‘perfect picture book picnic’ where she created a whole day of summer holiday fun around books.  Read it and get ready to be inspired! 

4. Create a treasure hunt with clues based on books. The children may know the answers from a favourite story or they might have to read in order to find out.  Once they have completed it then get them to write clues for their own hunt. This is encouraging them to read and write by stealth and although it takes some time to prepare they will be entranced!

5. Visit your local library and join the Summer Reading Challenge. Libraries have lots of incentives, activities and events designed to create excitement around children’s reading. If you decide not to take part in the challenge then the library is still a great trip for a rainy day. Give them missions such as finding a book daddy would like to read to them, a book their best friend would love or one that has certain characters such as witches. If you go with a certain theme then remember to look at Playing by the Book for activities to go along with them. 

I hope you keep words alive this summer and we’d love to hear any other ideas you have…

 

 

Boys’ Reading

Someone, a long time ago, started a bad rumour about boys… It goes something along the lines of ‘boys are not biologically pre-disposed to be good readers’. It allows teachers and parents of young children to shake their head, sigh and decide that the boy who’d rather spend time playing in the sand tray than looking at books will catch up when he’s older and there is really nothing they could do. 

However, we will be able to shake our heads no longer! The Literacy Trust has completed an impressive report into boys’ reading and concluded that biological factors are not the reason boys fail. We are not saying that there isn’t a problem, there is. All around the world boys’ reading levels are consistently behind girls’.

There seem to be three main reasons boys underachieve in reading. Firstly, in the family reading is often feminised -  girls are more likely to be given books and taken to the library and it is usually mothers who support and model reading.  Secondly, there isn’t enough thought going into what texts really appeal to boys. Lastly, being an avid reader isn’t held up as a sign of success in the masculine world. 

So now we’ll answer the big question - what should you do to help the boys in your life become readers? We’ve chosen four things you can start doing to make a difference.

1.  Get the men in their life to show them how great reading is! Make time for Dad to read with them regularly, ask their favourite uncle to take them to the library and request their godfather buys them books for their birthday. Boys also need to see other boys enjoying reading - ask an older brother or cousin to tell them what book he is enjoying or advise them on what to read. 

2.  Go and see some male authors. There are some wonderful children’s book festivals and events that have some really entertaining male authors performing. Most events will also have a book signing where children can meet the author for extra excitement. Choose the author carefully and it could kick start a new found interest in reading. This website lists all book events for children in the UK,  and look here for the USA. Happy hunting!  

3.  Have a range of reading material - if they don’t seem engaged with stories then don’t push them. Comics, magazines and non-fiction books may entice them much more. If they are reading a book that genuinely interests them then they’ll want to tell you about it. Make sure you give them the time to do this, by responding and asking great questions you’ll encourage them to keep going. 

4. Let them genuinely guide you as to what sort of books they want to read - even if it isn’t the sort of quality you were hoping for. Boys like things that we may find distasteful, such as the wonderful world of fart jokes. There is no getting away from it so use such information to find them books that will appeal to their sense of humour and interests.

Remember reading should always be enjoyable - when was the last time you read something you found really boring? I bet you stopped as soon as you realised it and moved onto another book, article or blog post. Let us give boys the same reading autonomy we enjoy.

Have you got any stories or advice about boys reading? We’d love to hear.

Fashion Week at the Ministry

Here we were, Thames and Hudson’s Head of Education and the Ministry’s Chief of Children discussing the most exciting packages ever to have graced the publisher’s doors…

It was judging time for the new lower-case alphabet competition! Time for us to decide which school had designed the best uniforms for our letters. It was incredibly hard to choose our winner and there were hot debates around the table. One of the problems was how touched we were by the effort and care that had gone into the entries. The whole idea of the competition was to perpetuate the rumour we have started that the alphabet was alive and give the children a valid reason to interact with it. What shone through in every entry was their belief in the challenge they had been set and it ensured incredible creativity.

This success was really important to us because we will always work on the philosophy that giving children a context to undertake a task is key to the quality of their learning.  Too often children are expected to work in an environment deserted of reason beyond “because I’m telling you to.” This stifles creativity and the natural gravitation children have to learn new things. We think the below entries showed nothing but enthusiasm and passion. 

The winners were Newlands School in Sussex. We chose them because we felt they had created not only uniforms but also personalities for each of the letters - I’m sure you’ll agree… 

One of the best days we had creating our Singing Alphabet app was making this film that showed real children enjoying letters that could sing.

Since it has launched we have been on a total roller-coaster ride. We were on new and noteworthy in America, Canada and Australia. We have been mentioned in the Guardian and had so many kind reviews and support from around the world! I hope you all love the film as much as we do.

The Singing Alphabet App is finally here…  Late at night, we received an email from Apple telling us that our app had been approved and would be launched in the app store within hours! The youtube sensation, Alphaphonic Orchestra has made it onto ipads ever where and are singing their way into our children’s hearts! Find them here

The secret to a great reading

I was very sad the other day when I read a Mummy’s blog venting her frustration at her children’s complete disinterest in story time. Here at the Ministry we are lucky enough to read to a great variety of small and medium sized children and reckon with a few tricks you can mesmerize any child with your story telling abilities. So here are a few of our trade secrets… 

1. Build up the tension before hand - this sounds a little more dramatic than it usually is. There will be very little actual nail biting tension involved but it does help if the children have already thought about an aspect of the book before you read it. If I was going to read a story about fairies I’d ask them what fairies they already knew about; if they were younger we might go on a hunt around the room first to see if we could find any fairies or put aside a tiny amount of our lunch to create a fairy-sized meal. Anything to pique their interest before-hand will ensure they enjoy it more.

About to find out what words Humongous has eaten… 

2. Stage presence - use your voice, body and face as much as possible! Make your voice loud then quiet, fast then slow, high pitched then gravelly. If there is a tense bit whisper before erupting into a fast paced dramatic yowl when the action hits. Wave your arms, stamp your feet, crawl your fingers - anything you can do to mimic the action in the book will help. Then to top off your highly exciting reading use your face in the most exaggerated way possible - do not be shy! Screw it up into a ball of spite when the witch speaks. Gasp with your eyes and mouth stretched to impossible widths when the dragon jumps out. Put your nose in the air and sneer when the Ugly Sisters enter the room. 

 

Building the tension before the cat attacks…

3. Use props - This might be a bit beyond a bedtime story but probably my favourite bit of reading Operation Alphabet is when the Ministry of Letters’ telephone goes off and we receive a call from the Minister himself. Use things lying around the house such as an old hat or cuddly toy to add another dimension to the story. Do not underestimate a child’s readiness to imagine an inanimate object is a space jewel from Mars!

The minister calls

4. Get the children involved - When I read Operation Alphabet the children, amongst other things, get to: Salute with the letters, create a soundscape of London, become a train, warn Colonel A, run away from a cat, go on a motorbike ride, shout “Geronimo!” and help perform in an alphabet show. We do all this as well as chat about characters, have competitions to see who can guess what will happen next and hunt things out in the illustrations. It gets the moving, speaking and generally means more fun!

So there you are. I hope I’ve given you a few ideas and the children in your life will look forward to story time with an added urgency once you start trying them out. 

Presenting a Singing Alphabet

Today was an excited one at the ministry - we filmed the promotional video for our upcoming app! We borrowed friend’s children, hired a studio, worked with an amazing film maker and thought long and hard about the set.

There was the last minute frantic rush to ensure everything was perfect. The app went through an eleventh hour re-haul and the sound guy almost didn’t make it in but then at about 12.00 today the first children sat down in the special Ministry of Letters armchair and opened up the game.

The events over the next two hours reminded us all why we love the Ministry so much and left various careers to become part of its journey…

These are my 5 favourite moments

1. Hysterical laughter from Max who thought the letter V made the funniest sound he had ever heard.

2. The intense concentration on the face of two year old Tamsin when she found the first letter of her name and then the fun we had when she sung along with it! 

3. Finlay teaching his younger sibling how to spell his name, patiently sounding out each letter and helping him find it. 

4. The moment half the studio danced along with Olive as she broke out into some wonderful arm waving. 

5. Eva and Wilfred trying to decide whether the word ‘jam’ or the word ‘king’ made the best tune when spelt out.   

I can’t wait to share the app with you but for now here are a few pictures of today’s stars.

Clap if you believe in fairies

At the bottom of my husband’s childhood garden was a dead tree with a hollowed out bottom. His mother told him that fairies lived in it and every now and then he would find evidence that this wonderful fact was true… Beds of moss, daisy chains and left over feasts were sometimes found. However, his favourite discovery would be tiny letters with words so small and delicate he would have to read them with a magnifying glass. Writing back was an exciting and intricate affair, he would ensure his script was as small as possible so as not to overwhelm the little fairies’ tiny eyes and then wait with baited breath for the reply. 

I tell you this not to embarrass my rather manly and rugged husband but because it was a brilliant idea to get him interested in reading and writing without even realising it. Anyone who has suffered through a homework assignment along the lines of  ’write instructions about how to make a jam sandwich’ will be sure to agree. 

At the Ministry of Letters we want to store up fabulous ideas like this and would love hear about any unusual, imaginative or just plain quirky things you have done with your child.

Email us at info@ministryofletters.com and remember to believe in fairies…  

More than just a puppet

It is well known, amongst people that love teaching small children literacy, that puppets are a brilliant tool to help improve speaking, listening, comprehension and imaginations. They are also a lot of fun, which we think is very important. We are lucky enough to have a friend who thinks puppets are wonderful too and one day we received a very exciting email… 

The fabulous Ann Dooley had created her very own Colonel A (leader of the Special Alphabet Service in Operation Alphabet) and sent us instructions about how to make him. Sadly, I have never been one for craft… However, I am now inspired and am going to go on my own journey to discover how Operation Alphabet can become the catalyst for creative projects.

I hope to inspire you too - send your Ministry of Letters craft projects to info@ministryofletters.com and our favourite entries will win a special Special Alphabet Service package!

For now I’ll leave you in Ann’s wonderful hands.

Tah-dah!!

Books on a Boat

We are reading Operation Alphabet on a boat!

A barge, to be exact, and I am extremely excited. It is not our first reading and will not be our last but it is the only one on a boat and as, I am always trying to encourage a sense of fun around children’s reading experiences, I wanted to make a bit of a fuss about it.

Let’s give our children more bookish adventures! Let’s take them to unexpected places in search of one of the world’s finest pastimes!

Tell your children that The Ministry of Letters has travelled all the way down the river from their top secret HQ to read a book about one of their most daring adventures. Tell them that the Ministry needs their help and is going to send them on a secret mission. Warn them to check they aren’t being followed by letter-eating cats before they enter the boat.

Find us on the the book barge at the canal by Broadway Market, East London on the 1st April at 2 O’Clock. Please come to listen to us read a book that reveals that the alphabet is one of the most glorious members of our society. Games, songs and adventure will abound!

Let’s miss more bus stops

Yesterday I sat with a little girl to hear her finish her school reading book. The teacher had done an excellent job of matching it to her reading level and phonics ability. If she was stuck on a word she expertly pulled from her bank of strategies to work it out. It all went swimmingly. She decoded all the words with great aplomb and completed it with a little sigh of a job well done. 

However, I’m afraid this is not the happy story that I might have led you to believe. What happened next was really rather terrible. I asked her who from the book she’d most like to have tea with and she looked at me with total and utter bewilderment. I tried an easier question: which bit did she most enjoy? Her eyes widened as she desperately tried to guess what I might mean by this puzzling question.

'Umm, the dog' she said, looking at the front cover with a picture of an insipid-looking canine on it.

Her heart was obviously not behind the statement and I realised that it hadn’t occurred to her recently (or perhaps ever) that reading can be incredibly enjoyable. It can inspire her, reveal new ideas and pull her into other worlds. It is so good that sometimes, when I’m really enjoying myself, I miss my bus stop.

However, her purpose hadn’t been to enjoy a book. I had been to read words.

I am certainly not phonics bashing. It definitely works and it can be lots of fun but it has to be kept in context. One of my favourite questions when I received a new Year 1 class was to ask them why they learnt phonics. I can tell you now this did not result in the sea of waving arms brought on by thrilling questions such as ‘what did you have for breakfast?’. 

I then used to tell my class the big secret that had passed them by. I would explain that we were going to learn phonics so we could have access to the incredible world of reading and writing. Then we would dream about all the things we would be able to do once had mastered these pesky letters - follow treasure maps, pass secret notes, write to the Queen, research our heroes and, of course, enjoy stories. I would tell them that once they had learnt to read they would never be bored again because they would always be able to pick up a book and, if they were really lucky, miss their bus stop.

5 Reasons We Love World Book Day


1.     At our core is a mission to create a love, respect and appreciation for books. The name alone sends us into a dizzy spin of excitement.

 

2.     Creating book accessories. Rather like beautiful stationary, there is nothing like a personalised bookmark or smart bookplate to get the heart beating faster.

 

3.     Watching children (and sometimes teachers) arrive at school in their favourite fancy dress outfit, clutching an obscure book so they can prove their Shrek/ rockstar/ panda costume has a place on a day celebrating books. Creativity at its most cunning!

 

4.     Children are given their very own token. I love seeing them clutching it tightly, eagerly anticipating a purchase of their very own, or even first, book. The chances of them having ever spent pocket money on books is low so this exchange is very potent. You can make it an almost sacred act, building up tension and excitement so they are filled with wonder by the time they receive their book.

 

5.     Children will take a book home that they chose over all the others because it was their favourite. It was not chosen because it was the correct reading level or reflected the text type being taught that week. It was selected for pure enjoyment and we think that is wonderful… Thank you World Book Day!

 

Go to the supplies section of our website to download some book accessories for fun activities to do on World Book Day. You will also find details of our competition. Where you can win, of course, books!

Competition

Before I worked for the Ministry of Letters I was lucky enough to be a teacher.  I learnt very early on that to truly engage a class you had to give the learning a story and a purpose and the more fantastical the better. I loved the fact that I could sweep the children along with me on any subject, if it was partnered with imagination and intrigue. Full stops became the new super-heroes; adjectives were treasure to be hunted and capital letters were our new best friends.

Joining the Ministry of Letters felt like a wonderfully natural extension of that element to teaching I most enjoyed. Here was a whole world that used imagination to inspire children to love learning. The letters of the alphabet are, on the whole, taken for granted and yet they are our constant companions. They entertain us from story books, direct us on roads and inform us from newspaper articles. You are never far from their prying eyes and yet we hardly notice them in themselves. Our mission is to ensure that no matter what adults think of letters, children will think they are totally, completely and utterly spectacular.

We want the Ministry of Letters to be the Father Christmas of the alphabet world. We want children to know that there are heroic members of the alphabet out there performing secret and daring missions to help children learn and love their letters. We want children chanting in the street proclaiming the alphabet’s brilliance and rising up in protest when they are denied the pleasure of words. We will give the alphabet the acclaim that certain muscled men with skin-tight suits and super-hero abilities have enjoyed for generations.  

So, as I loved to do in my classroom days, we have thought of a story when creating a nationwide competition. It isn’t educational but we hope it will help perpetuate the rumour that the alphabet is alive and much more interesting than anyone ever imagined.

Tell your children, their teachers and your friends. Here is our call to arms… 

“The Ministry of Letters is in the most terrible pickle. We have a new team of recruits (26 lower-case letters) but the uniform department has gone on holiday! All of our new letters are feeling very sad and we were wondering if you would help us. We have drawn a portrait of each letter and we would love it if you could add a uniform to your favourite ones. If we choose your uniform then it will appear on that letter and there will be a prize for you and your school!”

Download the letters from the supplies section of our website and send it to Freepost, Ministry of Letters*. Your child will receive a reply from the top secret Ministry itself and they might just think letters are that little bit more fun!

*That really is the address, you don’t need a PO Box number and please remember to put it in an envelope or they won’t let us have it.

Reading should be noisy

We all like reading to children. It feels wholesome, like feeding them peas or taking them for walks in the fresh air. It feels nurturing and they tend to become remarkably soporific. Even when you are pretty sure the story is going over their heads they sit entranced, nuzzled up to you, creating a picture of perfect familial bliss.

Now, there is a secret that only very smug people like teachers know. This is the perfect opportunity to encourage your child to talk… “TALK!!” I hear you say, “What can you mean? They are being so beautifully quiet! Why would I shatter this harmonious scene?”

A study done on Professor Robert Winston’s series, A child of our Time, showed that two thirds of the communication between parents and their children is purely functional. Which, when we think about it, is probably true.

“Pick up your shoes.”

“Turn off the TV.”

“Do you want ice-cream or cake?’

Drone, drone, drone.

So asking your child questions about a story is a great way to have a good old chat with them. It is a good idea for lots of very important child development-type reasons but I like to think that it is a time when they can bask in your full attention (remember the nuzzled up bit) and you can use the author’s story-telling abilities to encourage your child to push their own creative boundaries in order to have fantastical and wondrous ideas.

Those ideas can be unlocked through the quality of your questions. So, next time you are reading to a small person try to think of a Really Good Question. Although, asking them what the second little pig built his house of will check they haven’t gone to sleep it probably won’t encourage an interesting conversation. However, asking them how they would build a house to protect themselves from a wolf just might. If you were then really keen you could even plan and make a model of that house together. I’m sure you’d find lots to talk about…

Experts love to tell you what your child should be achieving before they go to school. The internet is littered with intimidating milestones that young children should have reached. They seem designed to either make parents annoyingly smug or send them into a spiral of panic, the words, ‘I’m worried because Sid has not shown any desire to build a tower of three bricks!’ should not be uttered in any happy household.
So, it was very refreshing to find out what parents think their children should be experiencing as toddlers. All sorts of fun things were in the top 10, such as singing loudly in public and dancing without inhibitions. Now, I think those already sound like more interesting milestones than ‘draws a vertical line’ and I was thrilled when I read that the parents number one most important experience was ‘To make a mud pie’.
We at the Ministry think that’s wonderful because our whole world functions on the idea that children enjoy something more when they can access it through their imagination. Absurd and incongruous, a mud pie is a feast made out of the least gastronomically enticing material in the garden. Leaves or flowers would surely create  a more attractive, and potentially more realistic, alternative  but mud is more fun because it is so pliable – it can be squeezed, splattered, splotched, rolled and stirred. It is the perfect tool to display what lurks in the child’s imagination.
We want the alphabet to be as fun as mud and that is why our letters talk and sing and perform heroic duties. We want them to be enormously enticing for the children who will be using them in their everyday life. The alphabet is the mud in the literary garden. Lets get our children to create a feast of letters, splotching and splattering them into words and stories. Unleashing their power to entertain and inspire!

Experts love to tell you what your child should be achieving before they go to school. The internet is littered with intimidating milestones that young children should have reached. They seem designed to either make parents annoyingly smug or send them into a spiral of panic, the words, ‘I’m worried because Sid has not shown any desire to build a tower of three bricks!’ should not be uttered in any happy household.

So, it was very refreshing to find out what parents think their children should be experiencing as toddlers. All sorts of fun things were in the top 10, such as singing loudly in public and dancing without inhibitions. Now, I think those already sound like more interesting milestones than ‘draws a vertical line’ and I was thrilled when I read that the parents number one most important experience was ‘To make a mud pie’.

We at the Ministry think that’s wonderful because our whole world functions on the idea that children enjoy something more when they can access it through their imagination. Absurd and incongruous, a mud pie is a feast made out of the least gastronomically enticing material in the garden. Leaves or flowers would surely create  a more attractive, and potentially more realistic, alternative  but mud is more fun because it is so pliable – it can be squeezed, splattered, splotched, rolled and stirred. It is the perfect tool to display what lurks in the child’s imagination.

We want the alphabet to be as fun as mud and that is why our letters talk and sing and perform heroic duties. We want them to be enormously enticing for the children who will be using them in their everyday life. The alphabet is the mud in the literary garden. Lets get our children to create a feast of letters, splotching and splattering them into words and stories. Unleashing their power to entertain and inspire!