Do any of you remember how you learnt to read your name? I learnt mine by seeing it written again and again… in print, in cursive and in capitals… on books, on scraps of paper, in the steam on our kitchen window at breakfast in winter. And I recognised my name without resorting to any form of phonics. In fact if I’d tried to sound it, I’d never have managed. Nor would I have managed to read Pinocchio because unless you’re Italian how would you know to say ‘kee’ instead of ‘chee’ as in church.

The point I’m trying to make is that we learn to read in spite of ourselves by recognising shapes of words and reading them as a whole word in the context of a story. The more a child is exposed to words by hearing the words repeated and seeing them in print, the more a child can absorb words. They become part of an embedded, dynamic, rhythmic pattern. Seeing pattern and shape and texture is inherent in all of us. Yet children are being taught the phonics method.

It was brought home to me yesterday during a visit to a reception class where I put up a cover of one of my picture books and listened to a boy trying with excruciating difficulty to sound Dianne Hofmeyr… impossible! There will be many views on this one. Some might argue that phonics give children the tool to break down words. But I think the eye of the child is intelligent enough to see pattern. Once the entire word is spoken and it’s shape recognised again and again and again, it’ll be remembered – whether in a book, or on a cereal box, or in the steam on a kitchen window.

The eye of the child is frighteningly observant. The drawing to the left demonstrates this… a child’s drawing of a bird, flying with enormous energy and imagination and then the same child drawing a bird after having been exposed to a workbook.

Children of four should be playing, drawing, and enjoying books, not learning to spell their name and colouring in their workbooks. ‘Colouring in’ books were banished in our house. All that’s needed to give freedom to the power of a child’s imagination, is a surface and something that makes a mark, because a child who is allowed to ‘story’ in his head by drawing, is a child who is opening up to the world of both oral and written stories.

I’m no longer sure what inspired my son at age three to do the drawing, ‘Taking my Snail for a Walk’, but it must have been some intense experience. If only we are able to keep those intense experiences alive for children… an intense experience of story. I can still almost smell the forest and hear the sound, as I recall the picture of Pookie the rabbit and the long line of his friends thumping their back legs to frighten off the wood-cutters.

Don’t let’s limit children and their imagination in any form… let’s banish phonics.