Rebuilding your child’s confidence with literacy

Rebuilding your child’s confidence with literacy
If your child's reading, spelling and handwriting are rusty after time away from the classroom, read our expert advice on helping them find their feet with literacy again.
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Much has been said about whether or not children need to ‘catch up’ at school after homeschooling, and it’s natural that having been in lockdown for so long, their confidence across the curriculum may have been knocked.
 
Literacy is one of the areas in which children may have lost confidence, despite your best efforts to keep them learning at home.
They might stumble over phonics concepts that they were previously secure with, or struggle with their handwriting after weeks of working predominantly on screens. Their reading progress may have stalled without their usual reading scheme books, or they might have become reticent about speaking out in class.
 
The impact on children’s literacy over lockdown is currently uncertain. ‘Based on research after the first lockdown, we know that some children will have lost ground in literacy, but it appears that around a third may have made gains,’ says Prof Gemma Moss, Professor of Literacy and Director of the International Literacy Centre, UCL Institute of Education.
 
‘The good news is that those children who have slipped are likely to bounce back very quickly.’
 
Rebecca Deeny of UK Reads, the charity focusing on children impacted by illiteracy, agrees. ‘A child’s confidence in their learning can be rebuilt with time, patience and the right support,’ she says.

Confidence in literacy: what’s happening at school

Rhetoric about children having ‘fallen behind’ is understandably worrying to us as parents, but teachers are keen to ease children back into learning rather than put pressure on them to catch up.
 
‘They’re much more concerned about pupils’ wellbeing, and are focusing on getting children back into the routine of school and helping them start socialising again,’ explains Gemma. ‘Once kids have settled back in, their confidence and ability in literacy will come back together.’
With tests including KS1 SATs and KS2 SATs and the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check cancelled in 2020 and 2021, teachers had time to go over key literacy areas without the pressure of meeting targets, and a similar approach works well after long periods out of the classroom, for example after the summer holidays. For example, they may recap spellings rather than introducing new ones, or move children who are struggling with reading down a level or two temporarily.
 
This is carefully managed so they don’t feel they’ve regressed: teachers might describe it as ‘reminding ourselves’ or ‘refreshing our memory’ rather than ‘going backwards’ or ‘catching up.’
 
Literacy in schools isn’t just about practising phonics or handwriting: it’s embedded across the curriculum, and right now, teachers are likely to be using this broad approach more than ever.
 
Art lessons, for instance, could include talking about materials, textures and colours, introducing new vocabulary. PE might include learning a new game or sport, like hockey or cup-stacking, which involves following instructions. Music could focus on describing and comparing pieces, improving listening skills and using descriptive and comparative language.
 
‘This can be very effective as children learn best when they’re being active and having fun,’ Rebecca says.
 
Throughout everything, pupils will be given opportunities to talk: fundamental to improving their wellbeing by expressing themselves, and developing speaking and listening skills.

Supporting your child with rebuilding literacy confidence

Talk of children having regressed in literacy is bound to make parents feel guilty, but it’s important that you don’t blame yourself. Even the small things you’ve been able to do will have kept your child’s literacy ticking over. ‘Literacy is not just drilling phonics: it’s reading together and talking,’ says Gemma. ‘All children learn to read and write at different stages.’
 
That means that if your child has lost confidence in literacy, there’s plenty you can do to build them back up again.

1. Read every day

This is one of the simplest ways to bolster your child’s reading confidence, and as little as 10 minutes a day can make a big difference.
 
Your child may bring reading books home, and it’s important to work through these to help them progress, but you can also read picture books, comics, graphic novels: anything that captures their attention.
 
‘The great thing about literacy is the more you do it, the more your child practises, and the more they learn,’ Gemma explains.

2. Talk about books

Learning to read isn’t just about decoding the words on the page; it’s also important that your child understands what they’re reading. If they don’t, it’ll feel like a chore rather than a pleasure.
 
So take the time to chat about what you’re reading. Which bits does your child like best? What do they think might happen next? Who is their favourite character?
 
‘Discussing a book – even just describing the pictures if reading is too daunting – improves children’s vocabulary and verbal skills and helps them find the words to communicate their emotions better,’ says Rebecca.

3. Make phonics fun

Drilling phonics can be tedious and put too much emphasis on right and wrong, which can dent your child’s confidence if they make mistakes.
 
Instead, make practice fun by mixing up the tools you use. Jolly Phonics has lots of great learning songs on YouTube. Learning Resources sell some brilliant interactive games, including phonics beanbags and dominoes. We’ve also rounded up lots of other tools for helping children master phonics without the stress.

4. Choose books they enjoy

Reading scheme books can be pretty dry, so make time to read for pleasure. Let your child have a say in what they read: picking books that tap into a particular interest, like animals or science, will make them more enthusiastic about reading.
 
It’s okay if your child chooses books that seem too young for them, or if they want to read favourites again and again: texts that are familiar and not too challenging are easier to read and so will help them feel more capable and confident.

5. Help with handwriting

Many kids’ handwriting has suffered during lockdown, and they may be reluctant to practise at home. But rebuilding confidence with handwriting doesn’t mean doing worksheet after worksheet.
 
Activities like playing with play dough, making LEGO creations, and cutting and sticking will help strengthen the fine motor skills needed for handwriting. You could also try letting your child write letters with their finger or a stick in sand or shaving foam.
 
Older children can regain handwriting confidence by practising in fun and purposeful ways, like planning a family dinner and writing a menu, writing their birthday list or sending notes to friends.

6. Use online resources and apps

After months of mainly screen-based learning, you may be keen to get your child off their laptop or tablet, but good quality games-based apps and websites can improve their confidence with literacy.
 
Spelling apps that reward their efforts with virtual badges and bonus mini-games can give them a sense of achievement, while reading apps with read-along text could support them as they get back into a reading routine.

7. Play word games and puzzles

Play is an important learning experience for children, and getting stuck into word games like Scrabble, Boggle or Bananagrams, or verbal riddles such as I Spy and 20 Questions, is a fantastic strategy for building confidence without it being obvious.
 
As well as testing their critical thinking skills and extending their vocabulary, seeing the other players thinking hard and making mistakes will show your child that even adults don’t always succeed, and give them confidence to try, fail and try again themselves.

8. Encourage journaling

Diaries have so many purposes, from keeping a record of daily life to providing an outlet for emotions. At this time of upheaval, keeping a journal could help your child process what’s going on in the world – but more importantly, it gives them a safe space to write freely, without worrying about anyone checking their spelling or grammar.
 
‘Writing a short positivity journal can also really help children to focus on the good, basic things that they’re thankful for each day or week,’ adds Rebecca.

9. Look for book characters like your child

Being able to identify with the characters in a book can give your child’s self-esteem a boost by making them feel seen and heard, but a study by the National Literacy Trust shows that nearly a third of children don’t feel represented in the books they read.
 
Looking for inspiration? We’ve rounded up some of our favourite books featuring disabled and BAME protagonists.

10. Talk about everything

Many kids never stop talking, and engaging in conversation will help them develop a whole range of literacy skills: speaking, listening, turn-taking, vocabulary and more.
 
So while their Minecraft-related babble might usually wash over you, try to seize every opportunity to talk to your child: about their school day, their friendships, their gaming, their endless ‘why?’ questions.
 
If your child is less keen to open up, try our tips for getting them to talk about what’s happening at school.

11. Praise their efforts

Children thrive on positive reinforcement. ‘Praise and encouragement, rather than frustration and criticism, go so far in building a child’s confidence in their ability, and their learning will improve with patience and support,’ says Rebecca.
 
Your child might have lost some ground in literacy during lockdown, so rather than praising them for getting 10/10 on their spelling test or moving up a reading level, recognise the effort they’ve put in. ‘I really like this description in your book report,’ or ‘You’ve worked so hard on your phonics this week’ shows that trying can be as big an achievement as succeeding.

12. Take the pressure off

It’s easy to feel that a lack of progress in literacy during homeschooling is your fault, and as a result, worry too much and indirectly put pressure on your child. But keep reminding yourself that this has been an extraordinary time, and you’ve all done your best.
 
‘Keep in mind that very few things are year group-specific in literacy, and your child’s teachers will help them bounce back,’ says Gemma.Fronted adverbials are not essential to reading and writing, so focus on reading and talking: it’ll all have a positive effect.’