Ever since he was a baby, Declan Peno has loved books. "When he was really little, he used to toddle around saying, 'read this, read this'," says his mother Julie. She expected him to thrive at school, and quickly become a bookworm.
He didn't. By the end of year two, he still wasn't reading. Teachers and friends would raise their eyebrows and ask if she was reading to him. "I felt terrible about it," she says. "I thought I must have been doing something wrong."
A widely held fallacy about reading - that all kids can learn to read by regularly being read to - is leading to a new form of parent-shaming, in which parents are tacitly blamed when their child finds reading difficult.
Anne Castles, a professor of cognitive science Macquarie University who works with struggling readers, has met many of these parents - some of whom write books themselves - and witnessed the heartache and guilt this shaming causes.
So when Mem Fox, author of children's classic Possum Magic, recently told a television show that if every parent read three stories a day to their child, "we could eliminate illiteracy within one generation”, Professor Castles decided to act.
She called on parents to tell her their stories, then collated them in a letter to Ms Fox. "I genuinely believe that you may be unaware of the huge hurt that you cause to parents of children with reading difficulties," she wrote.
"I witness the suffering, self-doubt, and guilt experienced by these parents every day. You may not. So, I thought that by sharing some stories of parents in this situation, I might be able to give you an insight into their experience."
Ms Peno was one of the mothers who replied to Professor Castles' call-out. Another was a speech pathologist, who believed that steeping her son in rich literature from birth would be enough for him to read. It wasn't.
"He still loves being read to, but he still has dyslexia," she said.
A third mother said she read The Hobbit aloud to her son when he was four years old. But that didn't stop him struggling with reading. "By grade two, he started referring to himself as a 'dum dum'. For a while, we blamed ourselves for his problems," she said.
"It was heartbreaking at times to watch a child with such an intense love of books and stories being unable to read."
Professor Castles said reading aloud was invaluable in building vocabulary and broader language skills that helped children when they became readers. But usually, it wasn't enough to teach them how to read.
That required explicit instruction in how the writing system works; they need to learn that letters represent sounds, to recognise those letters and link them with sounds, and then sound out words for themselves so they can read words independently.
One study has found that when children are being read to, they usually don't even look at words - they look at their parent's face or the pictures. Some children are "precocious readers" and pick it up spontaneously, but they are rare.
"Then there is another group of children - estimates are usually in the order of one in ten - who struggle to learn to read even with good teaching," Professor Castles said. "The children unfortunate enough to be in this latter group suffer greatly, and so do their families.
"Statements like Mem's are most definitely parent-shaming. There is now a very strong response from parents that are in this position because they are tired of being made to feel worse than they already do."
After two and a half years of phonics tutoring, Declan Peno is an avid reader. "He was pretty much illiterate in year three," said Ms Peno. "He's now in year five, and he was reading at band eight level in his most recent NAPLAN."
Ms Fox did not respond to requests for comment, and has not replied to Professor Castles' letter.
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