IF JOSIE WHITE could talk, she might say her favourite book is one of the classics, like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Wombat Stew or Josephine Wants to Dance.
The eight-month-old's mother Alicia reads to her at least three times a day, usually when she is winding down before naps.
Josie is beginning her love affair with books amid concerns about literacy levels in the Loddon Campaspe area.
More than 15 per cent of the region's parents express concern about their child’s speech and language when their schooling begins, David Richardson from the Loddon Campaspe Regional Partnership says.
The Victorian government is currently asking people to nominate books by Victorian authors for baby bundles that will soon be handed out to first-time parents.
It is an idea Mr Richarson has welcomed, saying anything encouraging parents to read to babies is great.
The LCRP is prioritising boosting early years language and literacy, he says, and is working with libraries, local governments and the state's education department on a new strategic plan for programs and ideas.
More and more children are not reading books every day in the years before they start school, La Trobe University Bendigo children's literature expert Sarah Mayor Cox says.
"That could be for financial reasons, or because they (parents) did not have those experiences growing up and they are so busy struggling with being a new parent," she says.
"You know what it's like when you have a new baby. You are so busy thinking about whether she is hot, cold, wet, dry, hungry or sleepy. You are in a fog for the first eight weeks anyway, you're sleep deprived.
"A lot of people think 'well, my child can't read, so why would I read to them?' The point is, you don't say 'my child can’t speak, so I’m not going to talk to them until they can speak’.
"We know children learn to speak by being spoken to. They learn to read by being read to, then talking about it."
It is a process of induction, Ms Mayor Cox says, which starts early and continues when children reach school.
Anything done to improve children's oral language in the years before school is important, La Trobe University Bendigo expert Pamela Snow says, but they are not the things that will turn children into readers.
The first three years of schooling is critical for children's reading skills, she says, and she is concerned some students are being left behind.
"Schools get to choose their own adventure in how they teach reading," she says, including in Bendigo.
That is a problem because the wrong approach could produce more children deemed "reading casualties", Professor Snow says.
She has a perspective on the "reading wars", a debate that had raged for decades in academic and education circles about the best ways to teach children to read.
Schools should make more use of "systematic phonics", a way of teaching in which children sound out letters and words, Professor Snow says.
Some students can struggle with many common classroom techniques, she says, including those who do not have strong language skills or do not read a lot of books at home.
She advocates for schools to give more attention to phonics when teaching novice readers.
"There are schools that have gone down this path and are seeing dramatic uplift in their results, including in Bendigo," she says.
"But the fact that we are not systematically applying the science of reading across the board means we are doomed to uneven and disappointing results."
The debate over whether that approach or a combination with others works best in Australia's classrooms is not likely to end any time soon.
Ms Mayor Cox says some schools are trying to teach reading without using books.
"It's like me trying to train you to play football at an AFL level and all I do is drills all season, without you getting to play a game," she says.
"You are never going to string those skill sessions together into something bigger.
"What's the point?"
Ultimately, Ms Mayor Cox says, the biggest issue in schools is a lack of resources.
"No government is spending enough money on education, or literacy issues. Families really need help," she says.
Those debates notwithstanding, Ms Mayor Cox said parents should be reading to their children - and not just because it lays down the foundation for language skills.
Mrs White is currently using books to expand Josie's curiosity about the world around her, pointing to the canine characters on book pages and saying things like "is that a dog? We have a dog but he does not look like that."
What she savours most is the opportunities to bond with Josie.
"Reading should be about having that really pleasurable experience, before we start jumping into the really technical aspects," Ms Mayor Cox says.
Sometimes parents can get too hung up on the idea of teaching their child to read, she says.
"Those are equally important, but I think sometimes parents are so worried about, and nervous about, how to do it right. Perhaps they should just say it's a time for a good cuddle, a good laugh and some one-one-one time."
Ms Mayor Cox had postnatal depression after the birth of all three of her children. She spent hours every day at home with them.
"The only thing that got me through was sitting on the floor with a big pile of books, cuddling them (my children) and reading these stories," she says.
"I didn't have to come up with anything. All I had to do was read these stories. That started to build a bond between the two of us."
Children, Ms Mayor Cox says, crave the faces, voices and touch of their caregivers. She savours those memories of sitting on that floor.
"It was just so fabulous," she says.
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