Cuddle And Read

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Conversation with Nigel Mellor, author of “Cuddle and Read, a guide for parents.”
Cuddle and Read and attention seeking behaviour.

Extract from  “Communication Counts” by Fleur Griffiths published by  David Fulton, 2002., p.131-33.

 Conversation with Nigel Mellor, author of “Cuddle and Read, a guide for parents.”

I asked Nigel how Cuddle and Read came about. Nigel explained that it was created in response to the finding that, out of frustration, irritation and anxiety, many parents resorted to confrontational and negative reading sessions with their failing children.

One parent confessed to hitting her child over the head with a newspaper every time he made a mistake. His booklet shows how reading together can become a pleasant experience once again. Once parents see learning to read as the same as learning a skill, like riding a bike, they handle the session more sensitively. They see that the child is not being deliberately awkward or inattentive: s/he is simply struggling with a skill that has yet to become automatic. Uncertainty and error are normal parts of the process.

He said that what happens in these home-reading sessions is a 'largely overlooked issue' (Greenhough and Hughes 1998 p.384). It might be instructive to look at the physiological research, which has shown connections between visual and limbic pathways in the brain, highlighting the role of emotion in perception (as outlined in Challoner 2000). Most research has instead concentrated on seeking correlations between certain supposed components of the reading process -like visual discrimination or auditory memory - and the successful reader. The power of the ‘psychological processes’ model lies in 'some kind of face validity' , and the ease with which measurement can yield results. Once some positive correlations emerge, we seek to train children in these presumed sub-skills. A 'myth' about the significance of these components builds up, and 'people trot out remedial schemes and teaching schedules as if they are the pearls of wisdom and the tablets of truth' . Any contrary research which then shows 'massive holes in the underlying assumptions' is then ignored (e.g. Hamill and Larsen 1974).

Perhaps a more fruitful route would be to emphasise the impact of  stress and anxiety on perception and consequently on performance. We all know we cannot see something right under our noses when we are searching in hasty agitation. Furthermore, perception itself is a matter of confidence, as is borne out by signal detection theory. If we are intent on discovering enemy planes on a radar screen, we are likely to firm up a faint and ambiguous signal into a certainty, because the consequences of discounting it would be dangerous. In contrast, the feeling that you might have seen a ghost is dismissed for fear of being regarded as a fool. So, perceptions are not simple either/or  (yes/no) experiences, but often me 'best guess in the circumstances'.

Nigel: Its guessing about faint, confusing, ambiguous signals,  hidden in a mess of other confusing and ambiguous signals. How you feel at that time, and how stressed you are, will determine whether you see it or whether you don't see it. Its not an either/ or. It’s how you feel about it. Obviously some things you do see and that’s sort of clear, but when it’s in this marginal area of uncertainty . . . The trouble is that we look upon hearing and seeing as simple processes like taking a picture and that's as far as we get. But it’s much more subtle and sophisticated than that: emotions come into it,. your confidence in seeing something comes into it, particularly in ambiguous situations; your constructs come into it; what you think you're going to see. We create what we're going to see, so perceptions are a construction.

 Because our general understanding of hearing and seeing is so much rooted in a very old-fashioned model, a very simplistic model, we can't see any other way to think about seeing.

Fleur: I think that’s the case with the new-born infant: it actually turns to look at what it hears. The two systems are inextricably bound and yet in our thinking we see it as a visual process or a hearing process. Likewise, we see reading as if it’s this channel or that channel when they're not separate channels; they're  totally linked from the beginning of development and therefore you've got to do a reading process that is amalgamated. You get on the bike and ride!

Nigel: That’s right, yes.

Fleur: We can't do a bit of reading that’s to do with visual and a bit of something that is to do with hearing and hope that it somehow integrated

Nigel: You can't learn pedalling on a bench and learn steering on a bench and learn balance on a bench.

Fleur: Yes, and then hope it goes together.

Nigel:  And then hope it will all go together.

Fleur: And the same thing applies, I think, to learning of language, that when children with language deficits are then taught bits of language, like how to do the pronouns or how to do prepositions.

Nigel:  Yes; “in”, “on” and “under”!

Fleur: “In”, “on” and “under”. Its actually the same story; it then doesn't add together like a communication.

We finished by talking specifically of children with speech and language difficulties, who often become the subjects of remedial reading initiatives. Just as we try and create situations which prompt functional communication, so we also bring some agency (and urgency) into the reading process.

Fleur: With many of these children with speech and language difficulties, it’s going to be too big a gap between their language facility and the language of the books.

But, they do really like literacy in terms of agency: they love being able to turn the flaps, open the windows and so we use a lot of those kind of books to start with, because if you can't take on the language, you can actually take on the point to the story. Something opens, something closes, something jumps out.

Nigel: That’s right, yes.

Fleur: Something pops out and you can enjoy the emotional sense of an unfolding plot even though you're not necessarily taking part in the language. If you don't do that, what happens is that you start getting taught how to put the c- a- t together and that then ends up as what you do for years. I can think if a child who ended up at twelve, still doing c- a- t. So the phonics hasn't helped him at all and he can never move on because he hasn't got past the consonant- vowel- consonant stage.

Nigel pointed out that here was a child, for whom the 'bottom-up' model had not taken him from the building blocks up to the building's roof, from sub-skills to sense. Instead he has gone from 'phonics to nonsense', and never gets to the sense of it all. Others enjoy the journey up, but without seeing the view from the top.

Nigel: I think in a funny way some children might benefit from these interventions which draw them into parts if the process, simply because they’re getting a bit of success. The programmes are in very small steps and they love repetition, clear goals.

So for once in their lives, the kids are getting some success with something resembling bits of reading, so they think they're making progress, so their confidence builds up. As a kind if spin-off, their reading might improve, simply because they're feeling better about themselves and again getting a bit of success for once.

Fleur: I think that's part of the reason why paired reading works. When parents read along with their children a lot, people could say the same thing: at last, children are getting some attention, some success.

Nigel: And also it takes the heat out of the situation. It takes the social pressure off the children.

Everyone can keep calm and pay joint attention to understanding a chosen story in a cuddle-up context.


Challoner, J (2000)  The Brain. London: Channel 4 books.

Greenhough, P. and Hughes, M. (1998) Parents’ and teachers’ interventions in children’s reading. British Educational Research Journal, 24(4), 383-98.

Hamill, D. and Larsen, S. (1974)  The relationship of selected auditory perceptual skills and reading ability. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 7, 429-35.

Note: a good recent source which presents a very similar theoretical position is:

Thomas, G. ( 2002)  Discussion paper: are eggs the right size for egg cups because of good planning by hens? Where is reading research going? Educational Psychology in Practice, 18(2),157-66.


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Cuddle and Read and attention seeking behaviour.

The case study below is taken from “The Good the Bad and the Irritating” published by Lucky Duck p.65-67. Although the main focus of all the case studies in this book is on attention seeking behaviour, two include discussion of reading difficulties (the other is Philip Gardner age 12 on p.78-81). These reading difficulties seem typical of many children, however, not just those displaying attention seeking behaviour. In most cases there will be none of the “behaviour problems” to tackle such as those displayed by Ann, but it is instructive to see an example of how an apparent “reading problem” may have its roots elsewhere i.e. not “within the child”.

ANN MILLER : A primary school child, age 6, who had not spoken all year in class. Note how not speaking was very effective in school as a way of obtaining attention but also note that this went hand-in-hand with a number of difficulties which needed to be tackled at home.

The head of Ann’s primary school referred her in year 1. She had some difficulties adjusting in reception class the previous year but towards the end of that year had opened out. During year 1, she had not spoken in class either to teachers or friends.

When seen at the office, outside school, Ann chatted away quite happily. Assessment showed that she was a bright little girl.

Parent interview

Ann had a normal birth and early development. Her sister was born when Ann was 2½ years. Ann settled well in play group although she was quiet. In reception class in her primary school she did not speak until about Christmas. She then began to chat quite readily until moving into her new class.


Ann had always been a somewhat reserved child but happy and truthful with a good sense of humour. However, as well as being extremely noisy and active in the home (which tended to annoy both parents) she was very stubborn and defiant and would often do the opposite of what she was told. She did not demand material things, she showed affection quite readily and had patience but often seemed to lack confidence. Ann would help with little jobs in the house but if not “in the mood” would refuse outright. She also resented discipline.

Ann related well to her sister and could happily occupy herself. She did, however, have the annoying habit of constantly fidgeting. This brought a great deal of attention from her parents. She also tended to dawdle in the mornings. This made mum “go on and on” at her and usually end up dressing her.


Mrs Miller said that she was fairly patient. Her approach to Ann was to tell her a few times before starting to shout and then to make threats. It was only “as a last resort” that she carried out the threats. She admitted that Ann could easily manipulate her.

Mr Miller said that Ann could “soft soap” him to a certain extent also, but she was generally more obedient for him than for his wife. Mrs Miller admitted that at times she had stopped her husband from punishing Ann. Mum said “I tend to think of her as a baby.”

Both parents were very concerned about Ann and wanted the best for her. They agreed, however, that she was getting a great deal of attention because of not talking at school and because of her fidgeting and dawdling at home. Furthermore, she was still wetting the bed quite regularly, which again brought a fair amount of negative attention. Mrs Miller had herself tried a “star chart” (i.e. little stars and rewards whenever Ann was dry) to clear up the bed wetting. She had had some temporary success with this. Mum agreed, however, to try the approach again, but with extra rewards and praise for dry beds, at the same time as she tackled all of Ann’s difficulties together. A particular emphasis was placed on finding lots of activities around the house to give Ann positive attention for generally. She “beamed” when praised.

A final area of concern we discussed was Ann’s reading. While she was, in fact, making reasonable progress, both parents were very worried and had fallen into the habit of giving her practice sessions at home lasting up to half an hour. These were often stressful for both Ann and her parents. They were very anxious for her to improve and this made them very tense and try too hard to be what they thought of as “teachers”. This led to them being very strict and critical rather than seeing the reading session as a fun time like going for a walk or learning to ride a bike. Mr and Mrs Miller agreed to cut these sessions right down and to adopt an approach which made reading much more pleasant for all of them. The approach was given the title “Cuddle and Read”.

This “Cuddle and Read” approach involved very short periods (five minutes or so) with Ann sitting on mum’s knee, having a cuddle as they enjoyed their time together. Mrs Miller agreed to say nothing about Ann’s mistakes but simply to give her the right word and pass on quickly. She continued to praise and cuddle Ann throughout the session, emphasising her success. She encouraged Ann to guess, even when the guesses were “wrong”. Mum came to realise that even making a “wrong” guess was better than Ann being so scared of failure she would make no guess at all. She stopped judging the guesses harshly as either right or wrong. She simply concentrated on praising Ann for words she read correctly and having the confidence to try with words she found difficult. Mrs Miller began to see learning to read like learning any skill - something that responded best to praise and encouragement. Her anxiety to be a “good parent” and develop Ann’s reading, had, ironically, got in the way of taking a more effective but low key and positive approach.

Follow-up interview

Mrs Miller said that Ann “seems more co-operative - more grown up.” She was by then helping in the house more and often volunteered to help, “she’s dead keen”. She loved the praise which followed. She was also much more obedient. The bed wetting had improved but was still rather erratic.

At the open night at school the previous week, it turned out that Ann had made no improvement at all unfortunately. In mum’s opinion “she had them all on a string”. From her description it appeared that the Headteacher, the class teacher, the dinner ladies - in fact, everyone - tried to get Ann to speak. Obviously school, without intending to, had been feeding in a great deal of attention over this matter. Mrs Miller herself, however, felt guilty about what she saw as her own mistakes in handling Ann. She did not have a great deal of confidence in herself in any case. We spent some time discussing this area, emphasising that mum’s “mistakes” had arisen in fact from trying too hard to be a good parent.

At a further interview one month later, Mr & Mrs Miller reported that Ann was now much more outgoing that she had been. Her confidence was growing and she was going to visit a friend’s house. The bed wetting was improving slowly but she was still not talking in class. Again Mrs Miller talked about her own shyness and also her feelings that she had “coddled Ann too much when she was younger”.

Another meeting a few weeks later revealed that Ann had finally started talking in class. Her teacher was now complaining that she was, in fact, being rather disruptive with her constant chatter!

During the discussion it also turned out that the younger sister had had speech problems after a convulsion and had seen a speech therapist. It seemed that Ann’s lack of speech in class had triggered off, quite naturally, a lot of extra worries for her parents and been a ripe area for obtaining attention.

At a final appointment, six months later, Mrs Miller said, “Things have been great, both at home and at school.” Ann seemed much more mature and now accepted discipline without resentment. She would start conversations quite readily with anyone and overall she was “a different little girl”.

Ann continued to make progress in class generally, but also with her reading, and had not been re-referred by school three years later at a long term follow-up visit. Her work was up to scratch.

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