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'Freddy the Frog', the 'Famous Five' and Why 'Why' May Be One of the Most Important Questions of All

11/08/2015 17:05 BST | Updated 05/05/2017 13:24 BST

Thinking back to your childhood, do you even remember your parents reading to you? Does it even matter? I've still got a memory seared of my mam reading me Freddy the Frog. In case you never had the pleasure, Freddy the Frog is a happy frog who sits and croaks upon a log. There's no major moral to the story, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

With dad, it was a bit different. I'm too young to recall, but one of the best photos from my childhood is my dad reading a copy of the NME to me, which probably says a lot about growing up an indie kid. Less obvious for a kid from a council estate in Newcastle is my childhood love of the Famous Five. I must have read all of Enid Blyton's books seven times, fascinated about the idea of running off to have adventures with lashings of ginger beer.

What I found out when I turned up to primary school is that for a boy from the Montagu Estate, I was apparently a little bit weird. One of my overriding memories of every stage of school is of mates saying variations on a theme of 'here man, you're dead posh', because as well as wanting to play for Newcastle United I really, really enjoyed reading. And chatting. My amazing child-minder Pauline - my 'other mother' who looked after me when my mam went back to work when I was three months old - was probably driven to distraction by constant pestering and insistence on knowing 'Why?' for everything. She sadly passed away far too early when I was eight, and now as an adult I look back and admire a sense of patience I don't think I could muster myself.

So it's probably not hugely surprising that even 20-something years later we have a big problem with boys learning to read. And what's more is that this gap between boys and girls is opening up before children reach school. Research published recently by the Read On. Get On. campaign shows that England's poorest boys are turning up at the school gate on day one already behind in the language skills - learning how to talk and to engage with books and stories - they need to read well. And it's not just the poorest - boys across the board are trailing far behind girls in these crucial skills, and we really need to do something about it. The job market faced by young people is already tough enough. We simply cannot send another generation of boys into the world without the skills they need to succeed.

But why is this? A fitting question for the boy who was told no "No more whys!". The truth is, we don't know. The speech and language therapists I've talked to tell me that it might be the difference in the style of play and that perhaps boys tend to communicate less than girls - content to run around and play football or play with cars. It's probable that we've almost come to accept this as a culture, and if we're going to change it we need dads to lead that change by being positive role models and encouraging reading.

Those 'why' questions - attempts to understand the world around them - might be annoying but are a key sign of language development. Indeed, a poll released this week by Read On. Get On. suggests that on average, parents are asked a 'Why' question eight times a day.

To get our children ready to read, we need all parents to be reading to their children 10 minutes a day. It sounds simple, but a nursery manager I spoke to recently told me how many of her parents just don't realise what a difference this could make. For boys, there's compelling evidence that dads reading to them has an even stronger effect.

I was hugely lucky that despite growing up without much, I had a mam, dad and child-minder around me reading and encouraging a love of words from a really early age. I never grew up to be Alan Shearer, but I'll bet on winning any game of scrabble and I did get to come and work for Save the Children. With our partners in the Read On. Get On. coalition we're aiming to get all children reading well by age 11. Dads of the UK, you have a job to do.

Read On. Get On. is a coalition of leading charities, teachers, parents and businesses campaigning to get all children reading well. Information and resources for parents are available at Readongeton.org.uk