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Learning to Read

Just how hard is it to learn to read?

By far the most frequent question that cruising families are ever asked is, “What do you do about the children’s schooling?” And then comes the inevitable second one: “How did you teach them to read?”
This is a thing that we get asked both my other families planning to cast off their mooring lines, and also by land-based folks whose experience of statutory education is less than perfect. It seems that some kids manage to get all the way through their junior school years without ever being able to enjoy Harry Potter!

Whilst I can’t claim to be an expert in the field of teaching reading, I do know how my own kids acquired the art, and I have helped other youngsters along the road to literacy; so I can offer a few words of advice.

Our story begins while we were cruising in Ghana.

The bus was packed to the brim with men and women journeying from the coast to the capital city; and – this being West Africa – the travellers were not just carrying shopping bags and brief cases. One couple appeared to have brought along everything that they owned; everything from their clothing and bedding, which threatened to burst the zips from a pair of shabby suitcases, to a brace of chickens which were tethered to one another by their legs.

Finally, when we were all crammed in like sardines, the bus driver started his engine; and at just that moment another passenger leapt aboard the bus and began clambering over the scrum of bodies. As he moved amongst us the man was handing out small folded slips of paper.
What could this be, I wondered?
Not one person so much as glanced at the piece of paper as it was given to him. Each man took the proffered leaflet without comment and shoved it into a pocket. One of the women tucked hers into her cleavage.
The people’s lack of curiosity was transparent; it was clear that none of them could read.

Eventually the man reached the back of the bus where I was sitting, with my children on my lap and six other people jammed in beside me. One of the little pamphlets was passed into my hands and I found that it was a religious tract. What a disappointment.
I handed it over to Xoë.

Xoë was only two and a half years old and thus she was still quite a handful in a situation like this. Her urge to run around made her restless. Reading was the one activity which could be guaranteed to keep her quiet – or at any rate, still.
As I handed her the religious tract Xoë stood up on my lap and then – with that embarrassing lack of self-consciousness which only the very young possess – she opened her mouth and she read aloud, neither knowing nor caring that she preached to an entire busload of illiterate peasants:
“As Jesus was sitting outside the tipple (temple) he watched the people dropping their money into the chest. Presently there came a poor window (widow) ………”

And thus a whole bus-load of men and women was accidentally demeaned and demoralised by a toddler. She had a gift that was beyond their reach.
Or did she?
Is decoding a string of little black marks really beyond the abilities of an uneducated peasant?

Just how hard is it to learn to read?

How to Make Reading Difficult

The best way to make learning difficult is to make it complicated – and that is exactly what modern teaching methods have done for the experience of learning to read.

The traditional way of teaching a person to do something is to do it, and to hope that your apprentice catches on.
Thus, a thatcher learns to thatch by watching and joining in; an artist learns to paint by watching and copying; and a mechanic learns to fix a car my watching and tinkering.
Likewise – on a more academic or scholarly level – the best way to learn about the history of a place is to visit it, and immerse yourself; the best way to learn about geography is to go to the country being studied and see for yourself what is there; and the acknowledged best way to learn a language is by hearing it spoken and speaking it yourself.
From this it ought to be obvious that the best way to learn to read is by reading.
So why do we have to complicate matters by dissecting the subject and teaching the logic behind the process of learning to read?

The art of reading consists in identifying and recognising a set of 26 squiggles.
Depending on what order those squiggles are placed in they mean a different thing, and they make a different sound. But in order to learn to read you do not have to understand this fact.
You do not have to know how to read in order to read fluently.
Worse – when a child is told how to go about deciphering those squiggles which tell of how Jack climbed the beanstalk and Harry saved the world from the Death Eaters, her own personal and natural learning process may well be crippled.

The Trouble with Phonics

It seems to me that the best way to make reading difficult is to use phonics.
Phonics can work for some kids but it certainly doesn’t work for all. In my experience, phonics works with people who have logical, tidy minds. The sort of person who can get to grips with maths at an early age may well learn to read by using some form of phonics. But the sort of child who likes to play fantasy games and who can’t (or doesn’t) build her stacker-beakers into a neat orderly pile is likely to find phonics very confusing.

The trouble with phonics is that it isn’t as logical as we would like to imagine. Merely teaching the child to pronounce A as in bat, and B as “Buh”, and C as “Cuh” doesn’t work – not in English anyway. In some languages the pronunciation of words and letters is very orderly, but the English language is a wonderful mish-mash of lingos, all stirred around and served up with complete disregard for any rules.

For example, a might be pronounced as in cat, or as in car. And if you stick it next to another vowel it won’t be pronounced as a separate entity at all.
Try pronouncing rain phonically.
And how about laugh?
How about sea?
How about area?

It wasn’t until I began helping my kids to learn to read that I noticed that an e on the end of a word changes the pronunciation of a vowel at the start of the word, making the vowel sound like its name.
Thus, mat becomes mate, for instance. And it becomes ite.
I was so excited by this discovery that I almost rushed over and taught it to my three year old son…
But then I realised that I had managed very well without this knowledge for three decades.


Hang on a minute! It becomes ite? But ite isn’t a word, you say.
No, it isn’t – but it’s a common word-part – as in sprite, kite, write, and so forth.
And so we begin to see that phonics is really only appropriate when it deals not with individual letters but with chunks.
People learning to read by the phonics method will eventually drop the buh-a-tuh nonsense and memorise these chunks. An adult would presumably memorise the chunks deliberately and consciously, but I think that most children, having been given a few pointers, probably develop their repertoire of “sound-bites” semi-consciously.

Let’s see how we get along, using this method, with one of the sentences in that paragraph. Let’s try, “People learning to read will memorise chunks of words” :
People is a hard one. It isn’t like any other word, and so one really needs to learn it as a whole unit.
Learn is the next bite. Or we might break it down into “luh” plus earn.
Then we have ing, which is a very common and useful word-part.
To would be pronounced incorrectly if one spoke the individual letters, according to the phonic method, and pronounced the o as in pot. To can be pronounced in at least three different ways – as in top, to, and town – and would-be readers just have to learn them all.
Read is another stand-alone word part. Note that it doesn’t help with the pronunciation of head or dead.
Mem-or-ise – These are three separate “sound-bites”.
Chunks can be sounded phonically provided that the child has been taught that ch is effectively a letter in its own right (which it truly is in Spanish). Even so, ch-uh-nuh-kuh-ss sounds pretty stupid and is barely recognisable as a word.
Of, when pronounced phonically, becomes off – which is bound to lead to confusion.
Words sounds ridiculous if you try to say it phonically, letter by letter. Like read, it is pronounced in an irregular manner, so it has to be thought of as a unique “sound-bite”. It looks like cords and fords but it doesn’t follow their pronunciation; it actually rhymes with birds.

The semi-phonic “sound-bites” method was the one employed by my (very logical-minded) son when he learnt to read at the age of three.
I know this, not because I made him do it that way, but because, like most small kids, he began by reading out loud. Thus, I was able to hear him sounding out the words, bite by bite.

The Soak-It-Up Method

My elder daughter, who is very clever but who has a very “anti-logical” way of thinking, learnt to read by simply recognising the words. Every word that she came across was photographed by her amazing mind, filed, and never forgotten.
Eventually she must also have developed a “soundbites” approach. How else could she have added to her repertoire over the years, after her parents stopped reading to her? But this was certainly not the child’s initial method of learning to read, and it was not one that anybody ever taught her.

Xoë broke all of the rules. As we have seen, by the age of two and a half she was already reading fairly fluently. The fact that what she read might make absolutely no sense to her was of no concern. She simply had a passion for the art. At this stage in her life a page of text was just something to be decoded, without reason or purpose.

Tree, Tree, Tree, Cat

School teachers were dumbfounded when they learnt that Xoë could read but couldn’t sequence.

Sequencing is a thing which modern wisdom insists is an essential prerequisite to learning to read. The child is shown a series of pictures and she has to say what comes next.
But Xoë, when shown a row of identical trees and asked what came next would think for a while and then say, “Cat”. Or “Bird”. Or “House”.

“Let’s try that again, Xoë. Look at these drawings. Tree, house, tree, house, tree, house – can you see the pattern? What comes next?”

And I must say that I actually prefered Xoë’s approach to the problem. Why the heck should we put another tree in the line? Why not an elephant…?
And what the devil has this got to do with reading?
Absolutely nothing, so far as I can see.
It has to do with logic – and logic is anti-imagination, anti-spontaneity, and anti-the artistic part of my brain. Sequencing is a mathematical way of learning to read.

As a matter of interest – and in further contradiction of the rules – Xoë could not name the letters of the alphabet until she began to want to write, at the age of four.

How to Help Your Child to Learn to Read

I’m tempted to suggest that the first thing you should do, if you want to help your child to learn to read, is to keep him out of school.
At the very least, I would suggest that a child should be taught to read by his parents (or by someone else with whom he is close) before he goes to school; before anyone else interferes.

Remember the story of Scout, in To Kill a Mocking Bird. Like Xoë, Scout learnt to read without being taught any rules. She just sat on her father’s lap as he read his newspaper (aloud, one assumes) and she absorbed reading. When she arrived in school already equipped with the skill that her teacher was supposed to instill, the lady was mortified – and jealous. Poor old Scout was banned from reading!

Helping a small child to learn to read is actually very, very easy – provided he likes stories and likes being read to – and I would guess that teaching an adult is not much harder, provided that the adult has not already been crippled by an attempt to teach him how to learn to read (ie. using phonics etc.).

  1. The first and most important thing is to read to your student as much as possible. Read to him for as long as he is still enjoying it, or for as long as you can bear. Xoë, at one year of age, used to hang onto my legs and bash me with her story book: “Read me! Read me! Read me!”
    We generally read to her (and to her brother, at the same time) for about an hour every day.
  2. Bed-time is probably the worst time of all to be trying to teach your child to read. Choose a time when he is wide awake.
  3. Read fairly slowly – more slowly than you normally would – and run your finger along under the words. Be sure that your finger is always under the appropriate word so that your student associates the word you are saying with the one on the page.
  4. Once you think that your student knows the story, begin to leave out the last word of the sentence. Let your finger rest under the relevant word and leave a pause. Hopefully, he will fill in the gap, but you might need to prompt.
    If this works you can begin to leave out other words, mid-sentence.
    Eventually the child should be doing most of the work while you simply run your finger along under the words.
    When you pick up a different book try to remember which words your child recognised, and if you come across them in the new book leave a slight pause. Does he recognise the word?
    Eventually he will.
  5. It helps if you read the same story over and over again.
    When we first began to read to Caesar we only had three kiddy’s books aboard the boat, and because we were not in an English-speaking country we couldn’t get any more very quickly. Funnily enough this turned out to be a blessing, because would-be readers definitely benefit from hearing the same story over and over again.
    Reading the same book five times on the trot every night for a week is sooooooooo boring – but only for the adult. Our kids liked the repetition. Indeed, even when we had a large supply of books they still demanded repetition. I think that this was because they were consciously trying to learn to read. Effectively, they were memorising the whole story, word for word.
  6. It helps if the story rhymes, eg. The Cat in the Hat, and other Dr Zeuss books. (The Lorax is our favourite, but it isn’t the best early reader of the set.)
    Usborne used to publish some very good early readers. They didn’t rhyme but they had a limited vocabulary, which helps.
    The Little Bear books, by Maurice Sendak, are also useful. Again, they are written with a limited vocabulary.
    Other hot favourites included Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, The Tiger Who Came to Tea (by Judith Kerr), and Haddock (the story of a fish who falls in love with a mermaid, by Jan Mark and Fiona Moody).
    Long stories (such as Winnie-the-Pooh, by A.A. Milne) are a valuable part of your child’s education, but they serve a different purpose; they are not early readers. I, personally, would not be able to read Winnie the Pooh using the go-slowly-finger-under-the-word method. It would take forever, and the magic of the tale would be lost.
    Likewise, beautifully illustrated books such as The Mousehole Cat (by Antonia Barber) are not the right ones to use for this particular job.
    Ladybird publishes a few very good early readers and a vast assortment of what this family considers to be utter dross. Forget Janet and John. Boring books do not inspire the student to take an interest in learning to read.
    For that matter, early-readers are not the material to inflict upon a teenager. I recall an episode in one of John Holt’s books in which he describes the learning struggles of a black youth. The boy had shown himself to be incapable of learning to read – and yet he returned to school, one autumn, fully literate.
    “Why didn’t anybody tell me about this book?” he demanded, waving aloft a copy of something penned by Malcolm X (the Black activist).
    Likewise, a friend of mine taught some “difficult” teenage boys to read by bringing in a pile of motorbike magazines.
    “Gor…! What’s it say about this one, Clive?”
    “Well, this here is the number 4; and this word here is cylinder…”
    Those boys are still not reading Shakespeare – but at least they now could, if they wanted to.
  7. Be seen to enjoy reading.
    Children are mimics, as we all know. They want to do what they see us doing, and if they see their parents reading then they are likely to want to acquire the same skill. By the same token, if they don’t see you reading then they are less likely to learn the art at an early age.
  8. Don’t be in too much of a hurry. An adult can probably learn to read in a fortnight, but for a small child to learn to read takes months.
    Be patient, and don’t lean on your child. Don’t try to force him to do, or to be, what he isn’t. Just because some kids can read at the age of three doesn’t mean that they all can. And it definitely doesn’t mean that they all must.

Children go through phases where they latch onto something – be it crawling, stacking their beakers, kicking a ball, building lego houses, or reading – and this becomes, for a period of time, that child’s obsession.
You can certainly guide – and you can hope – but you can’t actually choose your child’s obsession. You have to let him take the lead. As with any other aspect of the child’s academic education, your job is simply to help.

Above all, relax.
When not tampered with, learning to read is a very natural process.

One Comment

  1. Quite an interesting read,

    my mother once told me, that I was able to read by the age of 4 or 5, a good amount of time, before I was sent to school. And, that it was easier to me, to read my dads newspaper the wrong side up, as I was sitting face to face with him at the breakfast table. I loved to read at an early age, I loved stories I was told/read and so it seamed natural to me.

    So I really believe, that your approach teaching your kids is quite better, than any systematic/school approach for the majority of kids.

    Being 33 now, I still love to read, read a lot and am thankfull, that my parents instilled/awakend this passion deep inside of me.

    Greetings from Germany

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