How I learnt to read

Today has been like many others. Get the kids up and off to school (admittedly, I’m bigging up my actual part in this). Check the email. Put the washing on. Update client records online. Tweet. Watch the news. Open the post. A fairly ordinary Monday. Not dissimilar in many ways to other days. A wide range of activities with only one common factor.

They all require me to be able to read. Every one. Some of it fairly simple, some of it fairly complex. Without the ability to read well I could not do what I do.

I’ve written before about my own love of reading. What I’ve not done is discussed how I came to read. Mainly because I don’t really understand how I did so.

I have very clear memories of being able to read before I went to school. I’m fairly sure that these aren’t any form of false memory as my parents and sister have also always told me that was the case. This is where it gets slightly complicated.

Firstly, without my glasses, I’m more or less blind. Ok, that overstates it a bit, but only slightly. For those that understand these things my corrective lens are -8.0 dioptre. So, to read anything at, say, blackboard distance the words have to be about 18 inches high. To read a book it has to be within 6 inches of my face. This was first picked up at primary school (cue all sorts of accusations of neglect etc – basically everyone thought I was just saying I couldn’t see because my sister had just got glasses and I was jealous). So, at the age of five and a half I finally get my vision corrected. This does make me wonder how I could have learnt to read early. How did it happen?

It is often said that an advantaged background can help children develop reading skills early. Ok, I didn’t have that. Not by any measure. I’m not sure there were any advantaged people in South Hackney in the 60’s.

So, it must have been my parents who helped me. Well, that is also problematic.

When I was that age, my father worked shifts at Fords. To be honest I saw him infrequently during the day as he was invariably sleeping or working. He was a clever man, but like many of his generation left school at 14 with no qualifications.

Must have been my mum then. Nope. Definitely not. My mum was, to all intents and purposes, illiterate. She could not write at all (save for the ability to sign her name) and reading was almost non-existent. This was, of course, something she, along with most people who can’t read, hid very well. She wasn’t stupid, but because she couldn’t read, she felt that she was.

Could have been my sister, I suppose. She is four and a half years older than me so would have been eight or nine when i was learning to read. She would have had school books around. I don’t rule out this possibility, but neither of us remembers it happening.

I do know we had a brilliant local library less than 3 minutes away, on the other side of the estate (council, not country) where I spent hours. By the age of nine I had exhausted the children’s side and was the only minor allowed in the adult section. They had a much better selection of non-fiction, which was my favourite tipple.

Ok, this is all very interesting, but where is it going?

I said at the start that I’m not really sure how I came to be able to read. All I know is that somehow, I dodged the ball of not being able to read. Many in the same circumstances don’t.

Today saw the launch of the Save the Children “Read On, Get On” campaign. The report that goes with the campaign makes the link between reading ability and progression at all levels and at all stages of life. The report itself is a good and informative read.

It is clear that not being able to read disadvantages the disadvantaged even further. To help remedy this the report sets the goal of “All children <that are able> to be reading well by the age of 11 by 2025″, with “reading well” defined as meeting current Level 4b. There is a further definition of reading well which is a little more helpful:

‘Reading well’ by the age of 11 means that children should not only be able to read the words that are written down, but they should also have a wider understanding of the meaning behind stories and information and be able to talk about them and comment on them. As well as being able to read and understand books such as Treasure Island or Harry Potter, they should also be able to read a range of different materials, including magazines and newspapers, relevant websites, letters and dictionaries.

This is a better (and, I think, potentially higher level) definition , which is easier to get behind. This post measures around 6 on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Scale, so would be just about readable by someone who was ‘reading well’ by this definition. With some fleshing (sorry!) out I think it is something worth aspiring to.

People come to reading in many different ways and at different stages of their lives. All this is true. But I have long held that schooling holds little for those that can’t read well. Indeed, the lack of reading ability makes the daily grind of trying to learn a miserable affair for many in our schools. It need not be this way.

There’s only one question I would ask of the Read On, Get On campaign.

Is 2025 to far away?


4 thoughts on “How I learnt to read

  1. Advocates of phonics are well aware that many children learn to read easily, to the extent of almost teaching themselves, although some of those children will still struggle with spelling. However, studies have shown that almost all fluent readers have a knowledge of phonics, whether they have picked up the phonic patterns through reading, or whether they have been explicitly taught them.
    It is the OTHER children, the ones who don’t learn to read unless explicitly taught phonics, that phonics advocates are most concerned about. They know from experience and evidence that good phonics teaching works for those children, and they see no evidence that it does others any harm.

  2. Mirrors (appropriate word eh?) my experience to an uncanny degree. I could read before school, and I was extremely short sighted — picked up because I used to ask other kids what was written on the blackboard. My Dad did read to me though. I, too, used the adult section of the library when I was too young. The librarian tried to stop me but I was so upset he gave in.
    My granddaughter tells me she learned before school because her dad read to her and she followed the words until she could do it herself. Could that really be so? Or would the phonicists say not?
    You’re right about the problems of not being able to read. It’s at the root of a lot of behaviour problems too.

    1. I think it is very clear that you can learn to read without using a strictly phonics based approach. But logic would also suggest that learning with phonics is likely to be optimum for most children.The brain does appear to be structured in a way that supports a phonetic approach to language.

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