On learning to read

December 31, 2021

The eldest of our grandchildren is now at school, and learning to read. Given that reading is such an important part of my life, and always has been, I find it strange that I can recall very little about how I actually learned to read. I remember nothing at all from before I went to school as a rising five; ours was a poor household and there was no money for books. However, when in Class 1 Miss Marvell began the process of teaching us, I do recall that it seemed quite straightforward to me, so I must have been ready or prepared in some way for it.

The letters of the alphabet were on charts high up on the classroom walls, and I remember our having to chant the sounds aloud, in unison. Shortly after this came a series of flashcards with ‘sentences’ on them, which again we were required to chant; I remember thinking they were daft at the time. The one that has stuck in my mind for sixty-odd years said, “Mother, mother, see Kitty!” and I can remember thinking, “Who on earth would speak like that?”

Eventually there were readers – the Janet and John series, I think, that we shared one between two, and took in turns to read a sentence aloud. Again I recall thinking that I wanted to read a lot more than one sentence because this new skill was so exciting and I could do it, and also feeling impatient with those who couldn’t master the words, or stumbled over them. At the same time as acquiring this new skill, we were also learning how to write, beginning with individual miniature blackboards (as chalkboards were then called) and graduating to pencil and paper as soon as our fine motor skills were good enough. Here I remember being cross about having to use the pencil and paper, because I quite liked the business with the chalk…

Yet I was never conscious that I was learning to read and write; I hoovered it all up, along with the excitement and the possibilities it opened up. I have no recollection of taking readers home from school and practising with my parents; I don’t think such things happened in those days – school was school, home was home, and quite honestly, my parents were too busy running a home and family.

When I think about it now, I realise that the ability to master and operate with text was crucial to schooling in those days, for everything came from printed textbooks, with a very few black and white line illustrations. In other words, if you couldn’t read, you were seriously stuck. I remember that in the second class, those of us who could read competently were paired up with those who needed practice, to help them and hear them read. Again, uncharitably, I found this tedious, as at the age of going on six I couldn’t see how anyone couldn’t understand those letters and words…

Still no books at home. I must have been coming up to seven when my mother realised that she could sign me up to the children’s section of Stamford Public Library, and I can truly say that from that moment I never looked back. I read anything and everything, not quite indiscriminately, but pretty promiscuously. I can remember particularly the Young Traveller series, which probably sparked off that bug – two children in a nice, white middle-class family who got taken off to lots of interesting countries and saw the sights, tried the food and learned about habits and customs: I wanted to be able to do that. I exhausted the possibilities of the children’s library by the age of twelve, at which point my mother went and soft-talked them into allowing me access to the ‘grownups’ library several years early…

There were also the small classroom libraries at school: when you had successfully completed a task, it was often easiest for the teacher to send you off to get a book to read until everyone else had finished, and the class could move on to the next thing together. Again, I hoovered up everything, and can remember being particularly interested in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, which I devoured large chunks of.

Finally, I also began to acquire some books of my own: my parents realised how much reading meant to me. I was thrilled when they bought me Winnie the Pooh, and overjoyed when Christmas and birthdays brought book tokens, with which I bought my first copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and also The Wind in the Willows. That last one I still have, a treasured item in my now vast library. And I know that there’s a certain snobbishness or superiority in saying this, but I cannot understand people who can, but do not read, and I have never understood how it’s possible to have a home without books…

What comes out of all this is my realisation of the incredibly liberating effect of education. I’m always very moved when I read about the lengths that some children in the Third World go to, in order to be able to get to school, and I appreciate my father’s determination that I should get a good education – he had four winters of school, 1922-26 and that was it…

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