Worthy Reads from January 3, 2019

Weekend Reading: Harry Brighouse: Teaching a 10 Year-Old to Read

Weekend Reading: Harry Brighouse: Teaching a 10 Year-Old to Read http://crookedtimber.org/2020/01/05/teaching-a-10-year-old-to-read/: 'My then-18 year old daughter was home with her friends when I opened my author-copies of Family Values. After they left she said “My friends are really impressed that you’ve written a book. But I’m not really. I mean, it’s just part of your job, isn’t it? It’s just what you’re supposed to do. I mean….it’s not like you taught a third grader to read, or something like that“. If you’ve read the book, or simply know its main theses, you’ll see many layers of irony in that exchange, and probably further layers of irony in the sense of pleasure and pride I got from it. But actually I did teach a kid to read, a 5th grader actually, though just one, when I was 18...

...I took what would now be called a ‘gap year’ between school and college, but I didn’t plan it very well, and, after a few months living in a squat in Kentish Town while working for CND, and a couple more working as a live-in nanny in Brighton, I returned home and spent my days volunteering in a rural primary school classroom with 9-11 year olds. This involved a daily (and hair-raising) commute of 12 miles each way on my bike. I enjoyed it, and at that point was planning to be a primary school teacher, so I suppose it wasn’t such a bad idea. Mostly I worked with kids in ones or twos, and normally the kids who were behind.

One 10 year old boy called Darren who lived on the nearby council estate (US = public housing project) was far behind the others in reading. Darren had joined the school the previous year and had integrated well socially – he was a lovely, cheery, lad, overweight (which I identified with) but never mocked for it possibly because he seemed genuinely to like everybody. He was perfectly on track with his maths and I realize now that he may have been dyslexic, but diagnosis was sparse in those days (many teachers – indeed many experts – believed it was not a real condition, just a mask for laziness), and treatment sparser.

I had no idea what I was doing, but every living member of my mother’s extended family either was or had been a teacher and my dad, the nutter, knew a bit about it, so there were at least books about teaching around.

My strategy (if that isn’t too grand a word) was to get him to sound out words, and gradually progress to reading out simple sentences. The problem was that the books with which children were taught to read were all for 4 year olds, and he was 10 and therefore, not unreasonably, found those books dull as ditchwater (and, probably, a little infantilizing). Things improved when I gave up on the books, and started writing words and sentences for him, based on his interests. Words were short, and simple, but the sentences I made from them were (supposed to be) either funny, or interesting. Some of them were, unquestionably, rude. After that he progressed to the point that he wanted to read real books (which I was incapable of writing). But, again, the books which fit his reading age did not fit his chronological age.

I was reminded of all this by this brilliant episode of Great Lives about Enid Blyton. Enid Blyton will be unfamiliar to American readers because for whatever reason she never really made it in the States despite selling all over the world, and being the most popular author in many countries. But teachers and librarians thoroughly disapproved of her because, well, they were snobs and she was popular. And whereas even now you’d be hard pressed to find a bookshop which doesn’t sell her, I never saw an Enid Blyton book in any of the several schools I attended. Fortunately my parents, despite being teacherly, did not ban Enid Blyton so I had read (and had at home) all her books for older kids – Famous Five, Secret Seven, Mystery series, Adventurous Four, the Adventure Series, Mallory Towers, you name it. Enid Blyton isn’t how I learned to read but she is how I learned to love reading.

So when he was ready I brought him some of my own Enid Blytons to read, with their secret trapdoors, and hidden treasure, and deserted islands, their dull-witted policemen, their dead, missing, or merely unpleasant parents (Uncle Quentin has a serious personality disorder), and their dogs called things like Scamper, Timmy and (rather brilliantly) Loony. He was off: he could read and he loved it. I wondered at the time how many kids had never learned to love reading because their snotty teachers had prohibited Enid Blyton from the classroom shelves.

Contrary to what the guests say the books aren’t entirely sexist, classist, and xenophobic [4]. I haven’t gone back and reread the whole oeuvre, and at this point I probably won’t, but there are many exceptions. Most obvious example is the initially mysterious and ultimately glamorous Pierre Lenoir, who becomes friends with the Famous Five early on. The Secret Seven are not upper middle class, as far as I can tell. George is, as Matthew Parris points out, one of the strongest characters in all her books (of the FF, Anne simpers, and Dick and Julian are little prigs, but George is courageous, ingenious, and highly unconventional – mark you, maybe damaged by her clearly psychotic father). And then there’s Mallory Towers: which I think were the first books I ever read with no male characters at all (I’m very curious about who read the Mallory Towers books – did the readership actually skew much more female than for her other books?) I was selective about what I gave him, but many of the books are just fine, so it was easy.

The reason my daughter’s comment seemed so brilliant to me was that she didn’t say that teaching just anyone to read was really hard. The thing about teaching a 3rd, or 5th, grader to read is that they have already not learned to read: there may well be some sort of actually internal challenge (like dyslexia), but even if there isn’t, they think of themselves as not being able to read. Darren was lucky, in that he had a pretty easy-going disposition, and was good at other things, so his non-reading wasn’t really part of his self-definition. But I did wonder, even at the time, how many kids of his age didn’t learn to read at all just because the snobbish teachers and librarians refused to stock Enid Blyton’s books...

#books #weekendreading #2020-01-05