Learning To Read On The Day You're Born

          I remember my mother being horrified by a woman she met at a bus-stop, who complained that her ten year old son’s school was always ‘belly-aching’ about his low reading age.
          “What’s the matter with ‘em?” the woman asked. “He’s got until he’s sixteen to learn to read.”
          The woman shared what it seems is a common view – that reading is something learned during school hours, beginning at the age of five.
          I shared this view until recently. I believed I started learning to read when I began school
          I picked up reading as rapidly as it’s possible to do so. I don’t remember having any difficulty with it. Even such traps as ‘ough’ being pronounced ‘off’, ‘ow’ and ‘uff’ in different words didn’t hold me up for long, so eager was I to be able to read stories for myself.
          I was a very bright kid, eh? Ten out of ten, a gold star and a tick for me!
          Well, I was a bright kid, but I now think that my ease in learning to read had little to do with my being bright, nor did I start learning when I began school.
Michael Halliday
          In fact, most credit is due to my mother, and her surprising grasp of Functional Grammar (despite never having heard of it.)
          I’ve been hearing a lot about Functional Grammar lately, mostly from my cousin, Alan Hess, who teaches English in German speaking Switzerland. (You can see Alan's blog about FG here.)
          Functional Grammar is based on the ideas of Michael Halliday, and aims to teach foreign languages – and that foreign language of shapes called ‘reading’ – in the same way we all learned our first language. That is, by constant repetition and encouragement, by constant gentle correction, and the example of our peers and elders.
          We are, above all, social beings. We all want to fit in, to some extent, even the loners among us. Among ‘the lads’ a young man will swear, fart and swagger, to fit in. But that same young man, at his grandmother’s funeral, is very unlikely to behave in the same way. Instead, he will be demure and polite – to fit in.
          Language and reading, like getting rat-arsed and attending funerals, are social activities.
          Reading is a social activity too. I did not start learning to read at school, aged five. I started learning to read as soon as I could sit up, when my mother put a drawing pad in front of me, wrapped my fingers around a crayon, and showed me how to draw a cat.
          She also let me play with books (though she considered them almost sacred objects.) She let me use them as building blocks and tunnels for toy cars. So I learned that books were every day play-things.
          She bought me books and read aloud to me every day, following the words with her finger as I watched. Together we studied the pictures and talked about them.
          I learned that reading and being read to were pleasurable activities. And also, that enjoying books and reading was a way to please my mother.
          Both my parents loved books. Our house was crammed with reading, with bookcases to the ceiling in all rooms, and books piled on the stairs, on window-sills, under beds. My father read aloud to me too – he used to read out extracts from Jerome K Jerome. If I asked him one of my endless questions, he would often answer it by taking down a book.
          So I learned that reading was an adult thing I could aspire to: and that the answers to most questions could be found in books.
So is it any wonder that, at five, when I began school, I was powerfully motivated to learn to read? And that I approached reading lessons with the most positive of attitudes. Reading, after all, was not strange or difficult – it was something that my parents did every day, with great enjoyment. Gimme that John and Janet book! I’m going to crush reading!
          I was fitting in with my social group - my family. There are few more powerful spurs to learning a particular behaviour.
          My parents followed my reading progress with great interest, and encouraged, applauded and boasted about it. I was rewarded with stories, which I loved, and with more books. Is it any wonder I rapidly improved?
          In fact, my whole upbringing was designed to produce a child who wanted to read, and found it easy to learn. The hours spent drawing with my mother had practiced me in observing and memorising shapes. The hours of listening to stories had familiarised me with the shapes and sounds of many words, with narrative conventions and common phrases – which enabled me to guess at whole phrases from their context. Because I had been read to so much, I started school with a larger vocabulary than most five year olds. My parents' approval gave me a strong incentive.
          And, at a certain point, reading becomes its own reward – The Little Mermaid, (Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest of cornflowers and as clear as crystal…) The Jungle Books, Black Beauty…
          By contrast, I always struggled with maths – and so did my mother. Her attitude was, ‘I was always hopeless at maths. You’ve got that from me.’ I gave up on maths, much as she did. Now, in the light of Functional Grammar, I think this is more than a coincidence. Maths didn't offer me the same incentive scheme!
          Now remember that boy who had until he was sixteen to learn to read? I wonder what the attitude to books and reading was in his home?
          It’s very likely that there were no books in his house, and that he was never read to, or told stories. So when he began school, he was already handicapped compared to children from homes like mine. He had no familiarity with paper and pencils, no familiarity with the shapes of letters, or with phrases such as, ‘Once upon a time there was…’
          For him books were objects kept at school, and given out during lessons. Reading books was something that his family didn’t do. It was a difficult, and therefore wearisome, chore that he was made to do at school – a humiliating task that he stumbled through while the teacher criticised and bored classmates yawned. He would have struggled to see the point of it.
           And in rejecting reading and finding it 'boring' and 'stupid,' he was fitting in with his social group, his own family who, judging by his mother's bus-stop conversation, placed no importance on reading.
         Yet, when he was slow to master reading at school, he was labelled 'less able' and 'less academic' (and quite likely, in the privacy of the staff-room, a 'thicko'.) In fact, he was probably just as able, intellectually, to learn reading as I was, had he only recieved the same incentive, encouragement and reward from his social group.
           You learn to read when you go to school? – No. You start learning to read on the day you’re born.