10 year-old Hal’s spelling and punctuation are not on a par with his reading – much to his father’s surprise. Practice during the holidays will need to be made palatable. How can Melanie Klein help? Hal’s father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, explains.
Towards the end of the summer term Hal had to do a few exams at school. The English one didn’t turn out terribly well and Jo and I went to have a chat with his teacher to find out why. The problem, it transpired, was not with Hal’s reading. His abilities in that department are average and not cause for concern. The difficulty was with writing. Hal’s teacher showed us one of the pieces he had produced for the exam. The handwriting was very good (rather better than his mother’s if one was being brutally honest). But the spelling left a huge amount to be desired. Words like ‘attention’ rendered phonetically as ‘attenshun’. Or ‘alright’ as ‘alrite’. And the punctuation? Well there simply wasn’t any. With the exception of one lonely full stop at the very end of the piece, Hal’s writing was a punctuation free stream of consciousness. Apparently the teacher had made a point of asking the kids to check punctuation before moving onto the next task. But even this admonition had made no difference to Hal.
I had always assumed that writing would evolve at more or less the same pace as reading. As you become able to read more complex words you become able to spell them. Punctuation, I’d supposed, would follow suit. The more of it you saw, the more of it you’d use. Not so Hal’s teacher informed us and apparently it is rather normal for the reading and writing skills to be out of kilter. Hal has a friend whose reading is stronger than his (he reads the Harry Potter books to himself at speed and without effort) who nevertheless has major problems with writing and hates doing it. So reading and writing aren’t the close siblings I’d imagined, more like rather distant cousins in fact.
The message from Hal’s teacher on writing was very clear - he has to work at it over the holidays. And this has left Jo and me scratching our heads trying to think of ways in which we can smuggle bits of literary activity into his holiday life without provoking a rebellion. Bribery is the obvious first tactic we are going to employ. Hal is, perhaps regrettably, very keen on earning pocket money. There is always something that he has his eye on to buy. A super powerful nerf gun and a James Bond game for his PS3 currently head his shopping list. So we will get him writing a diary and there’ll be a financial reward for words produced.
The other plan we’ve hit on is based on another of Hal’s favourite activities - criticising me. Hal is a keen advocate of what Melanie Klein called splitting. While one parent is seen as all good, all the bad stuff is laid at the door of the other. In our household I am the designated bad guy, while Jo can do no wrong. Cunningly exploiting this unhappy trait, my plan is that I will produce some pieces of writing packed with mistakes and get him to correct them. My guess is that while Hal’s eye isn’t very sharp when it’s a question of his own errors, it will be very acute indeed when it comes to mine. I think he’s likely to get a great deal of fun out of spotting my howlers and the hope is that along the way correct ways of spelling and punctuating will start to leave some sedimentary layers in his mind. So that’s our summer campaign. I’ll report back after the holidays.