Hal is now five and remembering rather than reading the texts of familiar books. The nature of the reading task appears to seem magical. His father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, explains.
A small book called Look at Me* came home with Hal from school this week. It features a picture of a boy on a bicycle on each page with a caption underneath. The captions are very repetitive. With one exception they are either ‘Look at me Mum’ or ‘Look at me on my bike’. It seems that the aim is that kids learn to recognise certain simple words from the configuration of the letters. This is not the kind of reading where you figure out what a word must be by piecing together its constituent sounds. This is just learning certain words by sight.
This is all very well in theory but it has its pitfalls. When Hal and I sat down to read Look at Me the other night at first it all seemed to go swimmingly. I pointed to the words on the cover and asked him what they were. ‘Look at Me’ he replied without a moment’s hesitation. This was a pulse quickening moment for me as it was, or I thought it was, the first time my son had ever read to me.
But then we turned to the next page. The caption here read ‘Look at me, Mum’. But when I asked what the words Hal said ‘Look at me, Mummy’. And then the penny dropped. Hal had been read the book a few times before and thanks to the usual five-year-old super-absorbent memory he could remember what each caption was. This wasn’t recognising words. It was simply recalling that a particular picture went with a particular caption. Just to be sure I wrote ‘Look’ on a piece of paper and asked Hal if he knew what word it was. ‘It’ he suggested tentatively before getting bored and going off to play with one of his toys.
All this got me thinking about what Hal must imagine the process of reading actually involves. I suspect that Hal has not yet really grasped that reading involves a kind of deciphering. I remember an occasion last year when some friends of ours who have a seven-year-old called Elliott came to stay. Elliott was reading one of the Harry Potter books and Hal was very struck when he picked up the book and read ‘Harry jumped over the fence’ (or something like that) from it. A little later, when Elliott was out of the room, Hal opened up the book and ‘read’ ‘Harry jumped over the fence’. As far as he was concerned he was reading as well as anyone.
When you don’t really grasp that reading involves deciphering I think it probably feels as if it is a rather magical process. People look at a piece of paper covered with words and by some magic transformation they know what the words are. Hal isn’t there yet, and he knows it, but he may well imagine that learning to read will be like learning to ride his bicycle. For a long time he didn’t get it and then one day, as if by magic, it all fell into place.
What these experiences have made me realise is that learning to read is about rather more than learning letters and sounds. You also need to know what kind of task you are engaged in. Until you grasp that reading involves deciphering and recognising words, it is easy to imagine that what is needed is some magical ability which you haven’t got yet, but which will probably fall into place some day soon. It is an important corner to turn, and I don’t think Hal has turned it yet.
* Look at Me is part of the Oxford Reading Tree series.