Hal is now five years and ten months and finds learning lists of words boring. His father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, explains.
In my, now very distant, gap year I spent some time in Florence learning Italian and being very sensitive in museums. My artistic ‘studies’ didn’t make that much headway, but I did manage a reasonable start with the language. One of the things that struck me most about Italian as I began to get to grips with it was how incredibly simple the pronunciation is. In Italian you can always tell what sound a group of letters will make because pronunciation is completely and unexceptionably predictable. Italian verbs may be a bit of a nightmare, but you are never going to pronounce something incorrectly once you have finally learnt it.
I have been thinking about this a bit recently while trying to help Hal with his reading. Because by comparison with a language like Italian, English pronunciation is an irregular nightmare. I can’t help but feel for kids as they try to get reading sorted out. You make some headway on piecing a word together so that you know that ‘c’, ‘o’, ‘t’ makes ‘cot’ and then you discover that when ‘c’, ‘o’, are followed by ‘m’, ‘e’ as in ‘come’ the ‘o’ sounds quite different. And if the word is ‘home’, then the ‘h’ makes the ‘o’, ‘m’, e’ have yet another sound. This must, I imagine, be pretty demoralising for the fledgling reader. Just as you are thinking that you have worked out the system, the rules suddenly change and you are floundering again. It’s made for tantrums.
Faced with trying to help Hal with this I have been wishing that I had a copy of a ‘How to help your child to read English’ title of some kind. I am not clued up enough about reading teaching to know what books of this kind are out there – I imagine probably quite a few – but in their absence I started by telling Hal that there were some things about reading that he just had to learn by heart and that once he’d learnt them he would be OK.
Bad idea. At the beginning we tried going down through lists of words he’d been given for his homework trying to memorise them. But he became very rapidly bored and as soon as he had lost interest, nothing was sinking in at all. Obviously a quite different approach was called for. I knew, in a vague way, that they did quite a lot of learning games at school, so it occurred to me that it might be possible to turn the memorising task into some kind of game that Hal would enjoy. Like many small boys, Hal likes races so we hit on the idea of a writing race.
First of all I wrote out some words we were trying to learn – ‘This is the store’ was one sentence. We both had a good look at the words and then we put them out of sight and had a race to see who could write the words out first, Dad writing left handed as an appropriate handicap. Hal usually had to have another couple of looks at the target words, but would then be able to write them out in full, and of course beat me in the process. To add a little more merriment I usually made a complete dog’s breakfast of my effort so that Hal could also correct my mistakes – another route to remembering the correct way to write the words.
I’m absolutely not saying that learning by racing is the complete answer. I once learnt Classical Greek in a kind of race with another boy at my prep school with the result that I now remember precisely nothing of it. I can see that whatever Hal learns from writing races is clearly going to have to be consolidated with reinforcing infusions of the same words using other games. But what really does make a difference, to my mind, is that because of the game aspect he actually wants to do it. After 20 minutes of our writing race I told Hal we had to stop because it was time for breakfast. ‘Oh, Dad,’ he moaned, ‘just another five minutes’. Now that is a result.