Hal is now three years and seven months and not about to spell out his name. His father, Roger Mills, explains.
Quite a while back, when we were still living in London, my wife Jo and I went along to an introductory evening at a local Montessori nursery. One of the teachers talked us through the activities of a typical Montessori day and towards the end of the presentation she showed us how they introduce children to the concept of reading. I realised I hadn’t ever really thought about how you learn to read, and my first thoughts were all about how very difficult this must be for a child. How do you get someone to translate a collection of letters on a page into a concept in his or her mind? It is a considerable leap.
The demonstration, however, swiftly revealed all. They start by showing the children a letter and getting them to learn its phonetic sound. The children, for example, are shown an ‘A’ and they learn that its sound is an ‘A’ as in ‘Apple’. Gradually they build up their store of letters and when they have learnt a few they are ready to make word. A huh (‘H’), an ‘A’ and a ter (‘T’) are put in a row and the teacher runs through the individual sounds. The sounds are then said together more quickly till they suddenly meld into a word, a word that the child already knows – ‘hat’. A picture of a hat is put next to the words and the first tiny step on the road to literacy has been made.
I was fascinated by this demonstration. My thoughts about the difficulties involved had got me identified with the child’s pre-literate bafflement and now I had a wonderful sense of the penny dropping which perhaps looped back to 41 years ago when signs on a page first turned into words for me. The main thing I carried away from the Montessori presentation was a sense of anticipation of the time when I would be able to start doing letters with Hal. Which brings us to the present.
At three and a half, Hal is certainly at an age where he can connect a letter to a sound. I’ve mentioned in earlier diaries that one of our bedtime books is Babar’s Alphabet and from time to time we look at it and I try to encourage him to say the phonetic sound of each letter. We also have a collection of magnetic letters on our fridge door and a set of rubber ones which stick to the side of the bath. Both alphabets would be ideal for making little words with, but to my considerable disappointment, Hal just isn’t interested. Hal’s friend Esme, who is a couple of months younger than him, comes round to our house most weekends and regularly sets to spelling her name and her sisters’ names on our fridge. But when I try to persuade Hal to follow Esme’s example and do his name he gives me a ‘you must be out of your mind’ look and sweeps all the letters onto the floor.
Which brings me to the uncomfortable thought that I could already have the makings of a pushy parent if I am not careful. None of us escape our upbringings, and mine placed a definite if subtle premium on success. Whilst my parents were never overtly pushy with me and my sisters – their style was not ‘Unless you come top of the class you are a failure’ – parental talk dwelt often on the failings of the children of their friends. We were always hearing that child x was having remedial maths classes, or that child y was barely capable of getting the ball over the net on a tennis court. This set up an insidious climate of expectation. While you weren’t actively pushed, it always felt that achievement was what was required of you.
And now I find myself in danger of doing the same thing with Hal. The instinct to expect achievement of him seems, unhappily, to be alive and well in me. It is, though, something that I can control. With a little effort I am able to mobilise the grown-up part of myself that recognises that if Hal learns to read six months or a year later than Esme does it is utterly unimportant. It matters if he can’t read by age 10 of course. But to be pushing him at three and a half? So my mid year resolution is this: I am going to make sure that I let Hal discover letters and words and reading at his own pace. And if he wants to just look at the pictures in Babar’s Alphabet that is exactly what we will do.
Roger Mills is a Psychodynamic Counsellor.