Learning to read

He enters this world. He’s fascinated by letters, has been for some time, but recently he’s crossed a line; it’s dawned on him that letters make words, each word is made of a particular set of letters, and if he can only learn the letters that make up words – he’ll start understanding all these signs and labels that he sees, and even all these books. He’s worked out what grownups are doing when he asks them (again) “What does that say?” And he’s started, without even quite realising it, to do it occasionally for himself. Words – or “names” as he often calls them (“What does that name say?”) – are acquiring substance. His grandmother describes a pretend-game he played – I wasn’t there – in which Wilbur the cat “lost his name”, and eventually found it in pieces in the river. Don’t get me started on interpreting that.

I watch it happen and I realise that sometimes in my line of work we’re so focused on texts that we forget there’s anything before this, and edit out his whole life up to this point. But he had all this time, in the place his little brother still inhabits and will inhabit for several more years, interpreting the world without reading text; building up his understanding through his body and his senses and his relationships and his imagination, receiving through media that are themselves the messages. I recall that in Genesis there’s a “sign” (the rainbow) before there’s a “word”. I think of all that’s happened, before he begins reading, to develop his trust in the world and its potential for meaning – of all that (perhaps) needs to be in place before he can let the “names” stand by themselves and risk getting lost or broken.

And I answer his question “What does that say?” and again share his bafflement at how the grownup world works; why doesn’t it say “margarine” on the margarine tub, when it says “milk” on the milk bottle? And why are so few of the words we see really “worth” reading out? But that’s something he doesn’t seem to mind or notice; he’s appreciating the “names” as things, he picks them up and fiddles with them as he fiddles with any unfamiliar object. “Marmite, m-a-r-m-i-t-e, it’s got an e at the end, it’s got two m’s. It says marmite again, there are TWO marmites. What does this say, y-e-a-s-t?…”