I am teaching my six-year-old how to read. Reading isn’t about putting letters together to make words, or even putting those words into sentences, and those sentences into paragraphs. Reading is about how to translate these words and sentences and paragraphs into a story.
My son is learning how to make reading aloud exciting, both for the reader and for the listener.
For many years, as a child, I spent my weekends at drama festivals up and down the country. Dressed in the black tunic uniform of my speech and drama school, I skipped happily centre stage to perform duologues, verse, mime and improvisation.
One of my favourite categories was sight-reading. Rather like learning to type, sight-reading is one of those skills which is never forgotten, and which stands you in surprisingly good stead for later life. Taking a room full of colleagues through a report which has only just arrived on your desk can be a daunting prospect for even the most confident managers.
Sight reading at festivals was a nerve-wracking experience. The adjudicators would hand you an extract from a book, which you could read only for the time it took for you to walk steadily but oh-so-slowly to the marked cross on the floor in the middle of the room. The trick was to read the opening paragraph, skip to the end so you could be sure of a strong finish, then scan the rest of the text for long words and tricky Russian names or potential accents. Oh, the frustration to get halfway down the page, only to discover your protagonist had a pronounced Welsh lilt…
Josh and I are practising sight-reading with one of my favourite childhood books: The Owl Who Was Afraid Of The Dark. It’s about Plop, a baby barn owl, and the people he meets who show him that the dark is nothing to be frightened of, after all.
He reads it aloud to me while I make packed lunches, or start on supper. I interject occasionally to ask, ‘where’s the punctuation in that last bit?’ or ‘who’s speaking now?’ and often Josh goes back over phrases in order to make sense of the section, or simply to add a different emphasis. He has decided to use different voices for different characters, and this is helping him look ahead for where the speech marks are, to make sure he gets the right voice in the right place. When he doesn’t, and Plop inadvertently speaks in the quivering voice of an old lady, or the slightly Dick Van Dyke barrow-boy accent selected for the boy scout, we both collapse into peals of laughter.
He is learning how to read, and he’s loving it. And I’m loving it too.