Thomas Sutcliffe

We are locked together in mutual bafflement. He doesn't know how I can read and I don't know how he can't ...

I was intrigued to read yesterday about the discovery that coloured sheets of plastic can assist children in learning to read. Actually "intrigued" doesn't really do justice to the surge of manic hope with which I read this report because I am currently helping my own son learn to read and find that there is no straw too insubstantial for me to cling to (or no notion too transparent, perhaps). What's more, the problems described in the scientists' research sounded distinctly familiar; one child described what he saw as "the letters getting up and running round the page". Substitute the word "boy" for "letters" and that is an uncannily accurate account of the difficulties I am currently facing.

In The Information Martin Amis has a very funny description of the dull ache reading practice can induce in the casually literate. The passage doesn't even have to employ any of his characteristic flourishes of fierce hyperbole - it's simply a transcription of the glacier-slow progress of the lesson, with its grinding scrape of granite incomprehension and icy paternal patience. "They were now staring at the fortress of word number two", he writes after a third of a page has been devoted to the painful conquest of and. "`Tuh,' said Marco. Later, he said, `Huh.' Later still he said, `.'

"`Well, Marco?'

"`Het,' said Marco.

`Jesus,' said Richard."

My son reverses letters in a similar way sometimes, so I take it to be a relatively common problem for novice readers. Amis also notes the confusion between "d" and "b" which bedevils - or debevils - our attempts at comprehension. And he homes in on the most difficult trick of all - compressing three separate sounds into a single smooth one. How is it that "Ah" "nuh" and "duh" combine to make "and"? It clearly can't be simple continuity of utterance. I've tried suggesting that and get a nasal Brooklyn "anudder" from my obliging pupil. "Say it smooooothly" I coax, hoping to inspire some ease of pronunciation. "Ahhhhnuuuhhhhduuuhhhh" he says, mimicking my tone exactly, but getting no nearer the light-bulb moment. He's right, of course, it doesn't make any sense at all - but for the fact that it eventually will.

Given that we are locked together in a mutual bafflement - he doesn't know how I can read and I don't know how he can't - it's hardly surprising that tempers fray now and then. In fact, reading practice has become a kind of Former Yugoslavia in our emotional geography - a location where the most elaborate and exhausting diplomacy can still break down into alarming firefights (my knowledge of the aerodynamic properties of books is definitely improving). And I'm not quite sure why such frustration should centre on reading in particular, of all the skills that children have to acquire. After all, the inability of young children to walk is a source of charm rather than disappointment - each tumbling collapse greeted with soft coos of adoration rather than a thin-lipped encouragement to "have another go". Similarly, every error of speech is treasured for its winning clumsiness - as if we regret their passage into common fluency. And while the ghastly inaccuracy of children's eating habits can make the blood pressure rise there's a material explanation for the testiness in that case (Does the Guinness Book of Records know about the adhesive qualities of a milk-moistened Rice Krispie? You could glue jet fighters together with the damn things.)

Not being able to read, by contrast, messes up nothing but your head.

Some of the intensity must derive from the importance of the task, I know (dogs can walk and cats can feed most prettily - only humans can make worlds out of letters), but that still doesn't quite account for the maddening itchiness that assails you as your child stares dumbfounded at a simple word (a word, incidentally, which he may have just finished reading on the previous page). And this isn't simply a private anxiety - it finds public expression in the continuing debate about the best methods for teaching reading - a debate sometimes conducted with a ferocious sectarianism. I can only offer some theories - that the parent knows what riches lie on the other side of the door but is powerless to push it open; that we still recall somewhere the intimidation of opaque signs and feel an unconscious discomfort at being so close to illiteracy; that parent and child recognise the large separation that will be marked by independent reading. My son, I'm sure, suspects that if he learns to read we won't read to him anymore - and though I assure him that this isn't the case I know that some of the urgency of my desire is because of the wonderfully absorbing space books provide - a sponge to help soak up some of that unrelenting monsoon of curiosity. But whatever the cause it remains an unusually fraught task for both of us - one which requires larger reserves of patience than I always have to hand.

The Roman lawyer Quintilian, who wrote the Institutio oratoria, a vast educational treatise which became the Renaissance's closest equivalent to a National Curriculum, argued that children should be taught to read as early as possible, but he conceded that there was, even then, some controversy over the best procedure: "Some hold that boys should not be taught to read till they are seven years old, that being the earliest age at which they can derive profit from instruction and endure the strain of learning." There are days - coloured plastic or no plastic - when this procrastinating approach looks extremely appealing, though I confess that it's my own endurance I'm worried about, not the child'sn

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