Language and literacy skills


World Book Day 2018

Apart from the fact that my mother always insisted on sensibly short hair for me and my sister, the picture above could have been me.

I love books. I’ve written before about the wonderful, illustrated book of nursery rhymes my paternal grandmother gave me when I was two years old. I can’t remember a time before books.

When we moved to Brazil, my parents briefly toyed with the idea of home educating us before deciding to send us to the local school. This meant that a few weeks after we arrived, a big trunk of textbooks was delivered. By then, we had been enrolled at the school, where we sat in formal rows, a far cry from the plowdenesque free-flow of the northern English infants classes we had left behind.

After a morning at school, I would rush home for lunch and an afternoon’s bliss with my box of books. All morning I had heard everyone around me speaking a language I did not understand. All morning I had been instructed from the front of a Victorian-style classroom. A classroom with a vast chalkboard covered with perfectly-formed italics that I couldn’t read.

Of course, before I could settle down with my books, I would have to complete a page of my own not-so-perfectly-formed italics. I didn’t even recognise some of the letters I was writing.

Anyway, once home and fed, I could while away the afternoon reading the books my parents had received via the Parents National Education Union. Two of my favourites were Andrew Lang’s Tales of Troy and Greece and the RJ Unstead People in History: From William I to Caxton.

Tales of troy and greece
Found on Pinterest

I’m pretty sure that a decades-old copy of this book is on the shelves somewhere in the house. It’s at least partly responsible for my abiding love of mythologies. Of course, I read the book many times before I found out how to pronounce Penelope or Ulysses, and many other of the character’s names besides, I’m sure.

Wm1 to Caxton
Another Pinterest find

I honestly don’t know how old I was when I found out that you’re supposed to say William the first, not William one, but it definitely didn’t happen during the 3 years or so in Brazil! I think I might not have realised before adulthood that Caxton was another William, or that he was in any way relevant to the mass marketing of printed matter.


Within a year I had read and re-read the entire PNEU curated delivery so many times that I moved on to my parents’ paperbacks. I ‘m sure that some of the John Whyndam titles I read aged 7 or 8 might have been better suited to an older child. And that some, if not all of the Wilbur Smith went over my head…

Of course, after the first few months, I was communicating freely with my teachers and peers, but the reading bug never went away.

For my sister, the story was a different one. She had not yet learnt to read when we moved, and being thrown into another school, language, and culture was truly overwhelming. She was eight when we returned from Brazil, and suffered om re-entry to the British system, too. We landed in a small Welsh primary school, relatively newly built and still under the influence of Plowden. Our tiny mixed form classes spilt into a communal area where we pretty much did as we pleased for the remainder of our junior years.


For some children, it seems to me, timing is everything when it comes to reading. Although my primary schooling was somewhat disrupted (5 schools), I was lucky that mum had the time and patience to work with me at home to support my early reading. My sister had to compete for attention with our younger brother and the school run, then the disruption of moving to Brazil and back again while she was still acquiring basic literacy skills. But it’s not that simple.

Our house is full of books. For years after we got together, neither of us would part with our copy of favourite books like Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird. By our second joint house move, we had two children, and pruning of duplicates was the order of the day as we packed, not least because of the wealth of children’s books we had acquired by then.

Our son has inherited this love of books from us both. When he discovered Horowitz, Pullman, Nix, and many others, I was thrilled to have the excuse to read these myself. I waited impatiently for him to be ready to feast on Tales of the Otori. We force-fed him Azimov.

Our daughter loved the made-up bedtime stories told after lights were out. But though she would write quite confidently (with what she called ‘goodenough’ spelling) and though she had loved picture books in earlier years, she did not have the patience to sit and listen to a shared text read to her brother by one of us. Audiobooks were perhaps the closest she came to this experience, but then she was trapped in the car.

Of course, all of this was pre-diagnosis. Like her aunt, she may not ever read voraciously for pleasure, but she will sometimes decide to read something her friends have discussed at school, or something I have left hopefully on the bookshelves outside her bedroom. She has learnt to use her extra time and to interpret exam questions. She can now access the texts she needs to learn and revise from.

I used to love taking both children to the local independent bookshop after they had received their World Book Day tokens. In fact, I was thinking of those outings rather nostalgically this week, when she brought me down to earth with a hard bump.

Did I know that they give out £14 million worth of tokens?! she asked. I thought how wonderful that was, how special to go and choose a little book of one’s own. No, she said, just think what they could do with £14 million! How many families could be fed, clothed, supported? I tried to reason with her, to say that it’s not quite the same as literally giving away the money, that the value to some children of that book was beyond the token gesture, and that the cost to the industry was nowhere near the £14 million mark. She’s not going to come around to my viewpoint here, but I can understand hers.

I’m not going to stop fighting for the rights of children to equity in education, to access to libraries and services. But today, when I walk out in the snow to pick up some groceries, I’m going to buy a few books’ worth of extra tins and dried food, and take them, with a family’s supply of outgrown coats, to our local food bank.

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