21 August 2013

My beloved newspaper

Celia Green at 18 months
I do not think anyone should think my parents were very wicked in letting me learn to read young. Once I had conceived the idea of learning to read, no power on earth could have stopped me, unless my mother had been forbidden to move her finger along the lines when she read to me, and my parents had been forbidden to answer my persistent questions about the sounds which the different letters represented. But the permissive society proceeds apace, in fact faster than I can keep up with, and perhaps by now it is accepted doctrine that any child who asks questions about letters of the alphabet before the socially approved age should be slapped down pretty sharply; and certainly not answered.

But the initiative was entirely mine. I can assure you that I was surrounded by toys of every description and even with social interaction. My mother was always bringing home children for me to play with – a few sizes larger than I was, usually, but I took little notice of that. It was simply that I found the printed word more interesting than anything else.

My investigations centred on the newspaper, which I found an object of the utmost charm. When my father read it, so would I. My first finding was that the same letters recurred. Then I would ask what sound a given letter was, and go down the page picking it out. I found out about capitals when they told me that a letter meant the same sound they had already told me for a different letter. (They were surprised I remembered). ‘Is that two letters with the same sound?’ I said. ‘It’s the same letter,’ they said, ‘but it’s a different shape if it’s big or if it’s small.’ I considered that very carefully. There was the headline with big letters all right, and the smaller print down below. But then I found one of the headline letters among the small print at the start of a sentence. ‘But that's the same shape,’ I said, ‘but it's big there and small there.’ ‘Well, it’s bigger than the others in the same line,’ they said. ‘And it comes at the beginning.’

So I knew there were two sets of letters to learn. How far I got in teaching myself to read before I was formally taught I don’t know, but it seems to me I probably could, very nearly, read before they got round to teaching me. I had a rag book to which I paid great attention, containing as it did fascinating and useful information such as ‘A for Ape. B for Bear’ - and so on. I was always asking questions about letters, and when my mother read to me I followed her finger along the lines with avidly attentive eyes.

Now I am sure you need not think my parents gave in too easily. They were very thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that children should never and on no account be ‘pushed’. But at last, my father’s ability to notice the obvious, combined with a certain natural generosity of disposition, overcame indoctrination, and he produced the really brilliant observation: ‘That child wants to learn to read.’

And so, about the time of my second birthday, an elementary reading primer was procured, and my mother set about giving me lessons, reading some each day with me. Now whether I am right that I had really by this time learnt most of the letters and picked up a good deal about reading, I don’t know, but I believe that I remember reading certain things before I was two, and in particular I think I read over my comic when my mother had once read it to me.

At any rate, the speed with which I now learnt supports the idea that this systematic practice of all the various letters and combinations was all that was needed to put the finishing touch. My mother says I went through the primer very fast; the lessons lasted only a matter of days. I never finished the primer though, as I she found me reading a book before I had reached the end of it.

The book she found me reading was The Story of Peter Pan. ‘What are you doing?’ she enquired. ‘Reading,’ I said. ‘You can’t read that,’ she said. ‘Yes I can,’ I said. By this time, she says, she was very curious. ‘If you can read it ,’ she said, ‘read it out to me then.’

This, of course, I did. Still sceptical, my mother thought I might have learnt it by heart as she had read it to me more than once, so she gave me another book which she had not read to me, and I read that out too.

When my father came home, she told him, and he gave me my beloved newspaper and asked me to read him that. My mother says it was quite surprising how I rattled off the long words.

My mother, of course, had taught many children to read, but said she never knew one who leapt at it as I did, nor one who learnt with so complete an absence of transitional stages. Many children sound the letters aloud to themselves for a time; I never did this, but read silently to myself from the start.

For the next couple of years my reading matter consisted of Chick’s Own, Sunny Stories, and – the newspaper.

‘Celia Green is a person of exceptional gifts, as the above piece demonstrates.She should be given the funding to develop the many research ideas she has been prevented for decades from developing. I make this appeal to all universities, corporations and individuals who consider themselves to be in a position to give support to exceptional individuals.’ Charles McCreery, DPhil

myths about early development