Reading the Years

Janet and John

Janet and John

I learned to read with Janet and John; that is to say-I was taught using the reading scheme, Janet and John, not alongside 4 and 5 year olds with those names [although there may well have been Janets and Johns in my class]. The prose was simple, repetitive and tedious but did the trick. I recall that the satisfaction of achieving the decoding of the words was enough to motivate me. I believe the time taken to learn to read was very short, as I was very quickly moving on to the likes of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ which I was soon able to quote long chunks of, so familiar did I become with its enchanting story line.

Janet and John was of its time, the 1950s. The family was standardised mother, father, boy, girl and dog. They were white and middle class. Janet was pictured helping mother in the kitchen while John and his father did manly chores involving the garden. These were not riveting tales. Most sentences ran along the lines of ‘Run, John, run’. He would not be running to avoid the attention of the police or to save the planet but in some vague notion of play.

By the time I was myself teaching children to read, the Ladybird scheme had arrived, although the cultural and socio-economic portrayal of the characters was not a jot different. This time the children were called Peter and Jane, the dog Pat. I feel I should apologise, here and now to the children in my class in Stockwell, London who had no option but to use these books with their white, middle class nuclear family. They must have seemed as alien as the bar in Star Wars for children whose cultural backgrounds were African, West Indian or Asian and who lived in tenement blocks in 1970s London.

Later still, my own children were given ‘One, Two, Three and Away’ books, which at least had story lines-albeit surreal. There were the beginnings of some kind of diversity, with deviant ‘Percy Green’ portrayed as a naughty boy-the character small children loved the most.

When I returned to teaching after an eight year child break there was a bright, shiny new scheme. Political correctness was burgeoning and the books went some way towards addressing it. There was still a white family with a dog [‘Floppy’] but there was the addition of Wilf and Wilma, Nadim and Aneena and their families. Everyone continued to be middle class, with no depictions of unemployment or single parents, but this is to be expected since nobody wants children to learn to read using material based on dispiriting circumstances.

Since the early 90s subsequent governments have meddled with increasingly heavy-handed interventions in the teaching of reading-each new education minister eager to make their mark and overturn the previous ‘big’ idea, regardless of what teachers know and have always known. Normal well supported children can learn to read from the back of a cereal packet but get their richest experiences from real, proper books. Those from homes with little language input and impoverished bookshelves cannot.

Who can resist the lure of children’s books these days? They get better every time I visit the book store!

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Think you don’t have an Accent? Think Again!

A recent poll in The Independent newspaper revealed that the British accent is the most popular in the world.

This is an odd piece of news. For a start, who is to say what, exactly a British accent is? There are many. There is Geordie, West Country, Scottish, Brummie, Northern Irish, Kentish, Cockney, Liverpudlian, Welsh, East Anglia, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Home Counties and many more besides…

Within the areas there are also differences in accent. A trip around Scotland, Yorkshire or Birmingham would expose a plethora of differing sounds in words.

Presumably the ‘British’ accent of the study is ‘BBC’ style, although even in an organisation as large as this there have been attempts in recent years to get regional accents on to the airwaves rather than the plummy tones of yesteryear.

While it is surprising to learn that the French accent is less of a draw, it is no real shock that the Queen’s English is admired around the world. Many years ago I undertook a road trip along the West of the USA with a friend-my first jaunt to America and one that I considered intrepid, given that I would be driving an automatic car on vast freeways and attempting to join the LA traffic and cliff-hangers of San Francisco.

Part of our home made itinerary took in a trip to Las Vegas, which involved travelling across the desert. We’d scheduled in stops, one of which was at Victorville, a kind of truck stop on Route 66. We’d found a hotel [on our budget we were confined to the cheaper chains], dumped the bags but at that point, although we’d driven all day in sweaty heat, a beer seemed more compelling than a shower.

We found a simple, no frills bar which was occupied mainly with workers, mainly male, enjoying a drink after their day’s labours. The arrival of two English women provoked enormous interest, so much that we were unable to buy our own beers and were interrogated on every aspect of our personas and our trip. This, incidentally included a query as to whether we met the age criterion for alcohol [most flattering, since I was 40 at the time]. The flattery continued. ‘Ah luuuurv yer aaahccent!’ one of the admirers drawled. This threw me. Having moved about the country quite a bit throughout childhood I consider myself accent-less. ‘I don’t have have an accent, you do!’ I replied.

Every country, of course has regional accents but you have to be well versed in another language to recognise them. After many years of regular trips to France I still struggle to understand the Southern French tones, and even here in my own homely island much that is spoken with a Scottish twang escapes me-notably post match inquests from football managers etc

I don’t really have a ‘favourite’ although I must confess to there being one or two I really do not like. What are they? Not saying! What’s your favourite?

I’ve Seen the Future-Now What Was it Again?

I was standing in the middle of our garage. I am normally competent at looking for items but this time I was at a loss. During my autumn 2014 incarceration [which is documented in a previous post] a number of objects have made mysterious moves to different locations. My beloved kitchen steps, purchased by myself as a tailor-made solution to being vertically challenged had undergone a change for a different set. Husband’s initial response to an enquiry as to the whereabouts of said steps was that ‘These are better’, but a pursuit of the subject revealed that my own, preferred steps had found their way into the camper van and been replaced by these, unsuitable, usurper steps. Hmph!

To continue, I had a small hand brush in my hand and was searching for something. What was it? I could not say. I knew what it looked like. I also knew that I would need to ask Husband, who has undertaken some item location changes, where it was. But this presented a problem. How could I ask him? Because, reader, I could not think of the word for it. Horrors! I stood. I thought. The word was there, within my clutches but just out of reach, taunting me. It was no good. I would have to succumb to the humiliating act of describing the object I was seeking.

Husband was outside on the patio. We’d been removing the tiny, Brussel-sprout shaped Christmas tree that has survived its third festive period inside the house and whilst being removed to its outside home had dumped large quantities of soil en route-hence the search for the ‘thing’.

I waved the brush at him as an opening gambit.

‘Where’s the…thing?’

‘I don’t know what you mean. What are you looking for?’ This was my question. What was I looking for?

‘The thing. You know.’

‘I don’t know. What do you want?’

I sighed. I would have to describe it. ‘The sweeping-into thingy. It goes with the brush.’

He straightened. ‘The dustpan.’

Dustpan. The word streamed into my brain like a flood. Of course. How could I not have known it? Dustpan. I was horrified. The words ‘senile dementia’ flashed in alarm where ‘dustpan’ should have been.

Words constantly flee from my mind like this, provoking a combination of pity, laughter and derision from those who share my home. I also repeat myself, a trait which elicits frustration. Both of these habits are symptoms of dementia.

One of my hit reads of 2014 was Emma Healey’s brilliant ‘Elizabeth is Missing’, narrated by a very elderly woman, Maud, who suffers from senile dementia. The book is both tragic and comic and I alternated between laughter and near tears while reading it. The long suffering carers who make daily visits to Maud’s home are unerringly kind. If a long, slow plunge into senility is to be my fate I do hope those whose misfortune it is to care for me are as humane as they are!

Me! Me! Me! Me! Me!

                Whilst there is an increasing distance of years between my [proper] working life and retirement, there are still situations and occurrences that remind me of it. My last years were as a first school teacher. Seven year olds. Children of this age and younger retain an egocentric personality. They want attention. They crave praise. They want to stand out, be heard. What they patently do not want is to be ignored, especially by the adults charged with their care. The skill of an infant teacher lies, principally in managing to give each and every one of the children in their care the conviction that they are infinitely special and unique-which of course, they are.

                And what is it about adult life that reminds me of this? It is Facebook behaviour. Why? Because without exception, every post you read, watch, appreciate, scoff at has been displayed for the purpose of nurturing the ‘friend’s’ ego.

                I once shared an enormous classroom area with another teacher. There were, at any time, between sixty and seventy small children in this area, all clamouring for attention, for their shrill, little voices to be heard. As teachers we learned to capitalise on this desire for attention; we harnessed it. We used it to enhance experience. We facilitated ‘speaking and listening’ sessions. In those days we simply called it ‘sharing’. Of course there were very many tots and only a limited slot available. It was over-subscribed. Certain confident, precocious, verbose children dominated the session. My teacher partner conceived the brilliant idea of issuing ‘sharing’ tickets, like library tickets, that, once used could not be re-issued until every child had had a turn…Naturally there were, besides those who monopolised the session, some who never uttered, who had to be coaxed and cajoled into issuing a few words.

                On Facebook everyone [I do not except myself from this] wants attention. There are some who feel moved to offer up every nano-moment of their day, from what they’re cooking for dinner to what they can see from their window. There are those who feel the need to change their profile picture with monotonous frequency and elicit a gushing flow of complimentary comments. There are those like myself who post up album after album of snaps, [although I do try to keep them to a modest number-nobody is going to plough through 200 photos, wherever you’ve been]. And there are those who, in the absence of any pearls of wisdom to impart rake up quotes and sayings to share, often accompanied by pictures-flowers, baby animals, rainbows. These missives litter the screen like the pavement outside MacDonalds.

                The fact is, just like a class of small children, everyone wants to talk but nobody really wants to listen. Social networking? More ‘personal broadcasting’ perhaps?

It’s Only Words

                Does it matter if language disappears? Languages, of course have been disappearing at the rate of knots for many years. Some have never had any written form, so can only be sustained by anyone who cares enough to perpetuate them. There are around 6,700 languages spoken in the world but half may be lost before the century ends. Many would say it was a good thing, a blessing; that it might lead to less misunderstanding, more global cohesion, but our language is what defines us. It is our frame of reference and the means on which our culture rests. Cavemen communicated with their paintings on the walls, their own language, then came hieroglyphics and so written language developed in myriad directions.

                As a child at primary school, learning ‘English’ in the fifties, the exercises I undertook were very different to those taught and practised in schools today. There was nothing specific to address ‘speaking and listening’. Our early writing was ‘copy writing’. Those who’d whisked through their first set of reading books [‘Janet and John’ for me] and picked up the basics could begin their own amoebic scribbling, writing ‘news’ or rudimentary stories. We laboured over grey workbooks, completing page after page of exercises that involved completing phrases and sayings eg ‘a stitch in time saves ____’ or ‘many hands make light ____’; or we’d have had to learn collective nouns- ‘a ______ of geese’, ‘a _____ of sheep’, ‘a ______ of fish’ –or even, ‘a flock of _____’!

                Oddly, I enjoyed completing these exercises. They were like games or puzzles to me, except that I was not allowed to race ahead with them, or if I did my prize was to ‘help’ someone who was struggling, not a task I relished.

                I would guess there are few children-or adults these days who would know what the collective noun for porpoises is or what you should not put all your eggs in. But does any of it matter? I feel that it does, because the more our language shrinks, the less we have at our disposal to make ourselves understood, and misunderstandings are the cause of many of the world’s troubles.

                Texting, emails, symbols for words, abbreviations, acronyms-these are all the tools of expediency that we’ve come to expect, and from which we can never look back. This is progress. But I still say that the bedrock of language must never be dumbed down, never be forgotten, or we will have less to communicate with than the cavemen did!