Tuesday 5 January 2010

The Royal Society, Tommy H, and the Matter of the Hinternal Combustion Engine

LEGSSo, Wendy,’ said A, arranging his six feet of lean muscle on my very inadequate chaise longue, ‘How do you teach someone to read?’
We had been listening to the first of five of Melvyn Bragg’s magnificent round table discussions on the foundation of the Royal Society.* A, among other things an embryonic scientist, listened with interest as the narrative unfolded of the foundation of systematic scientific enquiry in Britain.
Somehow our discussion leapt on to my own early days as a very young teacher (twenty going on twelve…) when – trained to teach art and history – I was faced with a class of eleven year olds in a sink secondary school. There were two streams, A and B. I was given the B stream, only fifty percent of whom could read or write at all adequately. The A stream – not much better - was taken my new friend Anne, an accomplished musician, who came at the same time and thought she was here just to teach music.
I loved these kids, They were funny, anarchic, bubbly, hard to contain. In a year I learned so much from them. They were very helpful. One day, when I showed my exasperation at the noise, ‘June ‘– round white face, black bobbed hair - told me, ‘You should do what our last teacher did, miss. Put Cellotape on their mouths.’
Young as I was, I learned very quickly that I could survive by dint of hard work, a sense of humour, and by seeing these eleven year olds as individuals needing good feedback to make any progress. Liking them was half the battle. (In my teaching career i met quite a few of teachers who didn’t like children…)
Despite ‘June’s’ kind advice I managed without the Cellotape and gradually they got used to me. They listened, talked, and worked with stunned interest at the odd things I asked of them. One of these things was to sit quietly and listen as I read to them a whole range of stories. The other was what I called my Friday Lecture.
On Friday afternoons, when we were all exhausted, each week a member of the class took a turn to give us a lecture on anything they chose: it might be keeping rabbits or their favourite football team, a pop star they admired or the people who lived in their street. I often supplied them with visual aids and helped them of they stumbled a bit in their delivery .
Now in this class was a charismatic boy called Tommy H. He had this large white elliptical face topped by hair sticking up like a yard brush. He was quite chunky and - this being a non-uniform school - he wore a tweed jacket that was a bit too small. He couldn’t read but he wrote very swiftly - pages of writing that would have been more at home on an Egyptian tomb than in an English schoolbook. I would call him over and ask him to read the pages to me. He read them fluently and they had syntax and meaning. Dyslexia had not been indentified in those days but he was prime example of this condition – often intelligent but non-reading. Then, he was just labelled as illiterate and of low ability.
When his turn came to give the lecture I asked him what his subject would be he said, ‘Well, miss, I’d like to talk about the Hinternal Combustion Engine.’ Tommy put aitches in front of most vowels.
‘Do you want any help, Tommy? With pictures or anything?’
‘No. Miss. I’ll manage.’
That lunchtime he came in early and drew on the blackboard, in coloured chalks, a picture of a car engine in perfect detail. In his lecture he patiently explained to all of us how an internal combustion engine worked. It was the first and only time anyone has ever explained to me , with any clarity, that arcane process . The class enjoyed Tommy’s informative lecture and he was treated to a loud and long round of the applause. The head teacher popped his head around the door and asked, ‘Is everything all right, Miss Wetherill?’
It was. After the year most of those children left my class being able to read and write. Tommy made all kinds of progress and went on, I am sure, to be a successful adult. I survived.
P1150891I was still thinking about Tommy when A asked me this question about reading. ‘So,’ he said ‘How do you teach someone to read?
I took a deep breath and launched into the familiar mantra
‘You need to know they can hear words in all their distinction – this needs lots of story and conversation. Lots of speaking and listening. They need to know how books work and what they are for. Some children arrive at school having experienced all this at home. Some children with this background almost teach themselves to read. But if this hasn’t happened at home then it needs to happen at school.
Most children recognise the shape of some words and know their meaning. Most children can read McDonalds. They recognise the word and its meaning almost from their first hamburger. They recognised that it as a shape – like a chair has a shape. They collect lots – even hundreds - of words like this, through the shape. These shapes have sounds and meaning. They know that. Then you show them the magic! You help them begin to learn that they can build up any word in writing, de-code any word in reading, by understanding the range of sounds offered by each letter and blending them.
Magic! One day you can’t do it on your own. The next day you can.’
‘You’re right,’ says A. ‘It’s a kind of magic really.’
*The Royal Society started as an "invisible college" of natural philosophers who began meeting in the mid-1640s to discuss the ideas of Francis Bacon. Its official foundation date is 28 November 1660, when 12 of them met at Gresham College after a lecture by Christopher Wren, the Gresham Professor of Astronomy, and decided to found 'a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning'.


  1. Magic, it really is.

    I love your post.
    It brings back fond memories.

    My number two daughter Io, came home from school on her first day very put out. She wanted to know why she hadn't been taught to read in a day.
    Of course because we had always read to her and modelled the valuing of books she literally read in the next few days. By the time she was 8 we struggled to keep enough reading matter up to her, by then she could put away hundreds of pages a day.

    In comparison Lu, the baby of the family, struggled. I had the pleasure and privilege of being able to help her teacher in the class listening to kids read most mornings at that point.
    It was bewildering to me that Lu did not pick up the written word like my older two. I knew she was at least as clever (in fact in maths and structured thinking like chess she excelled) but somehow she just didn't quite "get" reading.
    Then one morning it clicked for me. Lu was looking for concrete fixed rules that never varied, just like her maths. I sat down with her and literally explained that in English language many rules change, but that it wasn't all bad because most of those changes were consistent in their own way.
    Lu was so relived. She stopped tying herself in knots over what she had thought were her mistakes. She was an initiate into the magic too. Suddenly it was as easy for her as it was for her sisters.

  2. Wendy, your story, and Al's, inspired me as I get ready to head back into the classroom next week. I am going to keep in mind that all kids need "good feedback to make progress" even college kids!

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