‘To read’ has become one of the dominant metaphors of our culture, ranging from the simple ‘do you read me?’ through all the cognitive activities of decipher, decode, unravel, observe, inspect, interpret, examine, scan, understand, to the sublime absurdities of deconstructionist criticism that would have us re-read our reading of ‘reading’.
Margaret Meek, though glancingly aware of some such metaphorical superstructure, is worried about the literal and literary base of it all: how can we better help children to learn to read? Her answer in a nutshell is that we focus on the child’s activities “the child’s most valuable first book is the personal one he writes with his teacher or his parent”, be less in thrall to methods of tuition (flash cards, initial teaching alphabets, reading skill programmes, psychological testing, etc), and more attentive to the content (interest in animals, ditties, rhymes, adventure fantasies, and so on) of what children like to read. She takes us from the pre-school infant happily sitting on a lap and turning pages at random to the young adolescent secure in an achieved literacy.
Her approach, admirably practical, concrete, and very teacherly is crystalised in the question and answer sections which foreground adult fears and anxieties:
“Are girls always faster than boys at learning to read?” “My child’s teacher says I shouldn’t teach her capital letter. Is the teacher right?” “Why are children’s books so full of talking animals?” “Should I read her comics? She likes that.” “What are word attack skills?” “I think my child reads too many stories. She is lost in fantasy most of the time. Do children’s books indulge children in unreality?” “She says her teacher says I have to know about ‘silent e’. Are there any other things like that I should find out about?” “Is there any harm in an 11 year old reading all of Nancy Drew mysteries, or does what you say about Enid Blyton apply here too? “ And so on.
Her answers, brief, to the point, and full of sensible advice, are fairly predictable and unlikely to expand the reader’s cultural or intellectual horizons. How much more interesting her book would have been if Margaret Meek had stepped back on occasion from the familiar problems of spelling, guessing words from their shape, choosing books, etc. and adopted a richer, slightly wilder, view of ‘reading’. Thus, for example, do children learning to read non-alphabetic writing – such as Chinese – experience the same difficulties, progressions, and enthusiasms? If so, this would interesting and illuminating; if not, the differences would be educative.
It is difficult to know who this book will satisfy. Its approach, style, assumptions, and format indicate that it is addressed to parents. But parents who are literate, educated, and sufficiently well motivated to read books about reading are rarely those whose children are in great need of the simple advice, assuagement, and helpful hints the book is full of. Neither do such parents need to be told that the world is complicated and full of print, that literacy is important, and that reading books can provide a “lifetime’s pleasure”. It is a pity to carp in this way, and for all one knows such doubts about her potential readership might be misplaced. In her introduction Margaret Meek offers an unusual service: “If you have a problem which you think I have ignored, do write to me.” Perhaps she will be inundated with parental queries.