All aboard the good ship Jolly Phonics

I am stressed. The pressure is getting to me.  I am developing an involuntary twitch, to accompany the other involuntary twitches that have developed over the last five years of having kids, induced by a smorgasbord of calamities and anxieties such as trips to A&E, almost-tumbles into deep, tidal waters and strange birth marks that the GP informed me could be a terrible, serious condition or you know, just a birth mark. Oh yes, when it comes to the pick and mix of child-induced stresses, I feel I have scooped a fair portion of treats from those acrylic troughs of delight and stuffed my paper bag to the brim.

But this time, it is an educational-induced stress. My son, being in foundation year of his primary education, is learning to read. In my mind, it would be a joyous voyage of discovery. We would embark on the good ship Jolly Phonics, grab the oars with glee and sail off into a sea of letters, singing sea shanties of cats on mats and pins in tins, laughing and squealing at the fantastic pleasure of my son being able to decipher those curious hieroglyphics that had up until this point eluded him, and finally gain entry to the amazing world of books. I thought this, because I am a twat.

Instead, I find I have embarked on this journey with an occasionally petulant crew, no map, no oars, no idea how to steer and a burning desire that we should have taken the fucking plane instead. Because I thought that foundation year was all about play. When we looked round on the school tour and went into the foundation class room, I saw a boy intently colouring in a sheet of A4 paper with a blue pencil. Now, I appreciate that he could have put down his copy of The Grapes of Wrath moments before we entered, but I presumed that in the first year of education, colouring in and general mucking about would be high on the curriculum. After all, they are four and five. They have only just mastered their opposable thumbs, for god’s sake, and buttoning their own shirts can take the best part of thirty minutes. And frankly, I am a staunch advocate of prolonging the play for as long as possible, to enhance creative thinking skills, imagination and not having to get the parents involved in anything too taxing.

But only a week in, I opened the school bag to find a sheet of words with curious spots under each letter. I read the parental instructions. Then read them again. And once more, for luck. Still not sure I fully grasped the task in hand, but with a portentous feeling that I could be scuppering my son’s chances of learning to read with every misplaced admonishment or lack of encouragement, we started.

“a-s” he sounded out, pressing the spots diligently with his forefinger. I nodded encouragement, not wanting to interrupt his concentration by saying something.

“a-s,” he repeated.

“a-s,” he said once more. This is not as exciting as I first thought it was going to be.

“Assss,” he stated and looked at me. Now I was in a quandary. Technically, ‘a-s’ does not spell ‘ass’. But should I piss on his phonics fire so early in the process, given it was only the merest of nascent flickers as is was?

“Nearly,” I said with a smile.


“Not quite, sweetie.”

“Asss?” he repeated. Yes, why not keep repeating the wrong answer until I get so worn down I change my mind?

“Let’s sound it out again, shall we?” I offer, watching his shoulders drop an inch. Christ. There are about twenty five words on this sheet and we have to pick his brother up in fifteen minutes, at which point any hope of concentration is shattered by the piercing cries of an eighteen month old who wants in on the action.

“Shall I sound it out for you, so you can hear it?” I ask. I have no idea if this is against the rules. In fact, I don’t know if there are any rules. But I create one on the spot: what goes on in reading homework stays in reading homework. I do not want to be told off by E’s teacher for helping when I shouldn’t, or not helping when I should, or letting him off the hook too easily, or keeping him, sobbing, on the hook for too long. Bloody hell. Who knew learning to read was so bloody complicated?

“A-s,” I sounded out, trying to make it more obvious.

“Don’t tell me mummy! You told me! I know it now! That’s what I was going to say.” He placed his hand over my mouth so I couldn’t help him further, which reminded me, next time we sit down after school to do some reading, I am going to make him wash his bloody hands first.

And so we continued. E vacillated between the euphoria of reading a word, and forehead-slapping despair when the letters made no sense whatsoever, no matter how many times he pressed those buttons. I assured him that is was not important, and it would get easier, and it was all about trying, which we both knew sounded a lot like something you would say to a complete loser.

A couple of weeks later and we have progressed to four letter words. No, not those kinds of four letter words. I have muttered a few of those, under my breath, as E loses patience with himself and declares he won’t do any more. I will him to do well every time we sit down with the word sheets, so he can jump up and down with the joy of knowing that those four letters in front of him spell ‘less’ and try not to keep saying ‘no’ when he gets it wrong six times in a row. Should I be saying no? Should I dress it up as a ‘nearly’, or a ‘good try’? I feel as if I really should have undertaken some teacher training to be sitting here with my son, being partially responsible for helping him to learn to read. Keep it light and happy, I tell myself, as I watch him lay his head on the table as he gets it wrong again. I may join him at this rate.

“Never mind!” I chirp, wondering momentarily if he is dyslexic, due to his constant confusion between ‘b’ and ‘d’, then realising that no, he is just probably slow on the uptake. We both stare at the word sheet, and I try not to remember the comment from the teacher in his reading record book telling me it would be helpful if he practised his words at home. I couldn’t decide if I was more pissed off that she thought we didn’t practise, or that E was so bad at reading that it just seemed as if we did not practise. So I just ground my teeth and flared my nostrils and contemplated writing something very rude in his reading record book.

And then there’s the reading books. The excitement of having a book with actual words that he is expected to read fades rapidly in the face of his point blank refusal to read it, as it is “too tricky”. I explain that it is only tricky because he thinks it is, and if he thought it was going to be easy it probably would be, which fooled precisely neither of the two people sitting at the table. After some gentle cajoling (which may or may not have involved a bribe, I couldn’t possibly say) we start to read the book.

“N-a-n…” he sounds out. This is a new word for him, and I see him scan the picture for clues. “Grandma?” he offers. As a complete guess, it could be worse, I suppose. I ask him to try again.

“N-a-n,” he repeats. “Lady?” I take a deep breath. I once quite fancied being a teacher. Now I realise that I would be a crap teacher, as my single urge at this point is to flick his ears and tell him to stop bloody guessing and READ IT PROPERLY. Eventually, I help him with the word and we move to the next.

“S-i-t-s,” he sounds out. There is a pause. Another new word. He think about it for a while. “Acrobat?” Acrobat? Acrobat? It is wrong on so many levels I am not sure what an appropriate response would be, apart from ‘pass the wine please’. So I laugh, then realise that of all appropriate responses, that is approximately last on the list, and so we sound it out together and finally, about three weeks after we started this two-word sentence, we have it. Nan sits. Well good for fucking nan. Forget sitting, nan. What I need is a bloody good lie down.

4 responses to “All aboard the good ship Jolly Phonics

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