Learning to Read

Six years old….

Canton, China.    My six-year-old heart was burbling with excitement.  Today I would be given my very own book with real words in it!  Today I was going to learn to read.  I rushed to our classroom – an unused room in the servants’ wing of the house, overlooking the canal (windows closed in summer because of the smell) and couldn’t wait for Mother to arrive to start the school day after a child-free second cup of coffee with Dad at breakfast.  We stood in front of the American flag the size of a bed sheet, with its 48 stars representing 48 states and pledged allegiance to an America I barely remembered.  Then — at last, at last ! — I held the book in my hand, still smelling of printer’s ink.  I opened the first page – a picture of a boy, and Mother said, “who’s that?”  “Dick,” I replied.  “You just read that word,” she said.  Oh, the joy!  I could read!  I went on to “Jane, Spot, and Puff” and pages of “oh-oh-oh” and was happy.  But when I got to “the” I was launched!  In church services I would kneel on the concrete floor with the open hymn book on the pew, poring through pages, looking for all the “the” words I could find.  What power!  The door was open into a huge widening world.

Much much later…..

Luton, England

One of the most beautiful experiences in my life was the privilege of teaching adults to learn to read.  We never used text books.  We never started with the alphabet.  We started with a learner’s own words.  I remember one Pakistani grandmother, fluent in spoken English, who had never learned to read.  I knew that she would already have a paper with her name, address, and other details secreted in the voluminous veil-like fabric that enveloped her person, so there was no necessity to start there.  One day, for some blissful reason, she and I were alone together in the classroom.  I asked her about her week.  She explained the vast preparations needed to celebrate the upcoming Eid.  Eid marks the end of Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast.   She described in detail what is expected of getting the house ready – cleaning, new bed linen and clothes, cooking and ensuring that everything is in order.  (Hmmm, maybe there was a lesson for me in preparing for Easter, I thought.)  In all her chatter she said, “For Eid we cook and clean and wash.”

A Learner’s first reading exercise….

I wrote the sentence down.

for Eid we cook and clean and wash.

I wrote her exact words.  Had they been multi-syllabic, or in past pluperfect tense, I would have written them anyway.  This was not a spelling test – spelling would come much later, and would be the words of her choice.

I pointed to the words and read the sentence out loud, several times, until she was ready to try.  She did so, saying the words, thinking quietly each time she arrived at the end of the sentence.  Then I asked her, “where is ‘clean’?”.    She started at the beginning and stopped at the desired word. We always started from the left and went to the right – the way English is written.   We worked with that sentence awhile until she could identify the specific word without starting at the beginning of the sentence.

More challenging now…

Then I cut up the sentence into words and said, “now arrange the sentence in order”.  She thought hard, then did so.  Then, “can you make the words say ‘we cook and wash for Eid’?”  The lesson continued – making different sentences using the same words, and finally letting her scramble the order, just for the fun of how ridiculous they sounded.  Later at home she would look for these words in printed material around the house.

What did this mean?

It was fascinating to watch the miracle of reading start to grow within her.  Near the end of the session, when we had exhausted all that a new brain could take in, she sat in silence looking at the cut-up words.  I respected that silence, letting the enormity of what she had just done sink in.  Here was a woman, confined to the home, expected to raise children and allow them to be educated in a foreign land.  This she had done successfully.   Some of her children had double degrees, but never thought that maybe their mother should learn to read, too.  And now, in this sacred silence, she was actually reading her own words!  The joy of the six-year-old washed over me again as I sat beside her, honoured to be here in this astonishing,  mouth-gaping moment.

Eventually, she turned, looked at me, and said, “shall we do a high 5?”

Pan Haggerty

This recipe is so simple it’s almost embarrassing. It’s more common in the north of England, has many variations, but this, the simplest of all is very, very satisfying on cold winter nights.  The word “haggerty” has the same root as “haggis”, which comes from the French haché which means “chopped”.  This won’t do much to enlighten your day, but might be good for a pub quiz sometime, if we’re ever allowed in.

Oil and/or butter, Potatoes, onion, cheese, salt and pepper.

In a heavy pan with a sealable lid * melt oil, butter, coconut oil, or a combination to coat the bottom of the pan.  Thinly slice peeled onion and line the bottom.  Season with salt and pepper.  Sliced peeled potatoes on the onions.  Season.  Grated cheese on the potatoes.  Continue with layers of  onions, potatoes, cheese until you get to the top of the pan.  End with cheese. Put the lid on.  On a very low burner, cook for 30 minutes or until a knife plunged into the middle assures you that the everything is cooked inside.  Be sure that the onions are so cooked that they melt away into the potatoes and cheese.   Or, do as I did, shove the whole thing in a moderate oven (190 C  or 375 F) until done, about 30 minutes – to an hour, depending on the size of your pan and how thinly you have sliced onions and potatoes.  15 minutes before you want to serve it, heat your grill, pop the whole pan under the grill to crisp up the cheese.  Serve directly from the pan.

*I have done this in a cast iron frying pan, and in a ceramic casserole dish, both with lids,  three times in the oven.  They are fine.  Just be sure that the ceramic can take the grill at the end of cooking.

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