Reading between the lines?

It’s no exaggeration to say that the ability to read between the lines is certainly more difficult to master that reading itself and the question is how much it has to do with the skill of reading at all. I’m just curious.

I don’t know when exactly it happened but it’s been a few weeks since my six-year-old son started to read. I’m convinced, though, that he could read between the lines, i.e. guess someone’s real feelings, long before he became familiar with the writing system of the Czech language. Many a times he’s asked me this question: “Mum why are you looking at me this way? Is anything wrong? Are you sad?” Sorry for the diversion, this is not the topic of this post but I certainly wish the reader to read between the lines from now on.

My son turned six in April 2014. It’s not something uncommon for a child born in this part of the world to be able to read at the age of six. It’s actually pretty commonplace that many kids can read before they start attending elementary school. So reading is one of the skills whose mastering we simply take for granted. What is striking though, is the fact that like my son, many other kids (including me when I was one) learnt to read on their own – nobody had to teach them.

I remember my son recognized most uppercase letters of the alphabet very early in his life – at the age of two or three. I found it really amazing but obviously, as he wasn’t attending any kind of educational institution yet, it was us parents who had told him what sound corresponds with each of the letters.

However, later on, by contrast, I was surprised at the fact that, at the age of five, he could skilfully decode separate letters but he couldn’t decode the whole words. In other words, he could spell the words but he never knew what word he had spelled. In Czech, most words are pronounced as they are spelled. Based on my observations (as a parent of three and as a teacher), I believe that in most cases, in order to decode the whole word, the first thing a Czech kid needs to do is to join the individual letters to make syllables. I’ve noticed that once the kid is able to divide the word DESKTOP into DESK-TOP (to give an example of an English word that is pronounced as it is spelled), he knows what he’s reading. At this point something amazing must be going on in the child’s brain. With a little bit of scaffolding, he suddenly discovers the charm of syllabication rules.

My son is now able to read the titles of all the bedtime stories we’ve read to him. He undoubtedly remembers the stories, and this kind of background knowledge, together with the visual support, helps him to decode individual words quite fluently. I must smile whenever I see him trying to decode every sign we pass by in the street. Currently, one of his favourite activities is decoding what his Cini Minis box says about the health benefits of eating cereal, or how my night cream will make me look young and beautiful. The trouble is that many of the signs he comes across are in English, which makes him even more curious. He wonders why I pronounce Angry Birds or Hot Wheels the way I do; why, that’s not how the words are written.

Anyway, all this light and cheery talk brings me to a burning issue. According to the World Literacy Summit held in Oxford, UK, 2014, 775 million people worldwide are illiterate. I find this number alarming and unbelievable, especially if I realize how little it takes for a child to learn to read. With no intention to simplify or over-generalize, because this is a serious matter, all that is needed in the early stages is someone who tells the child what sound corresponds with a specific letter. But of course, motivation is what matters most. Every day my son can see his role models read books and newspapers and he obviously wants to imitate what we do because he probably believes it’s a great thing to do. Therefore my amazement is no more genuine; children in poor, developing countries don’t have parents who own shelves full of books. Their parents can’t read and they probably don’t see any point in learning to read anyway. This vicious circle makes me feel sad and I wonder: is there anything I can do? Is there anything each of us can do to improve this situation? Is it our business at all?

So sometimes, when I watch my beloved son read clumsily but enthusiastically, I realize how lucky we were to be born somewhere where education is accessible to everybody; where every child is obliged to learn to read, write, count and speak at least two foreign languages – something that is just a dream in some parts of the world. We often complain and rant about our education (teachers are underpaid and beware, they may be replaced some day, and kids get too much homework and stuff) but the fact is that we ARE lucky and we fuss about small things while there are much bigger issues to ponder and deal with. And, on the other hand, there are many ‘obvious’ things we should start cherishing.

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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