Teaching a 10 year-old to read.

by Harry on January 5, 2020

My then-18 year old daughter was home with her friends when I opened my author-copies of Family Values. After they left she said “My friends are really impressed that you’ve written a book. But I’m not really. I mean, it’s just part of your job, isn’t it? It’s just what you’re supposed to do. I mean….it’s not like you taught a third grader to read, or something like that“.

If you’ve read the book, or simply know its main theses, you’ll see many layers of irony in that exchange, and probably further layers of irony in the sense of pleasure and pride I got from it.

But actually I did teach a kid to read, a 5th grader actually, though just one, when I was 18.

I took what would now be called a ‘gap year’ between school and college, but I didn’t plan it very well, and, after a few months living in a squat in Kentish Town while working for CND, and a couple more working as a live-in nanny in Brighton, I returned home and spent my days volunteering in a rural primary school classroom with 9-11 year olds. This involved a daily (and hair-raising) commute of 12 miles each way on my bike. I enjoyed it, and at that point was planning to be a primary school teacher, so I suppose it wasn’t such a bad idea. Mostly I worked with kids in ones or twos, and normally the kids who were behind.

One 10 year old boy called Darren who lived on the nearby council estate (US = public housing project) was far behind the others in reading. Darren had joined the school the previous year and had integrated well socially – he was a lovely, cheery, lad, overweight (which I identified with) but never mocked for it possibly because he seemed genuinely to like everybody. He was perfectly on track with his maths and I realize now that he may have been dyslexic, but diagnosis was sparse in those days (many teachers – indeed many experts – believed it was not a real condition, just a mask for laziness), and treatment sparser.

I had no idea what I was doing, but every living member of my mother’s extended family either was or had been a teacher [1] and my dad, the nutter, knew a bit about it, so there were at least books about teaching around.

My strategy (if that isn’t too grand a word) was to get him to sound out words, and gradually progress to reading out simple sentences. The problem was that the books with which children were taught to read were all for 4 year olds, and he was 10 and therefore, not unreasonably, found those books dull as ditchwater (and, probably, a little infantilizing). Things improved when I gave up on the books, and started writing words and sentences for him, based on his interests. Words were short, and simple, but the sentences I made from them were (supposed to be) either funny, or interesting. Some of them were, unquestionably, rude. After that he progressed to the point that he wanted to read real books (which I was incapable of writing). But, again, the books which fit his reading age did not fit his chronological age.

I was reminded of all this by this brilliant episode of Great Lives about Enid Blyton. Enid Blyton will be unfamiliar to American readers because for whatever reason [2] she never really made it in the States despite selling all over the world, and being the most popular author in many countries. But teachers and librarians thoroughly disapproved of her because, well, they were snobs and she was popular. And whereas even now you’d be hard pressed to find a bookshop which doesn’t sell her, I never saw an Enid Blyton book in any of the several schools I attended. Fortunately my parents, despite being teacherly, did not ban Enid Blyton so I had read (and had at home) all her books for older kids – Famous Five, Secret Seven, Mystery series, Adventurous Four, the Adventure Series, Mallory Towers, you name it. Enid Blyton isn’t how I learned to read but she is how I learned to love reading. [3]

So when he was ready I brought him some of my own Enid Blytons to read, with their secret trapdoors, and hidden treasure, and deserted islands, their dull-witted policemen, their dead, missing, or merely unpleasant parents (Uncle Quentin has a serious personality disorder), and their dogs called things like Scamper, Timmy and (rather brilliantly) Loony. He was off: he could read and he loved it. I wondered at the time how many kids had never learned to love reading because their snotty teachers had prohibited Enid Blyton from the classroom shelves.

Contrary to what the guests say the books aren’t entirely sexist, classist, and xenophobic [4]. I haven’t gone back and reread the whole oeuvre, and at this point I probably won’t, but there are many exceptions. Most obvious example is the initially mysterious and ultimately glamorous Pierre Lenoir, who becomes friends with the Famous Five early on. The Secret Seven are not upper middle class, as far as I can tell. George is, as Matthew Parris points out, one of the strongest characters in all her books (of the FF, Anne simpers, and Dick and Julian are little prigs, but George is courageous, ingenious, and highly unconventional – mark you, maybe damaged by her clearly psychotic father). And then there’s Mallory Towers: which I think were the first books I ever read with no male characters at all (I’m very curious about who read the Mallory Towers books – did the readership actually skew much more female than for her other books?) I was selective about what I gave him, but many of the books are just fine, so it was easy.

The reason my daughter’s comment seemed so brilliant to me was that she didn’t say that teaching just anyone to read was really hard. The thing about teaching a 3rd, or 5th, grader to read is that they have already not learned to read: there may well be some sort of actually internal challenge (like dyslexia), but even if there isn’t, they think of themselves as not being able to read. Darren was lucky, in that he had a pretty easy-going disposition, and was good at other things, so his non-reading wasn’t really part of his self-definition. But I did wonder, even at the time, how many kids of his age didn’t learn to read at all just because the snobbish teachers and librarians refused to stock Enid Blyton’s books.

[1] Aforementioned daughter is currently a secondary teacher in a comprehensive school in the West Midlands. And just became an NEU shop steward in her school, her great great uncle having been (in 1978) President of the NUT, which recently became the NEU, further layers of irony for those who know the book.

[2] One reason may be connected to America not experiencing rationing after WWII.

[3] Something I have in common with Matthew Parris, apparently. Who is, incidentally, brilliant at this Great Lives thing – more on that another time.

[4] Don’t get me wrong. They’re pretty bad.



Nickp 01.05.20 at 3:12 pm

I read a bunch of Mallory Towers and Saint Clairs, but only because I borrowed them from my sister. I don’t think I’d have considered buying them myself—or more realistically at that age, I don’t think anyone would have bought them for me. I was perfectly happy reading books with female characters (preferred Nancy Drew over the Hardy Boys, for instance).

Timmy was obviously the best of the famous five, but I agree that George was the best of the humans.


oldster 01.05.20 at 3:52 pm

Are the bad bits of the sort that a parent can edit out in real time? I read the Doolittle books to our kids before they could read, and would have to elide certain expressions here and there. Worth it, though, for the wonderful characters.

I was once adjacent to a pair of Oxford grads, one a striving middle-class lad, the other the child of an Oxford don. They were discussing Enid Blyton, and the difference in their attitudes was as clear a class-barrier between them as any accent could have been.

So who among golden-age children’s authors did write the best girl parts? Ramsome?


rm 01.05.20 at 4:00 pm

As an American, I had not heard of Enid Blyton, but learned of her while preparing to teach a class on Harry Potter, in which we mostly read the influences and traditions that inform Harry Potter. So I found Mallory Towers. I enjoyed the series and am glad it’s on my shelf. I particularly enjoyed the scene in which the spoiled American girl gets her comeuppance by being made to change her barbaric accent, and learns the important lesson that conformity is the foundation of society. I can’t say I want to read more Blyton, but I understand how she was the giant of mid-20th century YA-before-it-was-called-YA adventure fiction. Much better than Hardy Boys or Encyclopedia Brown. It’s too bad so much of the underlying attitudes did not age well.


Harry 01.05.20 at 7:51 pm

Yeah, Enid Blyton was for striving middle class kids like me.

I’ve never read the St. Claires, which maybe I should. I bought all the Mallory Towers for myself but maybe couldn’t find the St. Claires in the bookshop (my dad used to take me to the bookshop in Friars Square inn Aylesbury every Saturday morning where I’d sit for hours trying to decide which book to get).

Golden Agers who wrote good female characters: Geoffrey Trease, E. Nesbit (both socialists). Penelope Farmer, Catherine Storr, Joan Aiken… I have read only one Malcolm Savile book, as an adult, and I was struck by its realism and the strong girls. Also, of course, Richmal Crompton’s William books, though male dominated, contain Violet Elizabeth Bott who is a force of nature and rather marvelous.

I’d say, yes, you can edit things out and, actually, if you get contemporary editions they’ve done some of the work for you. (Eg, for little kids, in Noddy the villains are goblins).


oldster 01.05.20 at 8:37 pm

I think Nesbit is wonderful — probably my favorite children’s author overall. But I don’t recall any of the girls standing out in the way that Oswald does. Maybe Elfrida from Magic Castle? The sisters in family groups have a tendency to get slotted into the surrogate mother position (as also happens in Ramsome, for that matter) — making the tea, keeping peace, consoling the younger kids, tending Baby, etc.

If we only had the Swallows (Susan and Titty), there would be no case for Ramsome, either — his ability to write girls with real agency stands or falls on the Amazons.

But on questions of this sort, my own opinion is worthless — it’s the opinion of women that I want to hear. I well remember hearing a male English Prof rhapsodizing about how Joyce had captured the real essence of the feminine perspective in Molly Bloom’s aria, and the women in the room reacting with (justified) derision.


Harry 01.05.20 at 9:57 pm

I was thinking of Bobbie in The Railway Children, but in my head the girls in the Psammead series were interesting. Perhaps I mis-remember and they were less interesting than I thought.

Nina Bawden is another. Carrie’s War is fantastic, and then there is a rather strange sequel about the main protagonists as adults, which is straightforward political thriller — Rebel on a Rock.

Rumer Godden’s The Diddakoi.

Lots of children’s TV in the 70s dramatized modern classics and many had girls has central characters (eg, in the brilliant 10-part adaptation of The Changes the whole thing revolves around Nicky Gore who, I think, only appears in one of the books). Soapy children’s TV also made girls interesting (eg Grange Hill), presumably because they wanted girls to watch. And high concept original TV dramas, especially from the commercial companies (ITV) often gave girls very exciting things to do — Liz in Timeslip, and Elizabeth M’Bondo in the Tomorrow People, have much more to do than the female companions in Dr Who pre-Liz Sladen. Ok, maybe I’ll start a thread on Timeslip and the Tomorrow People soon…


Kiwanda 01.06.20 at 12:02 am

Not “adventure” fiction exactly, but Beverly Cleary’s books about Ramona, and about Henry Huggins, are quite pleasant and engaging, if I remember correctly, and about kids; Ramona grows from 5-ish to 10-ish in her series I think.


Nickp 01.06.20 at 1:32 am

I’d say, yes, you can edit things out

I have discovered that you can sometimes edit the sex of characters, when good female characters are missing. When I read Lord of the Rings to my kids, they initially thought Merry was a girl’s name. I went with it, and it wasn’t too difficult to change pronouns on the fly. It didn’t make much difference to the story (e.g. the witchking prophecy works just fine if Eowyn and Merry are both female), and it kept my daughter happy.


odaiwai 01.06.20 at 2:35 am

I recently read through “The ([A-Za-z ]+) of Adventure” books with my 9 year old daughter, and I noticed that they seemed to be a little less ‘colonial’ than when I read them as a child back in the 1970’s. I get the impression that they get updated every so often these days as some things that were acceptable back in the day are not acceptable now.


Neville Morley 01.06.20 at 7:57 am

I was a fan of Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine books when growing up, and would say that the series as a whole fits with your impression; the female leads were just as active and vividly drawn as the boys, the settings were very realistic – and he did wrestle with the problem of a series written over thirty years in which adventures could only happen during school holidays and yet the protagonists weren’t supposed to age more than five years or so, rather than just ignoring it – and the depictions of places and countryside are excellent. The odd thing is that, while most of them were reissued in paperback in the 1970s, the first one never was, so I have never read ‘how it all began’.

There was also a spy series for slightly older children; only ever read one of them, that the local library happened to have, but it was very good.


derrida derider 01.06.20 at 8:28 am

Oh, compared with the passion of my own early reading days – the Biggles series – Ms Blyton’s books (a lesser passion) were models of enlightened inclusion.

Consequently they have aged much better than Biggles – I was quite relaxed with both my kids (1M, 1F) reading them. And they are undeniably well written and well constructed.

On class, the FF are very clearly lower middle – children of undistinguished professionals, say.


Ray Vinmad 01.06.20 at 11:27 am

This is a remarkable story.

When I stumble across the books that grabbed me at that age that I vainly try to foist upon my children, it’s a strange thing to remember what it was like to read as a child.. Books were vastly more arresting and intense even before I was a skilled reader. What has happened to my brain? Children must read differently than adults.

I mistakenly think the books that will grab my kids will be the ones that grabbed me. But they rarely are! The one childhood obsession I’ve been able to pass on are myths and fairy tales.


Doug K 01.06.20 at 9:22 pm

I read Blyton as a boy in South Africa, graduating from Noddy to the FF and SS books. They were definitely a gateway drug to reading. Never even heard of Mallory Towers oddly, may be due to a lack of sisters.

Read the updated Noddy goblin-replaced-golliwog ones to my boys. They never really took to these stories, Artemis Fowl was their preferred fantasy (it has a strong female character, though a fairy).

Just watched the 2016 Swallows and Amazons movie, which is rather a botch, except for the casting of Nancy. Seren Hawkes was a terrific Nancy and I wish they’d made more faithful adaptations of the S&A stories..


Helen 01.06.20 at 10:59 pm

You have all neglected my favourite childhood genre – pony books! They’re full of excellent female characters, who exhibit strength of character, rehabilitate rogue ponies, rescue neglected ponies, overcome hardships of various kinds and of course are kind to animals and other people. There were generally one or two female villains as well, usually portrayed as having more money than talent, who would generally lose the winning rosette to the struggling heroine or whatever.
Norah of Billabong station, an early 20th century series, is super awesome but holy moly, is that ever a series to approach cautiously re. how much you’d expose to your kids. A portrait of rich white colonials in all their blissful ignorance if ever there was one.
Christina of K.M.Peyton’s Flambards series.
The female protagonists in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s books – Secret Garden, Little Princess.


Helen 01.06.20 at 11:02 pm

…Oh, I forgot – going back even further in time – Edith Nesbitt’s Judy, in Seven Little Australians and Judy and Punch. In Edwardian Australia, this fierce little proto-feminist dumps her little brother on her military dad so that he has to do the unthinkable – childcare. In Judy and Punch, she goes on the road. Of course, with this much fire in the belly, she had to be killed off.


SamChevre 01.07.20 at 1:25 am

I’m American, so didn’t grow up with Enid Blyghton–but an English consultant (who was very Indian) I worked with gave me a copy of “Five Go on a Strategy Away Day”; I’m not sure which of the writers would like it best, but it’s hilarious.


Joey 01.07.20 at 12:15 pm

I too loved Enid Blyton, and the Hardy Boys, and Amazon Adventure , etc. My parents never discouraged reading of any sort and I think that that was the right way to go. That said, there was a point when I was around 14 and I had not read anything particularly literary and my mother suggested I read Anna Karenina “for a change”, which resulted in a kind of turning point for my reading habits.
I remember reading a few years ago the results of some survey of readers which found in practice that there were really only two kinds of readers, “low brows” and “omnivores”. That seems to indicate that the “high brow” reader is almost entirely a myth.


oldster 01.07.20 at 7:14 pm

Helen @14 —

Perfect — that’s exactly the sort of thing that I was aware of not knowing: a whole genre of female-centered literature that I simply had not read.

I wonder, come to think of it, whether the US-based “Babysitters Club” series was a bit like that?

(These are whole genres predicated on deep structural gender-biases, like “girls take care of babies,” or “girls like ponies,” but the upshot is that within those circumscribed premises there is a rounded world of female characters, heroes and villains and everything in between, all interacting with each other, with male roles distinctly peripheral and Bechdel-approved. It’s a paradox, init?)

Somehow I forgot about Streatfield and her “Shoes” series. Paulina, Petrova, and Posey are all interesting characters, and their struggles to become wage-earners on the stage (or to work with auto engines instead) are taken with full seriousness.

“Seven Little Australians” seems to have been written by Ethel Turner, not Nesbit. But it sounds great–I must find it!


Harry 01.08.20 at 12:25 am

This new genre, which must be approved by the estate because they use her signature, of Five books, that SamChevre is referring to, is hilarious. Five on Brexit Island must have been a lot of fun to write, but may not be such fun to live…


Tom 01.08.20 at 2:47 pm

Jeez, Enid Blyton, that was her name! I have always remembered reading some books in my grandma’s house (southern Europe) when I was a kid (maybe 8 or 9 but not really sure) and thoroughly enjoying them* and that the author had a weird name, at least for me. But my grandma moved out of that house and I never got a chance to go back there and look for those books (soon afterward I also started reading what I, and my teachers, considered more “important” books, usually part of the curriculum at school). But I had wondered in the past if I had dreamed about those nice books (and her author’s name, I remembered she was a woman) or if they did indeed exist: apparently they do!

In any event, plausibly nobody cares about the memory lane of an anonymous poster, but I agree with your implicit point: for somebody who does not read much, any reading is better than none.

*I was completely ill-equipped at the time to grasp any of the bad parts of her books that you mention.


oldster 01.08.20 at 7:11 pm

“plausibly nobody cares about the memory lane of an anonymous poster”

Well, other anonymi may. This one does.

For people of our generation, this is one of the greatest gifts of the internet: that it lets us rediscover small things from our youth, a book, a song, a castle or park, that would be impossible to retrieve without the web’s amazing storage and search capacities.

For people who grow up on the web, that will be very different. Perhaps they will never lose the minutiae of their youth? Or never yearn to recover them? I will never find out what their senescence is like.


Michael Jacobs 01.08.20 at 7:51 pm

Did anyone else get a thrill from “The White Riders” by Monica Edwards? A villainous property developer, girls and boys riding at night to thwart him, a community rises to defend its heritage….what more could you ask for?


Bill Benzon 01.09.20 at 3:50 pm

@SamChevre & Harry: But then Five on Brexit Island has been followed by Five Escape Brexit Island:

It’s a year after the Brexit vote. The four housemates and Timmy are on a visit to see their evil genius cousin Rupert. Rupert owns a chunk of the Jurassic Coast, part of which he has turned into an island and declared independence from Britain. Its fifteenth-century Dorset castle is a tourist attraction, but a computer hack puts the ancient fortifications into lockdown and plunges the Five into peril. Can our intrepid friends escape to the safety of mainland Europe?

There you go.


Tom 01.09.20 at 7:53 pm

Well, thanks for reading Oldster @22, and I agree on both of your points.


Helen 01.09.20 at 10:17 pm

“Seven Little Australians” seems to have been written by Ethel Turner, not Nesbit.

Absolutely correct Oldster, I think I kind of went into a fugual state when I saw the “Psammead”stories mentioned. Both great writers writing about independent, adventurous children.
+1 to rediscovering the minutiae of your youth. “Uncle”was one of the kids’ books I thought I’d never find again. Online secondhand bookstores are very helpful.

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