Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Easy as ABC? - Elen Caldecott

I don’t consider myself to be an educational writer. By this, I mean, that, for me, the story and characters are the most important thing. I don’t worry too much about vocabulary or reading attainment or key stages (in fact, I don’t really know what a key stage is...) In short, I don’t worry about the reader; I just try to make the stories the best that they can be.
I’ve just spend a really interesting week with my youngest brother. We went on a camping holiday. It rained a lot. He is learning to read at the moment, so while the rainclouds hid the sea, we huddled up in the tent with a big pile of beginning readers. And it was a very interesting experience.
I don’t remember the point in my own life when the black squiggles on the page turned into James and the Giant Peach, or the Little Prince, or the Railway Children. For me, it just happened and it was magic. My brother is finding it a much harder struggle.
There were loads of things I noticed about him, as a reader, that might well find their way into my own writing.
The sentence The thoroughbred sought the trough and thought of oats didn’t appear in any of his books (in fact, I fear for the sanity of any author who would use such a sentence). BUT, each of those words did. And they all had him open mouthed in disbelief. As did any homonyms; ‘But it doesn’t make sense’ he sighed at my side (see what I did there?).
There were also words that literally made him throw the book on the floor. ‘Q? Q?’, he yelled, ‘How does queue spell Q? It doesn’t make ANY sense!’ He has a point.
I tried to help him break up difficult words into smaller ones (phonemes? Or am I getting that confused with something else?). And, there were some wonderful moments where the English language seemed to take on the truth and beauty of maths. Any words ending in ‘ly’ or ‘ing’ could be broken up and reassembled like algebra; (sm)+(ugly)=smugly; (jumping) – (ing) = jump.
You often get told, as a writer, not to use repetition, outside a picture book. But, once a word had been conquered, it was a delight for my brother to meet it again - and soon. ‘Invisible’ was an implacable foe at the beginning of a paragraph; meeting it again three lines down, it was an old friend.
The foolishness of English spelling will come as no surprise to any of you. But I think, as we become bibliophiles it is easy to forget just how alien the physical words can be. It was a bit of a revelation listening to a child struggle with something I play with everyday. I’m not saying I’m going to forget about plot and character and all that jazz, but I am going to try to remember that turning squiggles into stories ain’t as easy as the Jacksons would have us believe.
P.s. the picture is of my brother in the sea during one of the few gaps in the rain!

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Anne Cassidy said...

Elen I don't know if you've ever worked with the Barrington Stoke people but that is a true eye opener and joyful process. You write a story and then work with a language advisor to remove any language hurdles while at the same time retaining the essence and flavour of your story. They are great.

Nick Green said...

I'm just reeling from the revelation that you have a brother so young!

Elen Caldecott said...

Don't worry, Nick, I am not some teen protege! My parents both remarried so I have lots of (much younger) steps- and halfs-!

karen ball said...

I still feel riddled with guilt that as a teenager I was so appalled by my youngest sister's inability to spell that my reaction made her burst into tears and run from the room. Still, she had the last laugh. She passed accountancy exams and I have a fear of numbers and cannot even work out restaurant bills.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

what a lovely experience... sitting in a tent with the rain hurtling down, reading with your brother. I'm sure it'll be a keystone memory for him.

Catherine Johnson said...

Lovely post! It's often so hard for those of us who read easily to understand what it's like for those who can't.

Stroppy Author said...

Like Anne C above, I writer for reluctant readers and that awareness that every word must be worked for (and so must offer a reward, and earn its place) is vital. And like Nick I marvel that you have such a young brother!

Anonymous said...

From Sue Price :- I spent ten years as a volunteer with an adult literacy (or illiteracy) group, many of them foreign. They too were constantly thrown and bemused by English spelling. I found it helped somewhat to frankly admit that English spelling made no sense at all: you just had to learn it by rote. When they no longer felt that there was some rule they were failing to understand, they seemed much happier.