My husband and I are both bookworms. We have read to our kids since their babyhood in the hope that they would become readers too. They have grown up around books, watched us read books, slept with books in their beds. They know that books are a Good Thing. So with all this preparation, we have been keenly waiting for them to start reading books themselves.
While we are fairly – if ungrammatically – fluent in German, we both tend to choose to read in English. I have laboured over one or two German books, but seeing that reading is my main leisure activity, I didn’t really enjoy it being such hard work. For me, there is something special about reading in English. It brings me pure joy, relaxation and escape from the not always smooth or easy expatriate life. It’s my island in the sea of Germany, and it has a palm tree, white sands, a view of the sea, cool breezes and Pina Coladas. That’s how much fun it is.
When Lily started school last September, she knew her alphabet in English and could read and write a few English words. We had been loathe to teach her to read in English as the collective wisdom here is that that would confuse her when she started to read in German. We watched with pride as over the months she began to read fluently and without accent in German. She learnt to build words phonetically, as she was taught in school, and she started to bury her nose in German books.
We were thrilled, but also faintly anxious. When and how would she learn to read in English? Would we have to put in some effort and teach her? What would happen if we moved to an English-speaking country and she was behind in her reading? Should we arrange extra lessons?
Then, in May, she picked up an English book and read it with squeals of glee. “I can read! I’m reading in English! I really really am!” Cue huge, but disguised, parental sighs of relief. She really was reading, and began to read everything in sight, progressing quickly from storybooks with pictures to novels like The Magic Faraway Tree and the Secret Seven books.
Once it had dawned on me that my child really, really was reading in English, I asked her what had happened. It turns out that for the two weeks in May when our DVD player wasn’t behaving properly, all the movies that she watched were being shown with the subtitles turned on.
“Mummy, I would hear the words and then see them written on the screen,” she explained to me.
Yes, television taught my child to read. When I thought about it, it made perfect sense. I remember learning to read with flashcards back in 1970-whatever, and the subtitles had had exactly the same effect. We had primed her, made her ready for reading, but the flashcard effect of seeing the subtitles onscreen helped her to make the connections between letters and sounds.
So now when I meet earnest German mummies in the playground who like to say how bad telly is for their kids, I love explaining how Lily learnt to read in English and watching their faces drop.
I’m a bit naughty that way.