Clare Mackintosh: Listen with Mother

"Listening to a non-fluent reader makes me want to rip my own ears off and use them as bookmarks."

"Listening to a non-fluent reader makes me want to rip my own ears off and use them as bookmarks." - Credit: Archant

Now my children can read to themselves, why don’t these unwittingly ungrateful offspring read to me?

My heart filled with joy the first time one of my children asked to read their school book to themselves, instead of reading aloud to me. Not (just) because it was an indication of how far they had come, and not (just) because it meant I could instead make packed lunches, locate a lost pair of trainers, and work out how to magic some supper out of a packet of bacon, a tin of chickpeas and some leftover roast potatoes. My buoyant mood stemmed instead from the sheer relief that I no longer had to sit at the kitchen table, listening to a child stammer their way through the Magic Key series.

I love being with my children. I love reading. Ergo, I should love listening to my children read, right? Not so. I take my hat off to primary school teachers, because listening to a non-fluent reader makes me want to rip my own ears off and use them as bookmarks. “Sound it out,” I’d say to a then six-year-old Evie. “K - i - t - t - e - n,” she’d say, confidently. “Brilliant!” I’d cheer. “So what’s the word?” A moment’s silence, as she’d scan the illustrations hopefully. “Cat?” “Not quite!” I’d trill, through gritted teeth. “Let’s try again.” On and on, it would go, my jaw spasming from too much engineered smiling.

With three children all born within 15 months, evening reading was a production line affair; twins Evie and Georgie first, then their older brother, his seniority meaning chapters instead of pictures; books an inch thick, instead of pamphlet thin. Even then I struggled.

“Oh. No. Cried. Mum,” Josh would intone; the most exciting story rendered dull as ditchwater, by his laboured diction. “Oh no!” I’d repeat, leaping up with an expression more fitting of a Hammer horror film. “Hear the difference? Read that bit again.” “Oh. No. Cried. Mum.” I was beginning to know how she felt.

I am not blessed with patience. In this respect I am very much like my father, who drew huge pleasure in carrying out science experiments with his older grandchildren, but never knew quite what to do with a toddler. Not for me the baby days, or the faltering steps of an almost-walker. Sweet, yes. Amazing, yes. Interesting? Not so much. And so it is with reading. After that first term at school, when their transition from non-reader to reader seemed like alchemy, I found the reading journey more chore than pleasure. A necessary path to follow, in pursuit of fluency.

But when they got there… oh what a joy! Finally I could listen to their reading without a fortifying swig of Pinot Grigio; without straining to hear the words, or make sense of a sentence lacking audible punctuation. Finally I could see the results of my Hammer horror acting; my children looked up as they read, they smiled, they laughed, they used pauses to build suspense. They were storytellers.

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Now that my children are older, I am no longer obliged to sign their reading record beneath a suitably enthusiastic comment. Their reading is ‘self-guided’; they choose their own books, read every day, and write a line or two about each story for their teacher to review. They are confident, articulate readers with eclectic literary tastes and a vocabulary to match.

“Will you read to me?” I asked Josh the other day. He looked up from his book; smiled politely. “I’d rather read in my head,” he told me. “If you don’t mind.”

But I did. I remembered those afterschool reading sessions; the chores neglected in favour of books. I remembered the rare opportunity they gave me to spend time with just one of my children. I remembered the weight of a small body in my lap, and the tickle of their hair on my cheek as I leaned forward to see the page. I remembered it all. And I missed it.

Follow Clare on Twitter: @ClareMackint0sh