ParentsBrought to you by

‘I didn’t know who was failing – me or him’: On having a child who can’t read

Nadine Millar’s son Cormac has loved books all his life – but for a long time he just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) read them. She explains why this wasn’t as terrible as it first seemed, and tells the story of how Cormac finally learned to read.

When I was five I learnt to read. Each letter had a name and a sound. When you lined the letters up and ran the sounds together, just like magic, you could hear yourself reading. It was incredibly simple.

So it came as a shock to me when my own son, at the age of five, couldn’t do this. The shapes of letters made no sense to him; he had no idea how to decode them, and he didn’t really care. He could read by rote, committing stories to memory after hearing them just once or twice. As far as he was concerned, it didn’t matter which way up he held a book because pictures looked good from all angles.

Cormac and his sister

Reading to Bobbie, so named after Roberta from the Railway Children

For the first two years of Cormac’s schooling, I repeatedly asked his teachers for help. They looked at me with knowing eyes (pushy parent) and reassured me that boys take longer to read than girls. “Relax,” they all said. “He’ll read when he’s ready”. A few months later they changed their tune. Suddenly, it was me who was in the gun. What had we been doing at home? Or more to the point, what hadn’t we been doing? Did we know our boy couldn’t read? Didn’t we realise that he attempted to read books upside down?

There was a sudden flurry of activity. Reading recovery. A range of jaw-droppingly expensive tests. He was prescribed glasses and tracking exercises for his eyes. We booked a dyslexia assessment, the Holy Grail in the quest to understand the precise nature of our child’s learning disorder. As we waited for the results, my hope that our boy was “normal” wrestled with my hope that he wasn’t. Having a label would be an advantage. Schools can work with labels. There’d be support. He’d qualify for extra time during exams.

But the tests were inconclusive. Cormac’s wide vocabulary and his capacity for comprehension didn’t square with the fact that he read words back to front, often missing out whole sentences without affecting his understanding. When the Brain Gym specialist held up a 3D block in the shape of a “p” and asked Cormac what letter she was holding up he replied “the letter p”. When she turned it upside down so it resembled the shape of a “d”, and asked him again, Cormac raised a suspicious eyebrow and said: “The letter p. You’re just holding it upside down.”

He was either brilliant, or having a laugh. As his mother, it was impossible to tell.

Eventually, I stopped the testing and the exercises and the relentless pressure to read. It wasn’t helping. If anything, it was stripping all the enjoyment out of books for both of us. See, that’s the thing – we’d always been readers, the two of us. Like many people, my journey through motherhood can be charted from A.A. Milne to J.M. Barrie to E. Nesbit to Anthony Browne. From Dr Seuss to Margaret Mahy to Roald Dahl. Books weren’t books, but lands to escape to. The pushchair wasn’t a pushchair, but a chariot to cart our books from the library by the kilo. Bedtime came and went, but the stories continued long into the night.

Cormac’s imagination came alive between the pages of those books. From the age of two til he was about four, he wore a disgusting, tatty green singlet everywhere and declared “I’m a boy and I want never to grow up!” That phase was followed by the one where he scuttled about on his hands and knees wearing nothing but undies, insisting we call him Donkey.

If there was a prize for a vivid imagination, Cormac was a front runner. He turned the living room into a meadow and went on lion hunts. Together, we changed the endings of sad stories so they were completely inappropriate and ruthlessly funny. He went to sleep listening to stories on an old plastic tape deck, then, like a parrot, would perform entire vignettes from memory the next morning. He became obsessed with the Railway Children and named his baby sister Bobbie after his favourite character, Roberta. We still call her Bobbie to this day.

Nadine Millar reading with her son Cormac

No boy is ever too big to sit on Mum’s lap for a story

Unfortunately, school reports don’t grade kids on their enthusiasm for reading – just their ability. I despaired when this boy of ours who loved books so much, came home with a “not achieving” result in reading. This was in the early days of National Standards. The simple black and white tables were layered with so much judgment. I didn’t know who was failing – me or him. It was hard to control my panic, and the irrationality of my fears. What if he never learns to read? What if he becomes a brilliant lawyer but has to read statutes upside down?

Mostly, though, I was just sad. Our boy stopped wearing his tatty green singlet and started walking upright. School had robbed him of a little bit of his sparkle.

Through it all, I kept reading aloud to him. By lamplight, I read the books he couldn’t read himself because they were too big, the words too small, or they involved just so much effort. My parenting bible in those days was not a “learn to read” manual or dyslexia home-test kit, but a book by Daniel Pennac called The Rights of the Reader.

I read it over and over again. Pennac’s theory is that we push kids to read too soon. That by forcing them to read before they’re ready, we strip all the enjoyment out of reading for kids. Pennac says:

Our children start out as good readers and will remain so if the adults around them nourish their enthusiasm instead of trying to prove themselves. If we stimulate their desire to learn before making them recite out loud; if we support them in their efforts instead of trying to catch them out; if we give up whole evenings instead of trying to save time; if we make the present come alive without threatening them with the future; if we refuse to turn pleasure into a chore but nurture it instead. If we do all this, we ourselves will rediscover the pleasure of giving freely – because all cultural apprenticeship is free.

The whole book is infinitely quotable – a must read for anyone who has ever known the subversive pleasure of reading for its own sake. It’s a book especially for parents who are struggling with the enormity of those black and white tables that simply do not help them understand why their kid can’t, won’t or doesn’t want, to read.

Eventually, our boy did learn to read. He was about nine when he sussed it out, and he didn’t so much read as inhale books. I deeply suspect, though, that when he reads, he’s not doing it because he loves it, so much as he’s reading to find out what happens next. Which is kind of the point, isn’t it?

Cormac reading by lamplight

Reading by lamplight way after bedtime

Now, at the age of 14, he’s probably read more widely than me. He can still recite long passages of Peter Pan from memory. If I give him the first lines of “The Island” by A.A. Milne, he’ll finish off the poem because he just can’t help himself. He’s read the Diary of Anne Frank so many times that when we were watching The Chase on TV, he answered half a dozen obscure questions about the book correctly while the rest of us looked on dumbfounded.

For all of that, he still prefers being read to. If a book is available on audio book, he’ll choose that instead of the paper volume. And sometimes, he doesn’t read anything for weeks on end. I’m okay with that. I’ve come to accept that having a kid that defies labels is okay too. Ironically, we named him after the famous American author, Cormac McCarthy. He’s a writer who would probably have failed National Standards too. He shuns punctuation and writes stream of consciousness prose that defies every rule in the book. He also won the Pulitzer.

Looking back now, this period of reading-struggle only lasted about two or three years. In the scheme of things, it’s nothing. But like any difficult parenting phase, when you’re in the thick of it, it feels like it’s going to go on forever. The important thing when teaching your kid to read is not to panic. It’s simple. Line up the letters, sound them out, read. If your kid can’t do it, do it for them.

Nadine Millar (Ngāti Hine, Ngāpuhi) writes policy by day and narrative essays by night. She has three kids, one husband, a 1978 bedford house bus in fire-engine red, and is learning to crochet. She speaks Māori and Spanish, and dreams of one day being able to write the perfect bio. You can read more from Nadine at nadinemillar.co.nz

This content is entirely funded by Flick, New Zealand’s fairest power deal. In the past year, their customers saved $417 on average, which would buy enough nappies for months… and months. Please support us by switching to them right now.

The Spinoff has turned off comments. If you want to have your say on a story, please head to our Facebook or Twitter – or send a letter to the editor (we publish a selection weekly): info@thespinoff.co.nz. Thanks!