A sneaky way of improving literacy

Now I’m unusual.  I was reading the Telegraph at the age of six and had the reading age of an eighteen year-old when I was eight.  But that’s down to flashcards and a mother who thought that all two year-olds should read.

For a gentler way to inculcate literariness (try saying that after some festive spirit) you can’t go wrong with having Radio 4 (or Radio 4 Extra, for the digitally inclined) playing in the background.  All the time.  Even when those irritating Ambridge folk start whining about, well, everything.

Because, while I was able to decode from an early age, context and meaning matter a lot.  I was brought up in a different age and, for some of my childhood, in a different country.

There wasn’t too much telly in the sixties, and certainly very little British content in Dusseldorf, Kuala Lumpur or Lahore, so we read a lot.  Or swam, or ate too much playdough and were sick, or played in the piles of cement around the blocks of flats and got it everywhere…

And then there was Swaziland, happy mountain kingdom nestling between mighty South Africa and Marxist Mozambique.  I lived here from the age of 11 until I was 13 – for my holidays from boarding school, at least.  In the mid-seventies, we didn’t have TV at all.  It was SABC or Springbok Radio, or a trip to the cinema.  And radio was very, very old-fashioned, like Britain or America in the fifties.  SABC was the public provider: programmes were modelled on (and sometimes taken from) the BBC Home Service.  Springbok was the commercial provider: programmes mostly imitated their American equivalents.  “Jet Jungle is brought to you by the makers of Jungle Oats and Black Cat peanut butter… and now for Squad Cars, sponsored by Chevrolet, the nation’s favourite car…”  There were children’s programmes, game shows, adventure series, comedy programmes, soaps, plays, serialised books and a great deal more.  There is a difference between being glued to a telly and having meaning spelt out for you, and radio programmes that allow you to play – or even read – and leave your imagination to add colour and detail.

Finally, there was Paris.  I learnt my reasonable French, in part, from gawping at local TV: they were running ‘Countdown’ (aka Chiffres et Lettres) years before us.  And Valerie Giscard d’Estang was a gift for a would-be French speaker, because he spoke so slowly and patronisingly to his plebeian people.  Hearing John Wayne drawl movingly from the foot of the cross in The Greatest Story Ever Told, “Vraiment, il était le fils de Dieu,” both informed and hugely amused me.

But Paris, most importantly, introduced me to Long Wave.  Those radio signals loped easily across the flat northern French landscape to our house in Feucherolles with a daily delivery of Radio 4.  From the age of fourteen, I learnt to cook at the feet of Sue McGregor, about gardening with Bill Sowerbutts and Professor Alan Gemmell, about the world with From our own correspondent, and about countless books and plays with the prodigious programming of this brilliant public service.

It is no accident that I was the highest scorer in a UK children’s general knowledge competition at the age of 15.  Nor that my daughter, in turn, is a ferociously articulate and generally knowledgeable young woman.  This morning, as I began to type this, she was in the bath with Saturday Live playing.  On Radio 4.

A caveat.  The clever people at Radio 4, progressive and permissive to a woman and/or man, believe that it is alright to broadcast age-inappropriate content at a time when children might want to listen.  I remember listening to an afternoon play with my daughter when she was six (we were painting fence posts together) and having to run for the off switch as the invective poured out.  It’s NOT OK to broadcast content like this as it excludes the next generation of listeners, whose education actually matters more than ours (given that the BBC’s mission includes education).  And it took a child in my class last year, talking to a parent who produces television programmes, to point that out.  “Please don’t include swearing in your programmes because we want to watch them.”

ps anyone unfortunate enough to catch Simon Gray’s play, Otherwise Engaged, will have been treated to various examples of age-inappropriate language. I’ve complained and look forward to hearing the response.

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