Learning to read

I first learned to read when I started school, many years ago, and I’ve always found it easy. I remember one afternoon when I was around seven years old I read two Enid Blyton books in one afternoon. By the time I was ten I was reading books written for adults, and I chose my secondary school on the basis of the books in the school library.

So it was a shock today to experience problems reading.

To be fair, it wasn’t that surprising I was finding it difficult: hubby and I had gone on a one day course with the local library service, introducing palaeography, or reading old handwriting, with the idea of showing how to access old archives.

There were nine of us plus the tutor, and with her assistance we worked our way through a variety of documents, from wills to stocktaking to personal letters, dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some were easier than others, but in just about all the documents there were unfamiliar ways of forming the letters, strange flourishes that were sometimes for decoration and sometimes significant and we even came across one writer who dotted his Cs!

The most entertaining was a letter from a man to the woman he was supposed to be marrying that day, expressing his deep sadness at being unable to marry her – from what we could gather, he had lost his voice and would be unable to say his vows, but he hoped that remedies of sugar candy would restore his voice and allow the marriage to go ahead at a later date (“From your dearest husband to be. Give my love to your maid Susan”!).

I found it frustrating to have the writing in front of me but struggle to make out the letter forms, or to put the letters together and understand what word was made. Sometimes letters were left out, sometimes the spelling was non-standard and sometimes it was simply a word that was unfamiliar in modern times. A P with a line underneath it, for example, was usually short for PAR or PER, while a P with a line over it was PRA or PRE. W and V were interchangeable, and a W with a flourish over meant VER, so EVERY looked a little like EWY. One document spelt TOWN as TOWEN throughout. Often if a word was abbreviated there was a line over the top – I guess that was the origin of the apostrophe to show omitted letters in the abbreviations we commonly use, such as ISN’T.

The whole experience brought home to me how dependent we are on reading to help us in our everyday lives, how we take the skill for granted and how tough it must be for someone who does struggle with literacy. I wondered what people would think in years to come, trying to decipher some of the writing people do these days, such as B4 U GO and TY, and how consistent they would consider our spelling and letter forms to be.

I’ve just completed a writing challenge, to put 50,000 words together. I enjoy words. I enjoy the stories they can tell. I’m grateful that I can complete such a challenge, and that reading is not normally an issue for me.

And I’m looking forward to the time when I manage to get back to the library again to get back to the workhouse records, because maybe I’ll be tackling the handwriting in the documents with a little more confidence because of my experience today.

Look out for learning experiences at your local library – well worth the effort!

 

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