Encouraging youngsters to read

Other posts in Rhobin’s Rounds

Personally, I had no trouble with wanting to read. As a little tacker, I pulled the blanket over my head, and read a book using a flashlight. I thought it was a secret, but when I woke in the morning, the light had always been switched off by… someone.

My friend Bill Sutcliffe, the hero of my as yet unpublished series The Doom Healer, did face the problem of how to get another boy to read. Here is how he went about it.

On his very first day at school, Bill was bullied by a group of kids. Brendan was their leader. Then, the aliens abducted Bill to start him on his mission as the Doom Healer. His Charisma was activated, meaning that one look could make anyone his friend. (I know people like that.) The necessary tool is metta: unconditional love and acceptance.

Now, Bill is back, and starts on his work of improving the world, Brendan being his first client. Do excuse the obscenities, but that’s how Brendan spoke…

    “What the fuck do you want?” Brendan said.

    Bill smiled, with metta. “Make friends.”

    “Huh?” Brendan’s face lost its sneer. “Why?”

    “Life is too short for all that hostility bullshit.”

    Brendan laughed. “You sound like my grandfather.”

    “Must be a wise bloke.”

    “Yeah, I left you alone, don’t want bloody Sir Galahad stomping on me.”

    “Grater? He’s one of the most decent kids you’ll ever meet. He’ll be happy to be your friend, too, as long as you don’t bully people.”

    Brendan grunted. “It’s just that I’m bored shitless in school. Wish I could stay home, but I’d cop it from my mum. Gotta have some fun!”

    Bill was sure Brendan’s boredom had a different cause from his. “Think of it this way. School can be a prison, or a key to freedom.”


    “There are sixty applicants for any job. You want more than the dole, or some dead-end job, you need qualifications.”

    Brendan’s face turned red. “Bit hard when I, um, never learned to read good.”

    “If you’re willing, I’m happy to help you to catch up.”

    “Oh… is it possible?”

    “We can start at lunchtime.”

    “Tell me about your family,” Bill asked.

    “Dad was born in Ireland, but grew up here. He met Mum when he went back for a visit. I’ve got two older sisters and a little brother.”

    “How’re they doing at school?”

    “The girls are fine, and actually, that makes me the stupido of the family, too.”

    “Look, I’m only a kid like you, but I learn lots from reading. You’ll soon be able to do the same. One thing I’ve learned is, whatever you believe about yourself is true. Change the belief, and you change your world. So, if someone else can do it, you can learn it.”

    “Yeah.” Brendan sounded very unconvinced.

    Having finished lunch, they stood. Bill continued, “If your sisters can do OK in school, then you can too. We’ll show them!”

    The library was empty when they entered. Bill had read up on the dyslexia tests in the school’s collection. He knew they were only to be used by trained administrators, but since he intended to keep the results to himself, he figured it shouldn’t matter. He guided Brendan through the student part of a test labelled CELF (it also had a questionnaire for parents and teachers), explaining he’d need to score it before they knew the results. They continued after the bell. Then Bill went onto a test that involved naming pictures. At the end, he said, “Mate, I reckon there’s nothing wrong with you, just you’ve avoided learning in the past.”

    “You think so?”

    “Let’s start catching up now. I can tell you the test results tomorrow. Here.” He gave The Cat in the Hat to Brendan.

    “That’s a baby book!”

    “It’s fun. It’s the first step on a path up a mountain. Soon, you’ll reach the peak.”

    They worked through four Dr. Seuss books, then Bill walked with Brendan to the lockers.

    On the bus, Bill told Brendan, “Mate, there is nothing wrong with you, except for refusing to learn. Now you want to, you’ll catch up on years of learning in months. Once you start, you’ll get a love of learning. It’s like exploring an intriguing foreign country.”

    At school, they went to the library, but a class was just settling in. The teacher strode over. “Sorry Bill, you can’t work here this morning. Grab what you need, and ask Mrs. Kramer to find you a room.”

    Bill selected a remedial workbook, and several Dr. Seuss stories. Outside, he asked, “Who is Mrs. Kramer?”

    Brendan said, “The secretary.”

    She lit up, seeing them. “Bill. How can I help you?”

    “Ma’am, is there a room I can use?”

    “We have a room for visiting professionals nearby. It’s empty today, though the nurse will be there tomorrow, and the speech pathologist on Friday.” She led them to the room.

    Brendan settled to work with a will. They got through it in a bit over an hour. After reading The Lorax and Green Eggs and Ham together, Bill dictated a few well-known limericks to him. It took time, and Bill had to correct several mistakes, but he could see that Brendan liked the approach.

              There was a young fellow from Kent,
              Whose nose was most awfully bent.
              He followed his nose
              One day, I suppose —
              And no one knows which way he went.

              There was a young lady from Niger,
              Who smiled as she rode on a tiger.
              They came back from the ride
              With the lady inside,
              And the smile on the face of the tiger.

              I bought a vacuum cleaner today,
              Plugged it in, in the usual way,
              Switched it on — what a din;
              It sucked everything in,
              Now I am homeless, with no place to stay.

              An artistic young man called Bo,
              To an art class decided to go.
              The teacher said, “No, that’s not right,
              Your page is entirely white!”
              Bo said, “It’s a polar bear, hiding in snow.”

    He finished with a rude one:

              There was an Englishman from Leeds,
              who swallowed a packet of seeds,
              within half an hour,
              his dick was a flower,
              with his balls all covered in weeds.

    The “hour-flower” rhyme was useful, and led to a long list of other spelling variations of a phoneme, though Bill didn’t use that word. After the bell went, Brendan said, “I’ll try and make up my own tonight. I mean, limerick — has to be Irish, right?”
    “So it is. See you on the bus.”

    In the morning, on the bus, Brendan greeted Bill with a limerick of his own:

              There was a young fellow named Bill
              Who really just couldn’t sit still.
              He went to a quack
              Who said, “We cannot have that,
              Here, quickly, swallow this pill!”

    “Excellent!” Where did you get the idea?”

    “They did it to me. As a little kid, all I wanted to do was to kick a football or climb a tree or something. They put me on Ritalin so I’d sit still in school, so I hated school. Anyway, then I thought, pill rhymes with Bill, and there it was.”

About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
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14 Responses to Encouraging youngsters to read

  1. judyinboston says:

    This was both humorous and touching. Bill was a true friend to Brendan. Sometimes all a kid needs is a little help and encouragement. Coming from a peer is even better.


    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thank you, Judy.
      I have fond memories of Boston. My daughter made my wife and me visit there when she was doing a postoc at Harvard (brag, brag). I liked the culture: cars stopping for any pedestrian, however illegal or stupid, the standard greeting “Have a good day,” a generally calmer pace than in more cities, the many bikes…


  2. I also read with a flashlight under the sheets (only in the UK, we call it a torch 🙂 ) And my mum told me she did exactly the same – so I’m sure she must have known I was doing it!
    I loved your limericks, Bob. They made me laugh out loud!


    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thanks for the visit, Helena. Yes, it’s a torch in Australia too, but in this instance I think the American usage is safer. We wouldn’t want a flaming torch in bed!
      Of those limericks, the only one I wrote was the on Brendan made up for Bill. The others are all public domain.
      When I was a student nurse, I worked at a geriatric hospital, something like a nursing home with medical facilities. During the Christmas period, I wrote a limerick for each patient in my ward. And I’ve never been to Ireland in this life.


  3. Part of the reason that I’m loathe to quit my second job, is that I’m tutoring young kids in reading and writing. I think when I retire, I’ll spend my time volunteering. I’ll sit and rock and cuddle babies in nurseries, who have no one to love them. Then I’ll go to schools and have the kids read to me, so they can learn to love it as much as I do. Then I’ll spend the rest of my time writing. I sure hope we get to retire soon!


    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Fiona, that’s lovely.
      Actually, the whole world could be run like that. George Monbiot wrote a recent essay in the Guardian about divorcing people’s activities from money: we do the good things, let robots do what is now wage slavery. And Dennis Gabor described the same thing in 1963.
      Only, of course, that would get in the way of the essential process of passing money from the poor to the rich.


  4. Oh yes! The flashlight under the sheets. As if my parents never knew!


  5. Skye-writer says:

    I went through far more batteries as a kid than I was supposed to, but somehow my mom never got after me for it.


  6. Rhobin says:

    I laughed when I read your opening. I also read under the covers with a flashlight, and you aren’t out of step but standing with a different view. Enjoyed your excerpt from The Doom Healer and also appreciated your post On Loving the Same Sex.


    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thank you, Rhobin. That’s the trouble with you: you refuse to have a screaming argument with me.
      No, no, I take that back. It’s nice to have other sane people on this planet.


  7. Dr Bob Rich says:

    Thank you, Anne.
    It depends on the reason they are functionally illiterate.

    There are effective training techniques for dyslexia. I have reviewed 2 books on this in https://bobrich18.wordpress.com/2014/08/31/bobbing-around-volume-14-number-4

    As in the case of Brendan, previous lack of motivation can be overcome in a few months of study. I once had an adult client who had refused to read in school. As an adult, he taught himself by listening to a regular broadcast reading the newspaper for blind people, while doing his best to read the paper himself.

    Intellectual disability can be a bar.



  8. Hi Bob, great extract. There are a lot of children out there for whom it simply is too hard to catch up. anne


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