I excelled at English...but reading books terrified me

Rachel Jarmy was in the top set for English, but hadn't even read Harry Potter. She wishes she had known then that there are lots of different types of readers

Girl, surrounded by books, looking fed up

Reading and writing are a well-known couple. But, in my experience, they don’t always go hand in hand.

At school, I was in the top set for English, but grew clammy every time we were asked to read a book

While my classmates were reading Phillip Pullman and Sebastian Faulks, I would find the book with the fewest pages and the largest writing. And yet I finished every writing assignment eagerly, never flinching at the word limit. 

Aspiring writers almost always inhale books like oxygen. But, for me, books were overwhelming. Hundreds of pages, tens of thousands of words. Just words on a beige page, even though I knew the content would fascinate and inspire. 

I wanted to be like those writers. Now, I too put words on a beige page and hope people read them. And yet I still find reading books really hard. 

Top 1 per cent

“Your writing and vocabulary skills are in the top 1 per cent of your age group…” the educational psychologist said, when I was 14.

“That must be wrong.” I responded.

“Why do you say that?”

“I don’t know…” Because I’ve never even read Harry Potter

“Let’s do some reading.”

It was just one side of A4. I was timed.

“So, what’s the main character’s name?”

“Sarah.” 

“No, it was James. Where was it set?”

“Spain?”

It was set in Romford. 

A jumbled mess of Heathcliffs

Even after my assessment showed I was dyslexic, things didn’t feel any clearer. I spent weeks staring at the pages of The Catcher in the Rye, begging the words to go in. Wuthering Heights became a jumbled mess of Heathcliffs. 

I skipped chapters and looked up the plots to get me through the essays. My teachers thought I’d not bothered to try, but the irony was that I had spent much longer holding this book in my hands than the kids who’d managed to read it. 

I was literate. I could read, but nothing stuck. The scenes, characters and descriptions didn’t paint new and exciting worlds. 

I was lucky to be offered learning support and extra time in exams. But, ultimately, I still had to read the books. And, as far as I knew, this was the only way.

As I got older, the pressure increased. I got an A* and an A in my English GCSEs. But, when it came to A-level English, the reading list made the decision for me. The books were longer, there were more of them, and less time in which to read them. If that was the only way to read, I couldn’t do it. So I didn’t.

Throughout school and university, I tried read-aloud technology (helpfully provided on my computer for essays), coloured overlays, and other new adaptive technologies. They helped me, academically. But reading for fun still felt beyond reach.

Taking away assessment helps. Nowadays, I don’t have a deadline to read a book and, if there’s something I don’t get, it doesn’t really matter. 

It was only when I realised how much I retained from listening to a podcast that the penny dropped. Now, I read for fun through audiobooks.

Reading with your ears

Listening to a book, my brain sucks up every word. I can listen to three chapters in an hour, fully in the world the writer has painted. I remember sentences, paragraphs, dialogue, and I could have a three-hour conversation with you about it.

But audiobooks aren’t new. As a kid, I had a cassette of The Railway Children that I listened to until the tape stretched. Yet it took until I was 30 for me to start reading this way regularly. 

And, even then, I wondered if I could say I’d read the books. Does it still count if it’s easy? If I’ve not held the story in my hands and smelled the pages? 

There’s a continued snobbery about what reading looks like, and I believe schools and teachers can change this. It is right that there are many types of support for students, including adaptive technologies and extra time in exams. 

But there are also simple solutions. I still at times feel unable to admit that I read through listening because no one ever told me that reading Jane Eyre with my ears is just as valid as with my eyes. If I’d read this way in school, I’m certain I’d have an A level in English.

I can also imagine that, as a teacher, it’s easy to confuse a lack of progress with a lack of interest. But that isn’t always the case. I really wanted to know what The Bell Jar was about, but the anxiety of being in trouble for not reading it made the hurdle even higher. 

And then there’s the identity of being “a reader”. Writers are told to keep reading and writing. And it’s true: the more I read, the better my writing. 

But there are many different readers. Reading the emotion of the woman next to you on the bus. Reading the subtext of a work email before your colleagues. Reading isn’t reserved for people who can devour a whole James Joyce novel in a single tube journey. 

If someone writes well, they’re a reader. And, if teachers spot that in a student, telling them that all reading is valid will likely stick with them for ever. 

Rachel Jarmy is a playwright and fiction writer. She tweets as @RachelJarmy

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