What are they on about?

24th November 2000 at 00:00
T is for terror, writes David Newnham

I am having trouble with my alphabet. Just seeing an A-Z street map or the ABC of Microwave Cooking brings me out in a cold sweat. I haven't felt this anxious since I was three and three-quarters. What is a father to do?

To make matters worse, I have a suspicion that anything I say on this subject will have been said a billion times already - said by people who have "looked at the research", and who season their arguments with words like"phonics".

Me, I can no longer spell "phonics" - not out loud, at any rate. And that's what this lament is all about.

Alex is learning to read and write, and I want to help him. "Daddy, how do you write duck?" he asks. So I prepare to write "duck" on the back of an envelope, remembering to use "little letters".

But what do I call those letters as I write them? "Dee," I begin. Then guilt kicks in, and I spit out a quick "duh". For good measure, and because I know that Alex's nursery uses the Letterland books, I toss in "Dippy Duck". And then we're ready to move on. This time, I decide to heed his teaher's advice and stick with the letter sound. "Uh," I exclaim, and award myself a gold star.

But when Alex sings the "Alphabet Song" along with Barnie the nauseating purple dinosaur, he calls the letter by its name. So by way of explanation, I let slip that "uh" is called "you" - which happens also to be the sound it makes in "tune" (unless you are an American president andor a nauseating dinosaur).

"Actually," says Alex, "it's called Uppy Umbrella."

But I am already agonising over the next little problem, namely, how on earth I'm expected to handle "c" and "k" and retain any semblance of wisdom or dignity.

As if all this weren't confusing enough, there appears to be a fourth way. Alex occasionally plays with a CD-Rom which takes a fundamentalist line on letter sounds. Here, "s" is neither "ess" nor "suh" but a minimalist gas-leak hiss, totally unwritable and barely audible except to those of a canine persuasion.

Stop fretting, I hear you say. Alex will learn his letters whatever you do or don't do. But it's not him I'm worried about. It's his F-A-T-H-E-R.

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