How Pinocchio Learned to Read by Alberto Manguel

Pinocchio is Italian, and so was my breakfast… Martina Franca, Italy, 2021.

Today I read an essay by the Argentinian writer Alberto Manguel called How Pinocchio Learned to Read. The Pinocchio who Manguel describes is the original, the Italian Carlos Collodi version, the fairy-tale before it was adapted for modern sensibilities. Pinocchio is brash, rebellious and the cause of anxiety for his creator, yet endeavours to make up for his failings by attending school and learning to read.

I like Manguel’s essays in the collection A Reader on Reading which I am currently going through. Each begins with a quote from Lewis Carrol’s Alice, and Manguel frequently refers to moments from Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass to reveal his trail of thought. This essay, as the title suggests, uses Pinocchio as a device, as an example, for talking about that tricky process of learning to read, and in doing so, this provides Manguel with the space to critic the teaching of this valuable skill.

Learning to read is hard. I have students who on first glance, look over a text, recognise the majority of the individual words and project onto them a meaning which portends to have sense. They read by intelligent guesswork. They devour something of the meaning, but the meaning is often one created by themselves, and on closer inspection, is a major deviation from the text. Phrasal verbs trip them up, as do nouns that look like verbs, and words which hold multiple meanings. False friends, those which are similar or identical to Spanish words, but which have a different meaning are particularly deceptive – words like ‘actual’ which so many Spanish speakers mistake for ‘current’. It’s not enough to recognise the words, sometimes it’s not even enough to understand their dictionary definition. Yesterday I argued with a student who was happy that a boot was a boot, and a shoe was a shoe, but my walking boots, he adamantly declared, were shoes.

The Latin expression ‘per ardua ad astra,’ ‘through difficulties we reach the stars,’ is almost incomprehensible for Pinocchio (as for us) since everything is expected to be obtainable with the least possible expenditure.

How Pinocchio Learned to Read, Alberto Manguel

When students start learning English, they are full of energy, focused on an illusion of fluency, which they believe they will inevitably arrive at through the process of turning up for classes. Students who have multiple lessons a week start to complain about being tired after a fortnight. They slot classes into their lives, without considering how draining learning a language will be, and exhaustion bleeds out from the scheduled hour into the rest of their day. Their minds start cataloguing words in English, even when they are not in class, and while their life continues in front of them, their brain is playing with English phonemes in the background. Learning a language is difficult, more difficult than most things in life. We don’t remember how hard, or frustrating learning to communicate was the first time around. We tend not to recall the challenge of learning to read. Most likely we burst into tears with tiredness and frustration of a multitude of occasions. We erroneously assume children have it easy.

Bullshit. It’s easier to teach an adult: adults realise that they are responsible for their learning, they understand why they are learning, they are more likely to invest in techniques which suit them personally, they know what they are sacrificing (an hour in bed, an hour with their children), they have a much stronger understanding of the world and so absorb cultural differences more easily, they recognise their strengths and weaknesses and know that they have to work on both. Some teenagers are like this too, but more frequently teenagers have bigger anxiety challenges and aren’t so clear on their goals. With adults, the bigger challenge is keeping their ambition in check. They want to be fluent yesterday.

The rewards, the stars we reach, become obvious over time. Students who study attentively, for long enough, soften in attitude, they become gentler on themselves, as if more aware of the true challenge they’ve undertaken, and they start to strategize. During the first few weeks, a student may declare a vague preference for conversation, but in time this gets replaced with the series of childlike – Why? Why? Why? – questions which centre on the patterns and grammar of the language they’re using (but never pages of grammar exercises). When they are tired – sick children, late nights, stress at work – they revert back to fluid, easy going conversation and ask fewer questions. When they are alert, they seek to develop their skills by pushing themselves towards a slower, more accurate speech and spend more time thinking about the words they say.

Pinocchio will only learn if he is not in a hurry to learn, and will only become a full individual through the effort required to learn slowly.

How Pinocchio Learned to Read, Alberto Manguel

But Manguel has little faith in Pinocchio’s teachers, they might teach him the alphabet, and to read political slogans and advertisements, to be ‘superficially literate’… but what about real-world literacy, what about developing his own understanding, his own opinions and perspective on the world? Manguel points out that although Pinocchio turns into a boy, inevitably his schooling still leaves him thinking like a puppet.