Diary of a mum (12) Phonics

We’ve followed our columnist Claire Bates through the tears, the toil and the tantrums of pregnancy, birth, weaning, toilet training –  the lot. But this dear reader, could break her.

"Thank you ma’am for calling us today about your household insurance needs. I trust it is a lovely day there with you?"

There’s a split-second delay on the line, has been ever since three blokes with spades and a pick-axe dug up the road outside, so I inadvertently interrupt her with pleasantries about the weather and my ‘lovely’ day which has actually so far involved cleaning boy wee off the toilet floor – twice – and picking up the remainders of my lovely new Uggs, expertly destroyed by the lovely new pup. Lovely.

She asks me if I would like to increase my cover today and, while my mind is screeching: "Hell yes! The house has been TRASHED by this BL**DY dog, the boys have WRECKED the telly, Bloke has SMASHED his way through four picture frames and a vase while DIY-ing in his inimitable (ie crap) style and next door’s toddler has used my iPad as a sledge," what I actually say is "no thank you".

I keep it polite and smiley, desperate not to come across as one of those types who are programmed to instantly patronise everyone in a call centre.
So, I ignore Numbers Two and Three beating each other with Ben 10 aliens, take a deep breath, put on my jolliest voice and tell her that today I would simply like to add pet insurance to our plan, thanks. God forbid the animal should die in some hideous slow, painful, obscure accident involving a Cath Kidston apron string…….

"I can definitely help you with your requirements today ma’am. Could I just confirm the spelling of you name?"

By now, Two and Three are howling like endangered wolves and spinning around on their backs on the kitchen floor ‘Spidywebbed’ together, each refusing to let the other badguy go.
I’ve two options. The usual one – lock myself in the loo with feet up against the door (this one was particularly effective for interviewing the Shadow Defence Secretary once, when my childminder got chickenpox and I couldn’t go into the office. He, I suspect, had an inkling of my predicament, when they started lunging at the door with Bob The Builder’s ‘play’ sledgehammer.)

Or, option two – I can shout VERY LOUDLY.

SURE, I CAN SPELL MY NAME. Oh God. Help. Without intending to, I’m insulting this perfectly polite, efficient woman, who by now, I just know, is rolling her eyes, covering the mouthpiece and mouthing to colleagues that she’s "got another one" on her line.

Er, my name, yes, spell it, yes, of course. "It’s C C C castanets, L L L lollipop, A A A ants."

I don’t remember whether it was her or me who hung up.

I’m guessing there are very few readers who at this point are lost but for those of you who are: Phonics. The word that strikes fear into reception class mummies the length and breadth of Britain. Worse, they are inexplicably called ‘Jolly’ Phonics. Like a lost ancient language or a modern-day Esperanto, it’s a secret way of communicating, known only to those who have sweated and repeated and sweated and repeated some more, the sounds and mimes associated with every letter of the alphabet.

For the unitiated, the letter T is learnt not by using the grown-up pronounciation of ‘tee’ but by using the sound ‘tuh’ and its mime is to switch your head from left to right as if watching a tennis match. So, a child learns the letter tee by saying "tuh, tuh, tuh tennis". Geddit?

I did. Or I thought I did, when, just a day after Number Two had grasped Tuh, Huh and Puh, his phonics book came home with three more, then three more, then three more. Buh Buh Buh Bugger. There’s a CD you can buy apparently – to play in your car – which goes over and over and over the alphabet until your young Einstein has it and you are committed, whichever happens first. Trouble is, my three think car stereos only play Radio 4 in the same way that shops don’t sell Ben 10 duvet covers.

So, there’s no choice but to go along to the ‘Parents Help’ classes run by the school.

I arrive to find the mummies all bunched in the rear rows of mini-seats leaving the front three empty. I’m pleased as I’ve never understood why no-one wants to sit in the front. It goes back to my newspaper journalism days where the closer you got to Peter Mandelson’s growl at the weekly Downing Street briefing, the more likely you were to get an off-the-record tip, so an undignified bunfight involving hungover hacks happened every Tuesday. Despite being an Essex girl, I rarely won.

We sit through an enthusiastic presentation of the theories behind why phonetic spellings and sounds is the best way to learn and we’re given some homework and tips about how best to help our little ones.
Inspired, I trip home armed with flashcards, books and ‘spelling caterpillars’ and tell Number Two all about my afternoon with his teacher.

He’s more interested in whether Miss Butler had on her red jumper and whether he can have sketty for supper but I plough on.

"Eh, Eh, Eh egg," I sing. "Uh, Uh, Uh umbrella," I smile encouragingly. "Sssssssssss snake."

I ask him if he can think of a word that begins with Ssssssss? "Sketty?" he replies, hopefully, looking at the oven.

"Good boy! Well done! Brilliant!"

I press on: "Wuh, Wuh, Wuh…."


"No, honey, it’s not Wuh, Wuh, Wuh wee, it’s Wuh, Wuh, Wuh Wind."


"Now, stop being silly. Mummy’s trying to help you. Wuh, Wuh, Wuh…

"WEEEEEE!" He’s pointing at Number Three sat by the back door, smiling as only a small boy sloshing in wee would. Defeated, I put away the phonics book and dress us all in waterproofs ready for the sketty.
Bloke gets home that night and I embark on ‘spreading the phonics fun’ as instructed by Miss Red Jumper. Before long we are hilariously making up our own rude versions.  A PJ-ed figure appears at the kitchen door. Number Two needs some water which Bloke gets and takes up to his room.

The next day is a special school assembly. As luck would have it Bloke and I get seats at my favourite front.  Blue Class is going to show the rest of the school and all the mummies and daddies all the fabulous work they’ve been doing on their phonics.
Each child will shout out a phonic they have memorised so please parents, give them all a big round of applause.

They file in and Number Two is first.

He looks a little nervous and I smile encouragingly at him, willing him to say it loud and proud.

He pushes up his chest, takes a deep breath, raises his cardboard letter and with a flourish: "Cuh, Cuh, Cuh COCK"

Sh, Sh, Sh Sh*t.