Our son is growing up fast, but it’s us who need lessons on learning to read | Parents and parenting

‘Why isn’t Daddy picking me up?’ my son asked his mum. I had dropped him off, so he was confused. Once, last week, she had told him: ‘We’ll be right here at home time,’ to dissuade him from feeling too homesick. Unbeknown to us, he’d taken this literally and believes whichever one of us delivers him in the morning stands stock-still in the playground for six hours until home time.

I guess my son is growing up so fast, I sometimes forget he’s still a child, an effect only worsened by the arrival of his sister. When we set off for the maternity ward, he was a dewy-skinned babe. On our return, eyes recalibrated to a newborn scale, we might as well have faced a middle-aged man, with back problems and forklift-driving certification.

In fairness, he really is developing rapidly and nowhere more so than in language. A typical four-year-old has a vocabulary of 2,000 words and every day he amazes us with his growing grasp of conversation, all of which makes his first baby-sized steps into the world of reading so jarring.

He’s so confident in speech, I guess I’d not yet thought about the actual mental achievement of literacy, which is hard enough to make your head spin. Taking millions of combinations of a few dozen hieroglyphs and translating them into meaning is such a bizarrely difficult task it’s hard to believe any of us have done it at all. Further impeding my ability to reckon with this task is the fact he’s learning phonics, a technique they standardised long after my primary education ended.

I used to laugh at my dad when he complained that teaching had changed since his day. An engineer by trade, he was an adept mathematician, but found himself unable to teach us his methods because he learned maths in the 50s, when Irish children were taught long division with, I gather, set-squares, rosary beads and mysterious orbs. This was before textbooks and raw digits were scarce, so local fishers would catch large numbers each morning for children to look at. A priest would bless these, then shout out other numbers for you to divide them with, and you’d chisel your answer on to a piece of sheep skull. The child who got the correct answer would win a week’s supply of bonemeal.

I rolled my eyes at my father’s frustration and yet here I am, similarly adrift, mispronouncing letters. I start out saying, ‘Ah, buh, cuh,’ before my son corrects me. It’s important not to give these phonemes a long tail, he says, finessing them to ‘a-, b-, k-’. I take heart from the fact he calls them ‘momeems’, but not much.

We practise each night with tricky words on the fridge, read his special books, and do a lightning round at breakfast before I drop him at the school gates, marvelling afresh at his obvious genius.

‘Remember. You stay here, Daddy,’ he says, and I settle in for a long six hours.

Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Séamas O’Reilly is out now (Little, Brown, £16.99). Buy a copy from guardianbookshop at £14.78

Follow Séamas on Twitter @shockproofbeats