An Unschooled Child Learns to Read

I didn’t teach my son to read.

He never did a workbook or followed a learn to read program. He never used “readers”. You know the ones:

The cat sat on a mat. 
The cat was fat.

Does that make me a bad homeschooling parent?

I don’t think so. In fact, it was a conscious choice not to “teach” him something I knew he was capable of learning without coercion or pressure or expectations or “lessons”. It was a well thought-through decision not to turn reading into:

  • a structured, sequential process
  • memorising a list of rules (most of which have about as many exceptions to the rule as keeping of the rule!)
  • a phonics program
  • any one of the multitudes of other “methods” for learning to read

I was tempted to use all those things! In the early days of our unschooling journey, my childhood dream of being a teacher had me perusing the homeschooling message boards and websites, searching through the plethora of learn-to-read materials produced by the billion dollar education materials sector. But I resisted. And I’m so glad!

Now don’t get me wrong. My son did not live in a wordless vacuum. He was living in a supportive family environment and getting out and about in the “big wide world”, and was therefore surrounded by the written form of our English language.

Our house was full of books.

We went to the library.

We read together. A lot.

He saw me reading. A lot.

We played games that involved – unsurprisingly – words and letters.

There were words all around him. On television (yes, even there), on street signs, in the letterbox, on cereal packets, in recipes, and so on.

And, being naturally hungry for knowledge as all unstuffed children are, he asked lots and lots and LOTS of questions. “Mum, what does that say?” And I would simply answer his question. Sometimes I would, in about one sentence, add something interesting, such as, “See the last two letters? A and H together say ah” and he would store it away in his busy little brain.

We went about our life, and then one day he walked out of his room holding a chapter book and simply said, “I read this book, it’s cool”. I think he was about six, maybe seven. Now I have to admit, I thought he was pulling my leg, perhaps just wanting to be like his big brothers who could already read! I asked him, curiously but not derisively, “That’s awesome! What was it about?” He proceeded to tell me the whole story! I was shocked!

To understand why, you need to realise that my older two children had learned to read while they were at school, so this was my first experience of partnering with a child who was learning to read naturally, without pressure, without “teaching” or testing or readers or programs. I tried not to jump up and down with maniacal parental pride, choosing instead to revel in his own happiness at his new skill, which had obviously been developing quietly inside his brain as he’d gone about his days, quietly decoding the written English language.

Looking through my highly disorganised old photos on the computer, I was unable to find one of my son reading but I did find this. During the time he was working out this "reading" thing, the kids discovered this fun little computer game where you could add your face to funny pictures. I found this one that my son had made, and think it's a perfect fit for this post because it shows how, even when "just playing" on a computer, our children are surrounded by letters and words! And, just as importantly, fun. :)
Looking through my highly disorganised old photos on the computer, I was unable to find one of my son reading but I did find this. During the time he was working out this “reading” thing, the kids discovered this fun little computer game where you could add your face to funny pictures. I found this one that my son had made, and think it’s a perfect fit for this post because it shows how, even when “just playing” on a computer, our children are surrounded by letters and words! And, just as importantly, fun. 🙂

Here in Australia, we have what is called “The Premier’s Reading Challenge”. It “aims to encourage in students a love of reading for leisure and pleasure, and to enable students to experience quality literature. It is not a competition but a challenge to each student to read, to read more and to read more widely.” One year I asked my son if he would like to participate, and he simply said, “No, I don’t need a certificate for reading. I just read because I want to read.” Now, I’m not saying that the Challenge is necessarily a bad thing, and I like that it isn’t a competition, and the book lists are usually quite inspirational, but I wonder how something like this achieves its goal of encouraging a love of reading for leisure and pleasure, when it is all about achieving goals and earning a certificate? Of course, if he had wanted to do the challenge, I would have supported him in that endeavour. I wonder, though, how many children participate in things like this to get the certificate, the recognition, the affirmation, and I wonder if that takes something away from the pure pleasure of reading as an experience in and of itself.

Another opportunity that was presented to my son a few times came from a friend who goes to school and likes competing. He would try to get a group of children to join him in a competition of his devising, whereby they would see who could read the most books, or the most pages, or for the longest time each day, etc. My son, again, was simply not interested. Again he said something like, “If I’m reading a book, it’s because I’m enjoying reading it, I don’t want to have to read more or faster to beat other kids.”

I love his authentic awareness of reading for reading’s sake, rather than to complete a challenge or win a competition.

He has read many novels over the past few years. Series such as Zac Power, the Andy Griffiths “Just” series, Beast Quest, Deltora Quest, Harry Potter, Narnia, The Ranger’s Apprentice, and many others. Over time he realised that he got bored with a series if it had too many books. He never did read the 10th book in The Ranger’s Apprentice series. And that’s okay. I’m glad he worked that out about himself, and I’m glad I learned to honour his preference.

Over time he has moved towards a preference for online and non-fiction reading. He gets most of his stories in electronic format through gaming or audio books. Initially I found this somewhat disappointing, as though it meant I was no longer this “amazing, successful unschooling mum whose son had learned to read without being taught”. I would keep suggesting a different book I thought he might be interested in, or I would put a novel in his christmas stocking, thinking it might reignite his interest in reading.

Eventually I remembered that he IS reading. A lot! It just isn’t in novel form. And realistically, what is so bad about that? Why are novels, and books in general, seen as the bees knees when it comes to the determination of knowledge and academia? He reads every single day. On his iPod. On his computer. On his Xbox. In gaming magazines. And so on. Books are one source of reading; there are many, many others.

Dr Alan Thomas is a developmental psychologist, author and a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Education. He has done a lot of research into how children learn informally, including the learning-to-read process. Here’s a video interview with him. If you want to skip to the bit about reading, it’s at 2.50

Have you got a story about a child who learned to read without being “taught”? I’d love to hear from you!

Wanna read some other encouraging stories of unschooled and homeschooled kids learning to read? Check it out:

Learn to Read Homeschool Blog Hop


4 thoughts on “An Unschooled Child Learns to Read”

  1. You’ve probably heard my tale many times which illustrates your point perfectly. I spent weeks and weeks painstakingly putting together a ‘learn to read’ program for Jak, but the time it was done, he was already way past it – with no input from me! I too always read to my kids from a young age, had shelves full of books etc – I firmly believe that if a child is interested in learning something, they will learn it, not because of us, but in spite of us!

    My son is always telling me all this random information that has me saying “how on earth do you know that?!” – Sometimes he is using creative license, but other times he can tell me all kinds of interesting tales from history or amazing scientific fact – stuff he has discovered from his own explorations of the world around him.

    Sometimes it is hard to ‘let go and let be’ – which is why I have never embraced unschooling, though many a time I’ve given it serious consideration – but if I ever did step out of myself and even if I didn’t, if Jak expressed a desire to learn without too much structure from me, I have no doubt, that as much I’d come through it all with no nails left on my fingers, he would be ready and prepared and have the knowledge needed to navigate the world sucessfully.

    Actually, having a child enter the public education system has been interesting, because, as a structured homeschooler, I haven’t been a particularly brilliant one – there are probably massive gaps in my kids education, but Taylah seems to be doing really, really well.

    At the end of the day, its just an ego boost for us if we can take credit for our brilliant our kids are – truth is, they’d be brilliant with or without our incessant input into their lives – as long as they are in a supported environment where they are taken seriously and respected and loved and given every opportunity we can give them – then they will thrive and succeed.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story here. And you’re right, children really do have an innate curiosity and it can be so surprising to discover things they know that we were totally unaware of them learning. So much of their learning is invisible, as ours is, hey. And I think all people have “gaps” in their knowledge, whether they are schooled or unschooled, especially if we are expecting them to learn a body of knowledge that has been mandated by someone else. I so much prefer trusting that my children are learning exactly what they want and need to learn right now, with my support, encouragement and availability, and that they will continue to do so throughout their lives, rather than trying to follow someone else’s timetable and expectations of “required knowledge”.

      Thanks so much for your comment Mel. 🙂

  2. Wonderful learning-to-read story, and what a great video! I love your son’s self-assurance and lack of need for outside validation of his reading.

    Thanks for sharing this in the “How They Learned to Read” blog hop – it will be a great resource for people looking for reassurance as their children reach reading age.

  3. I used to read to my daughter every bedtime, and then one night, she chose her own story from the contents page, and when i asked her how she knew that was the story she wanted, she pointed to the list and said “because it says so there”. She was four years old, and took to reading really easily. We eventually got to the point where we would alternate the bedtime story; one night i would read, and the next, she would read to me. Now, at nearly 15, she has an amazing vocabulary, is extremely knowledgeable and well informed, her spelling is excellent , as is her general knowledge accumen, and the entire education of learning to read has been a natural process. She has always attached reading to gaining knowledge and learning facts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *