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.
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: