A Relaxed Road to Reading

Not one worksheet.
Not one piece of curriculum.
Not one phonics lesson.

Actually, I tell a lie. There was a very brief experience with “Reading Eggs” once, but she didn’t enjoy it, so never did more than a few games and activities.

I am speaking of my ten year old daughter.

She woke me this morning with the following words: “I started reading ‘Bindi’ last night. I got up to chapter five.”  She then proceeded to curl up on the bed and read some more. And she has barely put the book down since.


The book she chose for her first ever chapter book to read alone was, unsurprisingly, Trouble at the Zoo by Bindi Irwin. We have previously loved reading this book series together, thoroughly enjoying all the animal adventures with Bindi and her brother, Robert. Due to her passion for all things Bindi and all things “animal”, I had purchased the books as we read them, so they were readily available on her bedside bookshelf.

Now don’t get me wrong, she hasn’t acquired the skill of reading in a vacuum. She has grown up surrounded by words, letters, books, magazines, video games, birthday cards, emails, Instagram, recipes, iPods, stories, board games, television, shops, computer games, Nintendo DS, street signs, pens, pencils, moving boxes, TV guides, libraries, bookshops, websites, shopping lists, notes from me, postcards, letters……

If you were surprised by some of the things on that list, you wouldn’t be the first person to wonder how television and video gaming and so on could possibly have an impact on learning to read; however, if you sit and watch a child doing any of those things, you will soon realise that they incorporate a lot of written language. A child who is happily engaged in playing a video game or watching a television show, will naturally and effortlessly absorb the written words as they do so. There are instructions to read, missions to complete, credits to read, TV guides to understand, words on the remote control and so on.

We are absolutely and thoroughly surrounded by the written form of our spoken language.

My daughter has never been to school, and has never done school-at-home (which is probably what most people think of when they hear that she is homeschooled).

As unschoolers, there is no forced curriculum, no expectations of “grade level”, no pressure to learn to read (or do anything else) by any particular arbitrary age.

We live life.

We play, sing, dance, explore, discover, experiment, relax, read, watch movies, play computer games and video games and, well, you probably get the gist of it!

Along the way, information is drawn in, observations are made, dots are joined, language is decoded, numbers are added and subtracted, and so on.

The tools of reading, writing and arithmetic are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. They are useful and enjoyable tools that are naturally used in the exploration of our interests. There is no pressure to “learn to read”, because it is something that simply happens along the way, in the living of an interesting life. Questions about words and spelling are asked and answered, without being turned into mini lessons. Without comparisons, pressure, tests and grades, there is a natural, intrinsic progression of understanding, as language is gradually decoded.

There isn’t a big leap from not reading, to reading. It is a progressive experience that, in an unschooled life, is able to follow its own course at its own speed. It is like a babbling brook, gradually flowing into larger streams, meandering around gentle bends, plunging down a gushing waterfall, and finally emerging into a wide river that flows out into the ocean filled with new experiences and opportunities. It is a joyful, gradual experience without trauma, and one that I have been so blessed to participate in, as I have provided resources, answered questions,  read stories, listened to early attempts at reading, encouraged, waited and observed this beautiful process.

This morning’s announcement really wasn’t a huge announcement for her. It was simply the next step in her journey.

There were a few moments during this journey when a friend or two commented that she “can’t read”, and for a while she echoed those seemingly definitive words. When this happened, I reminded her that she was learnING to read, just like we all are. That even adults are still learning to read certain words, and that she would gradually work it out. And she did, of course.

Not Always So Positive

I wish that learning to read could always, for all children, be as natural and relaxed and fun as learning to talk, and learning to walk!

I feel sad for the many, many children who are pressured to learn to read before they are truly ready, who are part of a system where children are compared to each other, and where those who are “behind” are given remedial help and a complex along with it, when really they probably just need more time. I feel sad that learning to read is turned into a structured sequence of lessons and readers, worksheets and tests.

I wish that all children could be supported in their learning to read journey, but not pressured.

For many children it is an extremely negative experience. In his brilliant book, How Children Fail, John Holt talks about some of the damage done to children in the name of education. For example,

“From the very beginning of school we make books and reading a constant source of possible failure and public humiliation. When children are little we make them read aloud, before the teacher and other children, so that we can be sure they “know” all the words they are reading. This means that when they don’t know a word, they are going to make a mistake, right in front of everyone. Instantly they are made to realize that they have done something wrong. Perhaps some of the other children will begin to wave their hands and say, “Ooooh! O-o-o-oh!” Per- haps they will just giggle, or nudge each other, or make a face. Perhaps the teacher will say, “Are you sure?” or ask someone else what he thinks. Or perhaps, if the teacher is kindly, she will just smile a sweet, sad smile-often one of the most painful punishments a child can suffer in school. In any case, the child who has made the mistake knows he has made it, and feels foolish, stupid, and ashamed, just as any of us would in his shoes. Before long many children associate books and reading with mistakes, real or feared, and penalties and humiliation.”

There is a better way to learn, and I would love to see more and more children have the opportunity to do it. Learning to read does not have to be hard, boring or stressful. It really can be relaxed, enjoyable and natural!

This post has been shared, along with lots of other “how they learned to read naturally” posts over at:

Learn to Read Homeschool Blog Hop

5 thoughts on “A Relaxed Road to Reading”

  1. My always unschooled children have learned or are learning to read in a similar way. But each one is a little different. My oldest daughter, now about to turn 12, LOVED books since she was a baby and began reading when she was three. I think one of the biggest helps for her (besides my reading to her so much) was that she is a passionate singer, and when she was 6 or 7 she discovered karaoke versions of songs on YouTube. She quickly became a fast reader while singing along.

    My second daughter, now 9, progressed much more slowly and gradually with reading. She learned all the letter sounds by the time she was 3 or 4, but as recently as a year ago reading was “no fun” and “hard,” according to her. But in recently that has turned around and now she begs for books.

    My son is 6 and is learning a lot of words via his computer games. Not only does he read some of the text, but he often asks me how to spell words so he can type them in. This is transferring to books because he’ll surprise us when we’re reading together by reading a word here or there.

    I think being able to read is one of the most important things in life (in our culture). Once you know how to read, it opens up the whole world, and you can learn anything you want. It’s amazing how easy it actually is, when you let it happen naturally. But kids are amazing. They learn to talk and walk — no easier than reading — without any lessons, usually as babies.

    I’ve written quite a bit about unschooling in general and learning to read without lessons at my blog.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Michele. Yes, they all learn differently, that’s for sure! Which is yet another reminder that teaching children is not where it’s at! Tuning in to their learning, and supporting them in it is so much more fruitful! And fun!

    2. Thank you for your comment. Yes, it’s amazing to see them learn so much about reading while having so much fun playing computer games. I enjoyed looking at your blog too. Your photo of your craft storage area has inspired me!

  2. I love this one because my kids are still young and I need the encouragement to relax and let them learn naturally 🙂 My 8 year old has started pointing out things in the books that we read and my six year old knows a few words here and there. It seems like every time I freak out, I read something encouraging like this that helps me gain perspective. Thank you! (And congratulations to your 10 year old for transitioning into chapter books!)

    1. I’m glad you found this encouraging, and I really relate to the need for such encouragement during the journey. Society tells us five is the “normal age” for learning to read, but when children are allowed to learn at their own pace, it is not unusual for them to learn much later. And the relaxed road to reading is so much more fun and without pressure or tears. It sounds like your kids are really starting to work it out!

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