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

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