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: