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Formula for natural, child-led reading

25 May 2010 1,104 views 9 Comments

Basic Formula for Parents:

Stay out of child’s way +

Don’t try to be a teacher +

Don’t hijack your child’s learning +

Wait….wait…wait (and be patient) +

Don’t stress (talk to other unschoolers when you worry!) +

Read lots of books out loud when your child wants to +

Have lots of interesting books available +

Be ready as a resource when you child asks for it


= A child that reads. Eventually. On his own timetable.

Last night, as the whole family sat down to watch another downloaded episode of The Amazing Race, DS7 pulled out a sketch pad and starting writing words. Arp and I immediately looked at each other and shut off the waiting DVD player. Darn it – We were exhausted after a long day and really needed some veg out time, but we both knew that DS7 was working on something important and would be distracted by TV. The Amazing Race, and our own fatigue, could wait.

DS7 worked on writing short words and new combinations of letters for about an hour. I mostly just sat and watched, and answered his questions every once in a while. Many times, without DS7 noticing, I shared a happy look with Arp. Our son was learning to read. I couldn’t help but take pleasure in it.

Later, as Arp and I laid in the dark, the kids already having drifted off to sleep, we talked about how amazing it is to see DS7 learn to read, all on his own. I was mostly taking pleasure in the fact that DS7 would always be able to say that he did this himself. Kids do things themselves all the time, so there may be a tendency to understate the significance of that phrase. This is really significant, as reading is perhaps one of the first big learning processes that is stolen from children every day in school. Seeing my son start reading and writing on his own is amazing because we almost never see it anymore.

There has been a fair amount of discussion on unschooling lists about the difference between “teaching your child to read” and your child learning to read on his own juice. This is what I mean when I say that the process is stolen from the child in school. In school, the reading lessons start from day one. First you have the letter drills. Flash cards with letters and sounds. Phonics. Worksheets with those 3 lines (was it the red line on the bottom?) so that the child “writes correctly”. Through all of this, the child essentially sits back and waits for the next lesson. The child becomes a bystander. A subject. A member of the army waiting for the next order.  One of the herd.

A significant proportion of children won’t be immediately successful at reading on the school’s timetable. That’s because the school’s timetable is made for the benefit of teachers, not for the benefit of your child. It’s much easier for a teacher to teach other lessons if all the children are reading as soon as possible, and at as close to the same skill level as possible. Raise your hand if you have a child that “needs extra help”, “has reading difficulties”, or has a reading problem. Maybe the only problem is that the child is not reading in a time-frame that makes the teacher’s job easier. It’s all about the teacher, not about the child.

This is what I remind myself every time I’m tempted to become a teacher in my own home: DS7′s learning experiences are not about me. My son’s learning is his alone. He will tell me when he would like my help. He will tell me if he feels like he is having difficulty. He will tell me. He will tell me. Wait. Wait. Don’t say anything. Wait. I have to keep repeating these words to myself. I’m a product of school, after all. I’ve been programmed in those roles – teacher & subject- after all. My son’s experiences are different. He is no subject. He is in charge of his own learning.

I’ve made mistakes along the way, surely. I wasn’t always this confident that DS7 would learn to read. Early on, I invested in several stacks of Bob books in the hope it would assist his learning to read. I’d act excited and pull them out, intersperse a little phonics as we read. DS7 was not impressed. Those little lessons were pretty obvious to his attentive mind. He just wasn’t interested. He wanted to hear a story, not get a lesson. I don’t blame him. I’d be pretty miffed if Arp interrupted my coffee one morning to give me a lesson on roasting coffee beans. Please! Just let me enjoy my brew! On the other hand, I was happy to learn about coffee roasting when I chose to live on a coffee finca in Costa Rica. Remember, I chose.

Another mistake I made: thinking DS7 was ready to read simply because he wanted to read. Another mistake due to the school mindset. You see, motivation is the all-important issue in school. Teachers spend hours of the day figuring out how to motivate students. They take seminars on the subject. The thinking is that once motivation is there, learning will follow. (I know a lot about this. I used to be a teacher.) Teachers are always looking for the interest, and the “teachable moment”. Then, when they see it, they launch into a lesson that will solidify things and make the learning magic happen. Here’s how it works:

Reading in school = Teacher motivates (fun??, grades, parent/teacher pressure, stickers, “good job!”) + appropriate age + lessons from teacher.

Unschooled Reading = intrinsic motivation (fun or utility) + starts & stops of learning over several years.

My mistake was thinking that all a child needs is a little motivation and they would read in lickety-split. Sometimes that does happen. Sometimes a kid decides to read and manages to get from non-reader to reader in a number of weeks or months. More often it seems to happen gradually, in little steps, over several years. Totally normal. In school, the teacher might be panicking that her student is suddenly unable to get to “the next level”. Diagnosis of some sort of “reading problem” usually follows. As an unschooler, I had to learn that these pauses are natural. I learned to reassure DS7 that it would pass, the learning would come. No need to panic. I reassure myself, too.

As exciting as last night’s accomplishments were, I’m reminding myself all those things again. Maybe DS7 will work on this every night for several weeks. Maybe he’ll put it aside for awhile and work on something else. It’s OK. He’ll get it eventually, in his own time. No need to rush. Life is long. There’s plenty of time.


  • Chris said:

    “Don’t hijack your child’s learning +” I like this point!

    I know so many people who like to think they’re “helping” us with our “homeschooling” adventure, and when they have an opportunity to be with our children, they take on this over-enthusiastic teacher persona, and end up hijacking the learning. And nothing kills a learning mojo than having it forcefully taken over by someone.

  • Trish (author) said:

    Oh yes. I know that situation very well. It happens to our kids all the time, and we all end up just sitting there glassy-eyed, our “learning mojo” (I love that term, BTW!) utterly killed.

  • Sam said:

    Brilliant Trish! I couldn’t have said it better myself. It feels as thought I was reading about our family! Our DS is 7 as well, and a completely self taught reader. His literature of choice; Calvin and Hobbes and The Clone Wars Adventure Graphic Novels :)

    I’m going to pass this post onto all my local unschool peeps!
    .-= Sam´s last blog ..Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution! =-.

  • Kathy Kerr said:

    Oh my! I guess I read too much about breastfeeding just in general. When I saw this title I was thinking FORMULA? How does artificial baby milk help with reading of all things? And the “natural child-led reading” made me think of natural child led weaning. OH you can see it took me a minute to figure out what this great little piece was really about! I do enjoy your posts!

    Kathy in Arlington, VA

  • Trish (author) said:

    Oh my gosh, Kathy! Now that I re-read the title, I’m laughing. I’ve talked about natural, child-led weaning a million times. Maybe I made this title subconsciously due to the rhyme? And pairing it with formula! I wonder if anyone else wonders what I’m talking about when they see the title!

  • Beth Eckert said:

    I like this. I didn’t actually teach my first two sons to read, but I read to them almost every night from the time my 1st son was still very small. I read to them for at least 5 years straight and now they both read really well and love to read!
    Beth Eckert´s last blog post ..Diaper Accessories

  • big mamma frog said:

    So true.

    I pushed no1 child into reading at an age when I thought he SHOULD be – my mistake! I learnt my lesson (!) and left no2 child to find reading at his own pace: at age 6 he taught himself, while I was busy getting on with life. Now at age 9 he’s an avid reader.

    I’m still waiting for no3 (now age 7) and hanging in there by my fingernails. Tick tick tick tick…sometimes it’s hard to keep the faith!

  • Paula Drake said:

    I like this. I didn’t actually teach my first two sons to read, but I read to them almost every night from the time my 1st son was still very small. I read to them for at least 5 years straight and now they both read really well and love to read!

  • alohanui said:

    Good one Trish! I feel like I can feel the current of the excitement you and Arp must’ve been sharing…
    I like the point about talking to other unschoolers.
    It seems to be working for our DS5, he asks to sound out words and puts things together, but just as often I think he rolls his eyes when we try to stear him in that direction.
    The other day it occurred to me how little DD3 knew of her alphabet and it threw me into a panic! I had to work on myself for a bit after that…