Unschooling: How will they learn to read?

April 25th, 2013 Comments Off on Unschooling: How will they learn to read?




“Of course, a child may not know what he may need to know in ten years (who does?), but he knows, and much better than anyone else, what he wants and needs to know right now, what his mind is ready and hungry for. If we help him, or just allow him, to learn that, he will remember it, use it, build on it. If we try to make him learn something else, that we think is more important, the chances are that he won’t learn it, or will learn very little of it, that he will soon forget most of what he learned, and what is worst of all, will before long lose most of his appetite for learning anything.”

~John Holt~ Teach Your Own

I belong to and have started several Unschooling groups and it seems that eventually the topic of reading makes it’s way into many of the conversations.

“But…How will they learn to read if I don’t intervene?” one parents asks.

“If my child is showing an interest in reading, should I jump in and help?” asks another.

“If left to their own devices, what if my child doesn’t pick up reading naturally, say by the age of 7 or 8?”

These are valid questions, especially if you are new to the idea of self directed learning. Everyone wants their child to learn to read. And we feel,  as responsible parents, that we have a duty to make sure that they do. And that is very true.

However, do we simply want our child to be able to decode letters and translate them into sounds that come from their mouths? Or, do we desire for our children a love of the written word, the ability and desire to sink into a book or a website and throughly take it in, because they want to?

Compulsory schooling encourages the former. It is the goal of the school to have a child master the sounds of letters by age 5. They then move on to decoding sounds and make them into words. They further progress to assign reading assignments with which the child may or may not have an interest, have them regurgitate what they’ve read and then move on. After 12 years you have a reader. Or such is the goal of compulsory schooling.

With unschooling, we allow the reading process to develop organically. If you are living in a developed country, the written word is everywhere. Internet, libraries, billboards, grocery stores, websites, games – all depend upon the written word. Children now have access to websites, literature, tutorials, games etc. 24/7. They live in a world that deeply relies upon the written word.

It is my experience that when children are left to explore the world in their own way and in their own time, eventually they are going to bump up against words. They are going to want to know how to decode those letters so that they can get on with what they are doing in the moment. It may help to remember back to when your child began crawling or walking or learning colors. Why did they learn those things? Did you need to take them to a class to learn them? Probably not. They learned by watching, trying and failing at times. But eventually, they learned it. They learned it because they made a connection. If they learned (fill in the blank) it would help them to (fill in the blank). With that connection was born a desire and motivation to learn the skill.

Both of my sons got to be proficient readers by playing video games and reading comics. Those were things they were interested in. My oldest son liked to draw long before he knew how to read. He was attracted to comic books early on. At first he would flip the pages and just look at the pictures or would make up his own story based on the pictures he saw. But eventually he wanted to know what the words said. That was my cue to sit with him and help him as long as he wanted. Video games and animation games were the same. He wanted to write his own words for his online comics or he wanted to chat with friends on a video game. Reading helped him to communicate more with his peers. Reading became a big priority for him so that he could reach his goal of communicating.

I would help them read when they needed a word decoded or needed the spelling or definition of a word, but at times I was unavailable and they wanted to play their game or read that latest Garfield book NOW. Over time, they got very motivated to learn to decode words on their own, look up the meaning of words and use written words in their chats on games. They recognized the link between reading and communicating. They put full attention on learning it and got better and better at it as they saw the usefulness in it.

I’ve seen so many unschooling parents that think that if they’re unschooling, it means that they don’t help their children. They feel that they perhaps shouldn’t interfere or suggest activities because it is totally a child led philosophy. There could be nothing further from the truth. Our job as unschooling parents is to be super involved with our kids and suggest away! You know your child better than anyone. Leave that comic book lying around, get those library books on Sharks. Then let it go. If they are not interested, let it sit. Let it rest for maybe another day, week or year when they will jump at the chance to tackle that item you left for them. If the child is asking for help – GIVE IT TO THEM. This philosophy of life is about supporting your kids in any way that you can in this present moment. But it’s also about trusting them to let you know if something is working for them or not. That manipulative that looks so cool to you, may not look so great to them. A chat on a video game may seem like a waste of time to you but it may be a learning to read connection for your child. Balance is the key here. Taking cues from your kids is empowering for them. Pushing and demanding is a turn off and while they may oblige, they are probably feeling that learning is not fun.

If my kids ask me to spell a word for them, I spell it. If they ask for the meaning of a word, I explain it. If I don’t know the spelling or the definition of a word, I look it up for them on their computers. I don’t send them off to look it up all by themselves. Why? Because that is the shortest way to getting them to be uninterested.

Many times parents feel as though they have to “toughen” their kids up for the “real” world. “The kid has to learn sometime,” I’ve often heard parents say. But if you push them off on their own,many kids feel unsupported and they may stop caring about reading, spelling and writing. I know when I was told as a child to “go look it up” I usually NEVER did.  This not only made me stop asking my parents for guidance, it made me HATE dictionaries and thesauruses until later in life.

Both of my kids have online dictionaries. Not because I won’t spell for them or give them the definition of words, but because they asked for them when I told them there was such a thing. They saw me looking up words for them. So when they needed a spelling or definition and I wasn’t available, they started looking them up themselves. By being available to them when I could and helping them when I didn’t know myself, they gained the confidence to start looking things up for themselves. But they made the decision to do that on their own. This is helping your child in a way that empowers him to begin doing things for himself, in his own time and at his own comfort level. Pushing them off before they are ready only discourages them and many times will make them want to give up.

Kids learn to read by watching you. They learn to read because it is all around them. They may play video games in which reading is necessary to advance, they may be at a grocery store where they want to know the ingredients in  a particular product, they may be in the backseat wondering what the street signs say. They may see you chuckle as you read that favorite comic or novel and want to know what you are laughing at. They may listen as you read them a book and make the connection between the words on the page and your voice reading the story. Reading is a necessity in our modern world. When children are left to their own devices, with your loving guidance and understanding, they will learn to read. The WHEN is up to the child. And when the child discovers the usefulness of reading, you will have a life long lover of reading on your hands or at least a person that can read to get to something else that he wants. Does it really matter if this happens at age 5, 10 or even 12? They have a lifetime ahead of them. Make reading an enjoyable fun thing to do and let them choose when they want to do it.






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