How will they learn to read?

If you don’t teach your kids to read, will they be illiterate for life? There has been a lot written by other unschoolers addressing this topic. Sandra Dodd has a good little collection of anecdotes here. And Dr. Peter Gray wrote this article on the subject.

Here’s how it worked for us:

My oldest is now almost 12 and loves to read. She’s obsessed with the Warriors book series (which, if you don’t know, is an elaborate soap opera about cats, haha). But when she was 8 years old, she wasn’t reading. At all. And I was starting to FREAK OUT. Yes, I had read all those anecdotes about kids who learned to read in their own time, but I was sure that MY kids would be special geniuses who would learn to read early because I am Such A Great Mom™ that I’ve been reading books to them daily since they were babies. Of course, my kids ARE all special geniuses, but that doesn’t mean they felt it was necessary to learn how to read at the age that their schooled peers were learning it.

Anyway, when she was 8.5 and still not reading at all, I was panicking, and I decided to throw unschooling philosophy out the window and TEACH that kid how to read whether she liked it or not. I brought home a bunch of early reader books from the library and made her sit down and try to read them. I was very patient and kind with her, but these “teaching” sessions all ended in tears of frustration for her. She could NOT get it. After a few of these lessons, I realized I was doing more harm than good and I stopped.

I started to believe that my child might have Dyslexia, and so I started googling all about that. I thought she had enough of the symptoms of Dyslexia (according to internet lists, you know) that I was becoming worried about it. I spent months reading about Dyslexia and discussing the issues around it with a friend of mine whose kids have all been diagnosed with it.

I stayed up late at night talking to my husband about whether we were ruining our kid’s life by not having her in school where she could get a diagnosis and be taught how to read by specialized teachers who know how to accommodate neurological differences like Dyslexia.

Of course I never let on to my child that I was worried about her in that way, at least not by my words. But I regret that she probably picked up on my fretting anyway.

Somewhere in those months my daughter learned how to read.

It was hard to notice at first because her skills developed so slowly. It wasn’t like some of the stories I’d read about kids who seem to suddenly just wake up one day and KNOW how to read. Her ability to read developed very slowly. It probably over two years after she began reading before she got up to what would be considered a “normal” reading level for her age. Her spelling also improved, and now she’s great at it. During the period of my worrying, she would often write words, but they’d be spelled so idiosyncratically that they’d be missing whole syllables, and often written in mirror image.

So what did I learn? I learned not to freak out and start internet-diagnosing a kid if they can’t read when you think they should. It doesn’t mean anything about their future abilities.

My second child also learned to read when he was about 8, but his progress was much quicker. In fact there was about a year-long period where he was reading better than his older sister. I’m so glad my kids weren’t in school during this crucial period. I could have had a daughter who was filled with shame about her inability to read, especially when her younger brother surpassed her in reading skills for a short time. I feel quite sure that if she had been in school, she would have been misdiagnosed with some kind of learning disability. Who knows what effects that would have had on her future?

It leads me to wonder how often the kids who are diagnosed with a learning disability in school are actually just kids whose brains are on a different schedule. And whether if given enough time and patience, those kids would be just fine without the extra “help” that schools offer.

My third child is almost 8 and is slowly picking up reading skills. My youngest is 5 and has learned most of the alphabet and is interested in finding out which letters make which sounds.

Being close by as my kids have little epiphanies with reading and other skills is something I would not trade for anything. I wish I hadn’t been so overly worried about my oldest, but that experience taught me a lot about patience and allowing a child to follow their own schedule with learning. I’m thankful for that for sure.

How about you? Did your kids learn how to read in the exact way you had planned for them? (haha) Or did they surprise you?

One thought on “How will they learn to read?

  1. Thanks for your story!! When my daughter was four I started buying all these expensive textbooks to teach her to read and frankly we just never got around to them. She just knew how to read. I have no idea when or how but she’s 13 and reads adult-level books and has never struggled. What a waste of money but hindsight is 20/20!!!!


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