Learning to Read Without Being Taught

Below is a photo of F, my five year old, as I happened upon him one morning this summer.

He had in his hand the Dr Seuss Classic, “Cat in the Hat”, open to the first page, methodically calling out each letter of each word: “T-H-E-SPACE-S-U-N-SPACE…”etc, all the way down the paragraph. Then, triumphantly, he turned to me and said, “What does that spell?”

I, of course, did not need to even look at the book to tell him–having been read that book countless times as a child, and read it to my own children, countless times. He was so pleased! He read on for a bit, became bored, and moved on to some other activity.

This type of thing has occurred at some point with each of my four oldest children: their interest in literacy builds naturally, being surrounded by a world full of written words, and they begin to practice and work at learning how to read and spell. It is never unpleasant–they are always doing it because they want to! They aren’t even aware it’s work–they feel excited and proud of themselves for having reached a level of maturity to be able to interpret those mysterious symbols! And so they continue, until eventually they have taught themselves to read. Most glorious of all to me is that never at any point has it entered into their minds that reading is tedious, boring, or hard work. It is simply a treasured skill that they have achieved through their own ingenuity and brilliance.

All my children thus far have followed a similar trajectory: they learn to read proficiently by sometime within their sixth year. This happens to conveniently be right in line with what is expected of schooled children. But I know of many many children who learn later. Interestingly, from my anecdotal observations, eight seems to be another common reading age, but I’ve seen stories of children who are eleven, or fourteen even, learning then. It seems that the older a child is, the quicker it comes when it does. An older child will go from illiteracy to reading thick novels in a matter of weeks. I don’t have personal experience with that. But I do have personal experience with the fact that just as babies are driven to learn to crawl and walk and hold a spoon, children are driven to learn to do all the ubiquitous things in their environments, like reading, and writing, and arithmetic. And they’re clever lil squirts–they always figure it out when left to their own devices, never once having guessed that they were engaging in something we adults like to call “Education”.

It is a beautiful, exciting, miracle, which brings me utter joy every time I notice it. I’m so grateful to be able to give the gift of natural learning to my children, and the gift of witnessing it to myself!

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