What Happened When We Decided To ‘Unschool’ Reading
When do kids start reading? That depends. In schools, children are taught to read from the age of 4 (often even earlier as nurseries are encouraged to have children ready for school). Our children are home educated in the unschooling style, and so we have never ‘taught’ our children to read. This may sound awful but please allow me to explain a little.
Unschooling is a philosophy based on the premise that humans are hard-wired to adapt and learn for their progression. It suggests that when provided with good supportive conditions, children will flourish and learn all that they need to in the same way that they learn to walk and talk when they are babies.
It’s an incredibly interesting philosophy and one that I am so glad we discovered when Esmae was a baby, so I wrote a whole post called “what is unschooling?“, if you’d like to know more.
It doesn’t mean that we reject all structured education- far from it. It simply means that structured education such as lessons is seen as an optional resource, to be chosen and engaged with by the learner, as opposed to being forced onto them.
There are days when we do no written activities at all and our children still learn so much doing everyday life- so much so that I wrote this post about everything my children learned in a day of unschooling. Unschooling reading is simply one outworking of the philosophy.
We go at the child’s pace and don’t enforce any singular reading ‘program’- we offer fascinating books, read aloud to our children. encourage literacy in all areas, explore different ways of developing fine motor skills, and gently support and guide the child as they develop reading skills.
When do kids start reading? It depends…
As far as I can tell, there is really no good reason that as a society we jump at the age of four from free-play in forests and at craft tables and elbow-deep in flour in the kitchen, to forcing children to do things that they aren’t interested in. Other countries with a much later school starting age and more relaxed, child-centric learning philosophies have far better outcomes than the UK so it is strange that we haven’t followed suit.
Patrick and I decided a long time ago that we would do things differently.
People are often interested in our way of doing things, particularly as it is very counter-cultural and ‘unschooling reading’ is seen as a huge risk. We are told from a young age that if we don’t have enforced lessons then we won’t learn to read, write, do maths, etc.
This, thankfully, isn’t true. Our middle daughter taught herself to read in a two-week period when she was 7. I’m talking going from struggling to spell ‘CAT’ to picking up chapter books and reading them out loud, with confidence and understanding. I’ve seen the exact same thing happen with my friends’ unschooled children too; they seem to get to the age of around 8 and have a huge leap in their ability to decipher letters and words.
The main issue with ‘unschooling reading’, or indeed unschooling anything in our society is the fact that natural learning happens at a hugely variable rate compared to when children have compulsory lessons. Some things will be picked up and understood in an instant and some things will happen very slowly, and of course the rate will depend on each individual child.
This is hard to swallow when we are being judged as parents based on the potential economic output of our kids (can they do XYZ at this age translates in a way into ‘how much will they be able to earn when they’re older?’), and when children are seen as a reflection of ourselves (something I also encourage people to question- they are a whole, complete person, not a secondary version of us).
Why are you really asking “When do kids start reading?”
It is because of our own egos that we push kids to do more, quicker, and keep up with the crowd. I’ve been there- it is very, very hard to hold onto your beliefs about the learning process when your 8 year old can’t read and you are judged as failing them (our oldest daughter is dyslexic and has taken a lot longer to read; however she is progressing brilliantly and most importantly, loves reading).
It is hard to disentangle our egos from our offspring when children are seen as property and our property, according to warped measures of success, tells people about how ‘well’ we are doing in life.
People are also understandably concerned that their child won’t learn to read if they don’t have compulsory lessons, especially as children in the UK are taught at age 4-5 and a child who doesn’t attend school (or, indeed, attends a school in the Netherlands) often still won’t be reading fluently at age 6 or 7.
Having researched intensely for years on the subject of child development/psychology/education, and having met loads of families who are autonomous and unschooling reading, I’m very confident and happy with the idea that allowing a child to find their own path is a safe and joyful option for their education.
Q: When do kids start reading? A: When they’re ready.
None of our kids have ever been to nursery or school, and they have always been given 100% free choice over any lessons that they attend. Our eldest daughter, for example, chose from the age of 6 to have some reading and writing tutoring sessions with a lovely, chilled-out tutor for a few months. Now she is 9 and she attends weekly classes in literacy, numeracy, art and a topical project as well as science, technology and engineering- completely her own choice.
We read to her, she picks up books and reads as much as she can, coming to us to help with trickier spellings. She writes cards and letters to her friends and we write out stories and emails that she dictates to us. It’s all part of nurturing a love of literacy and a confidence around the practise to give her a solid baseline from which to progress. ‘Not teaching’ her to read doesn’t mean ignoring literacy; it simply means facilitating the learning rather than imposing it.
Something that people have often asked ask is, “Don’t they miss out before they can read fluently?”
Nope. Unschooling reading means our daughter hasn’t missed out for a second; she has been surrounded by books since she was born. I have photos of me reading Harry Potter to her as a newborn (bit weird but yeah I did that).
I’ve always made up stories and fantasies to stir her imagination. She has audio books, Patrick and I read to her, she has follow-along books with audio narration and pictures and words.
When she wants to Google something she gives the spelling a go herself and asks for help when she needs it. She plays Minecraft and learns what words say through direct context.
She sits with her sisters and they help each other, figuring out letters and deciphering them in an immersive and freely chosen game. They use voice search and learn what letters make the words. They make comic strips and ask for help spelling the words they can’t manage yet, or they give them a go and spell them phonetically (I’m always amazed by how kids’ spellings of words make so much more sense than the ‘proper’ way!)
There are a million ways of bringing reading and a love of it to a child’s life- force is not necessary.
Q: When do kids start reading? A: When they need to.
One of the things that makes me absolutely squeak in joy is when a child learns something naturally and finds joy, purpose and freedom in it. As we sat down to dinner while living in Bali a few years ago, our then 6 year old daughter picked up a menu and studied it for a long time. Eventually she looked up and asked, “Mum- what’s ‘tempeh’?”
This may not seem like a big deal for most parents- most school kids her age in the UK can read books fluently, so a lot of parents would see the fact that this was noteworthy as a source of embarrassment, even shame.
I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled that she thought to pick up the menu out of curiosity and that her confidence was completely intact despite not reading fluently. I’m thrilled that she tried to read.
I’m thrilled that she read it, and that it was a word that she’d never seen before. I’m thrilled that she was interested enough in deciphering the word to ask me what it meant, and that she trusts our relationship enough to reach out and ask questions, knowing that I will respond and help her.
Her education is joyful and completely self-motivated, while being led and guided by us as her parents. It is dynamic and freely chosen and relevant to herself as a unique individual.
She has chosen to read because it is relevant and adaptive for her to read, because it is a useful tool in exploring the world. And she will have the huge gift of being able to read as well as the even bigger gift of autonomy, of having been given the choice as to how and when and what to learn, and the complete ownership of her own mind and knowledge.
That is quite aside from the fact that she is growing up knowing that she is enough, just as she is- that no grade or speed of learning or skill or tidbit of knowledge is ever going to increase her worth.
I am hopeful that she progresses and grabs learning opportunities with both hands, and says ‘no thank you’ to those things that are irrelevant to her, so that she may
become stay exactly who she was meant to be.