We were homeschooling and our son was six years old. He had a good vocabulary and comprehension of ideas beyond many kids his age. We knew reading would open up the world to him, we knew he’d like it, and we knew he was very capable of doing it. But he didn’t.
We tried flashcards. We tried read-alongs. We tried playing hardball and we tried being fun and exciting. We tried restricting activities until he’d done his reading lessons, and we tried giving rewards. All these efforts had two things in common: they didn’t help him read one bit and they made our relationship with him worse. Being a parent and being a child cease to be fun when you’re at odds all the time.
So, at an age when we were starting to worry about his lagging behind, we simply stopped trying. We quit the whole effort. He was nearly seven when we gave it up in favor of more peace and harmony in the house.
Daily life was a little easier, yet we still had this nagging worry about him. What will happen if he’s behind where he’s supposed to be for his age? Still, everything about our efforts to make him read felt wrong, so we simply ignored the fears.
I was reading a lot of great books on how kids learn and I knew intellectually that kids need no instruction to learn to read. They will learn when they find it valuable and if they are in an environment where it’s possible – one with books and other readers. Still the head and the heart are very different things. I knew kids were better at self-teaching than being taught, but I had to watch my own son, sharp as he was, remain completely outside the wonderful world of the written word.
Then it happened, just like so many of the books said it would. You believe it in stories, but it’s still a surprise when it happens in real life. One night I overheard my son reading aloud to himself in his bed. And the first thing he read wasn’t Dick and Jane, but Calvin & Hobbes. Not light fare for a brand new reader.
Let me back up a bit. We would often read to him for a few minutes before bed, and lately he had been in love with some old Calvin & Hobbes comics I had from my adolescence. We’d read him a few pages and say goodnight. One night it was later than usual and he asked me if I’d read. I was a bit grumpy and tired, and I said no, I was going to bed. He protested a bit but could see I wasn’t up for it so he let it go, seeming defeated. Ten minutes later I heard him reading.
He later told me that he wasn’t actually reading it that night, nor the first several nights after when he spoke the words (and often laughed) aloud. He had heard us read it so many times he had the words memorized. He was looking at the pictures and reciting the words like lines to a familiar song. I didn’t know this until long after he could clearly read without first memorizing, but it really doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s probably better that my wife and I assumed he was reading it when we first heard him, or we might have been tempted to intervene and try to cajole him into reading it without the cheat of memory and illustrations. I know too well the kind of unhappy outcome that would have created.
For a year or more we fought with a kid who clearly had all the tools to read and we got nowhere. He wasn’t faking his inability, he really couldn’t read. Reading was always an activity that interrupted his day and was associated with expectant and often visibly (despite attempts to hide it) stressed parents. It was a concept as useless as it was foreign. But once he had a strong desire – to enjoy his favorite comic strip – and his inability to read was the barrier, he overcame it in no time and never even celebrated or announced it to us. It was utilitarian, not some lofty thing to perform for a gold star or a pat on the back. His ability and interest in reading, then writing and spelling, only intensified as he found it indispensable for playing games like Minecraft and Scribblenauts.
We’ve since made a full transition from the imposed curriculum of homeschooling to the kid-created structure of unschooling. Looking back I’m a little ashamed of the silly way we approached things before, but at the time it was so hard to let go, with all that crippling fear. There are so many “shoulds” pumped into parents brains from the moment they conceive. There are percentiles and averages and tests and rankings galore. But these are useful only to the statisticians and none of them have your child’s interest or happiness in mind. Aggregates aren’t individuals. Living your life, or attempting to shape your child’s life, to conform to the average of some population is not a recipe for success. At best it will produce blandness. At worst a broken spirit.
You can read any number of thinkers like John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, or Peter Gray on why our son’s experience is not exceptional, but normal. You can look at studies that show kids who learn to read at age four and kids who learn at age nine have the same reading comprehension by age 11. You can get story after story from places like the Sudbury Valley school about kids who taught themselves to read in a few short weeks once they got the interest, and even one girl who didn’t become interested until age 13 and then went on to win a literary prize. But it’s all theory and myth until you experience it with your own child.
Read the books. Look into the unschooling movement and literature. But above all, take a step back from your own kids and realize that they are only young once and for such a short time. Do you really want your memories with them to consist of fights and forced lessons? Enjoy them. Let them go their own way and navigate the world. There are few things more exciting than when they come to you to ask for your help or insight because they really want it, or when they never do because they figure it out on their own and gain a confidence that cannot be won any other way.
The world we live in does not lack for natural incentives to learn to read. The rewards are massive, as are the costs of illiteracy. We don’t need to artificially incentivize reading the way a poor farmer might have a few hundred years ago. When we do we do more harm than good, if not to our children’s ability to read then at least to our enjoyment of our time with them. They figured out how to speak – the most difficult, nuanced, and complex skill a human can master – without any formal instruction. They can learn to read too.
Here are a few other examples of learning by doing from my own life: