Reading Doesn’t Need to Be Taught – How Unschoolers Learn to Read

Reading Doesn't Need to Be Taught - How Unschoolers Learn to Read

It is commonly accepted that children should be taught how to read.

But what if that is not the case?

What if learning to read is as instinctual as learning to talk? What if teaching children to read is actually unhelpful and damages their love of reading?

“I think reading instruction is the enemy of reading.” -John Holt

Reading Doesn't Need to Be Taught - How Unschoolers Learn to Read

I have four children, and I do not plan on teaching any of them to read. Currently, my 8- and 6-year-olds are well on the way to being fluent readers.

I didn’t always feel this way. Like most other people I thought that there was a specific way that children had to learn how to read. When we first decided not to send our children to school I knew that they could learn to read in their own time, but I still expected that when they were ready I would need to actively teach them. I would find out what method was best and we would work through it together.

Never happened.

Thankfully, by the time they showed any real interest in reading, I had deschooled enough to know that I did not want to interfere with this process. I had heard that children could learn how to read on their own, and while I had no idea how that worked I was excited to watch it unfold. I could see how capable my children were of learning without teaching in every other area, and trusted that they would do the same with learning to read and write.

And they are. Watching them learn in their own unique ways, in their own time, has highlighted the absurdity of how reading is taught in schools. To think that all children can be instructed in how to make sense of the written word in the same way, at the exact same time, is quite ridiculous.

Reading Doesn't Need to Be Taught - How Unschoolers Learn to Read

Learning to Read at School

“The reason that kids need to learn to read so early in school is because in school kids read about doing stuff instead of doing stuff. When kids live life outside of school they actually get to do stuff, so it’s not as important to read about it in order to learn.” -Lisa Nielsen

Reading is the first job of school. When children enter their first year of schooling (sometimes even before), one of the very first things they are taught is how to read.

Why do children need to learn to read at age 5? Not because they are ready, but because of the limitations of a system of mass education. The majority of learning that happens inside schools requires reading. The most efficient way of delivering information to many students at once is through the written word. How reading is taught in schools does not reflect what is best for children, but what is most efficient for mass education.

Learning to read in school is one of a child’s first lessons in disempowerment. Forced reading instruction implies that you are no longer to be trusted to learn on your own, you are incapable of directing your own learning, reading is something that you need to be taught, and teachers know the best way to learn to read, not you.

Reading Doesn't Need to Be Taught - How Unschoolers Learn to Read

Learning to read in school means that every child will be taught in the same way. What this way is depends not on how your child learns, but whatever this year’s current trend is (maybe phonics or whole language). ‘Experts’ are always coming up with new ideas about the ‘best’ way to teach reading, but anyone who has watched children learn without teaching knows that this process cannot be standardised. That would be like using a program to teach babies to talk all at the same age, in the same way. Absurd! We have no idea how exactly they learn, and they certainly don’t need teaching. It is a completely individual process and varies from child to child.

Yes, many (not all) children learn to read at school, but probably not in the way that is most suited to them, and long before they are really ready. And if they are unable to keep up with the curriculum they are made very aware of this fact, maybe even shamed for it.

Reading Without School

Unschooled children, not subjected to curriculum or timelines, are free to learn to read when they are truly ready. They have engaged parents who are able to help them navigate the world without reading, until they are ready to master it themselves.

Reading Doesn't Need to Be Taught - How Unschoolers Learn to Read

The written word is everywhere. It’s virtually impossible NOT to be exposed to reading and writing. Children naturally become interested in learning to read when it is relevant and meaningful to them. Maybe they don’t want to wait for a parent to be available to read books anymore, maybe they want to communicate with friends online, maybe they need to read to play a video game, maybe they want to write letters to family members, maybe they want to order their own food from a restaurant. Reading comes when reading is relevant, and when children are ready.

“…in a literate population, it is really not that difficult to transmit literacy from one person to the next. When people really want a skill, it goes viral. You couldn’t stop it if you tried.” –Carol Black

Children who teach themselves to read, do it joyfully. They are intrinsically motivated, not focused on meeting others expectations. They are free from coercion, comparison, and standardisation. The reading process is truly their own. It is impossible (and unnecessary) to tell how exactly it happens, and as they are not required to constantly prove their learning, unschooled children often choose to keep it to themselves until they are ready to share.

Learning to read is as individual as each person. Some children seem to suddenly be able to read all at once, others progress slowly over years. Some memorise whole words, others like to sound things out. Some ask many questions, others learn by observation.

Reading Doesn't Need to Be Taught - How Unschoolers Learn to Read

Seeing the vast differences in how children learn to read, and how completely naturally it happens, really solidifies how limiting teaching reading really is. Instead of children being able to learn in the best way for their individual brains, they are all forced to fit into one mould. They are compared, measured, tested, standardised, and disempowered. Self-taught reading, on the other hand, is an empowering process.

Natural Age of Reading

Because all children now generally learn to read at around the same time, we have come to believe that this is the natural age of reading. Some even believe there is a ‘critical window’ when children must learn to read. But, there’s really nothing natural about it. Five years old is not the natural age of reading, it’s the age when forced learning starts. Nothing more.

“The problems with this process are many, but the one that I’d like to highlight is this: the available “data” that drives it is not, as a matter of fact, the “science of how people learn.” It is the “science of what happens to people in schools.”

This is when it occurred to me: people today do not even know what children are actually like. They only know what children are like in schools.” –Carol Black, A Thousand Rivers (A must read)

Children who learn to read on their own terms, in their own time, tell a different story. The natural age of reading spans many years.

One survey of 85 unschooled children concluded that the average age of learning to read was 8.4 years. “32% of children were reading before the age of 8. Nearly 50% of children learnt to read between the ages of 8 and 10. About 17% learnt to read after the age of 10.” (read more here)

Peter Gray also surveyed unschooling families on learning to read and found that of 21 children “two learned at age 4, seven learned at age 5 or 6, six learned at age 7 or 8, five learned at age 9 or 10, and one learned at age 11. None of these children has difficulty reading today.”

Children learn to read at a variety of ages, when allowed to. And yet we are constantly hearing about how schools need to increase literacy levels, and how to improve your child’s reading. It seems like the problem is not children, but teachers and parents inability to wait and trust their child.

Reading Doesn't Need to Be Taught - How Unschoolers Learn to Read

Benefits of Self-Taught Reading

Firstly, what do we mean by self-taught reading? Is it never helping your child? Leaving them completely on their own? Not providing them with assistance when requested? No, of course not.

Self-taught reading means children are 100% in control of when and how they learn to read. That means no pressure from parents, no coercion, no forcing them to practice every day, no initiating reading programs, no testing, no interfering.

It means answering their questions, reading stories together, and providing any assistance a child asks for. It means empathising when it’s tricky, supporting them in the ways they need, and listening when they are ready to share with you. It sometimes means collaboration and learning together with siblings. Self-taught readers still ask for help from time to time, it’s just that we don’t ‘take over’ and provide more help than they are asking for.

Reading Doesn't Need to Be Taught - How Unschoolers Learn to Read

What are the benefits of self-taught reading? Many! Some include:

  • Positive attitudes towards reading
  • Trust in themselves
  • Free from pressure
  • Able to read more interesting books instead of ‘readers’
  • Often greater comprehension when learning to read later
  • Can learn at own pace
  • Not compared to peers
  • Maintaining respect for children
  • Can learn in the absolute best way for each individual

What About Learning Difficulties?

Some children will inevitably struggle more with reading than others. Unschooling does NOT mean refusing to help a child who is wanting more help. It simply means that help is given consensually, and autonomy is protected. Maybe a child learns best with specific instruction? Ok! You are able to teach them in the way that they find beneficial, when they are ready.

Our Experience

In our family we currently have two children who are reading/learning to read. They are 8 and 6 years old. My role has been mainly an observer. I read books to them, I answer any questions they have, and that is all. I do not correct their reading and writing unless they ask me specifically what something says, if they spelled something right, or if a letter is around the right way. This is their experience…

Reading Doesn't Need to Be Taught - How Unschoolers Learn to Read

8-year-old

For Miss 8, a desire to write came first. When she was around 4 years old she would scribble notes, lists, and plans in her own made up style. This then progressed to writing letters and asking how to spell more and more words. She came to know the letter sounds and started to write phonetically.

When she was around 5 years old, we got a free trial of a popular online learn to read program. She seemed to like this, I think mainly because she got to use the computer, and so we signed up. Over a year she used it on and off. This is the only regret I have about reading! I wish we had never started this. The program taught phonics and I feel it interfered with the natural way she was learning to read. It is very clear to me now that she does not learn this way, she seems to instead memorise whole words. This was when we had first started unschooling and if I was further down the deschooling road I would never have introduced it. When I realised my mistake I did not renew our subscription. She was fine with this because she got bored of it easily. She was even upset at times because some of the ‘games’ were timed and although she knew the answers she couldn’t get past some levels because she wasn’t quick enough. I was also not a fan of the rewards based style of learning. I wanted her to learn for her, not for rewards and praise.

Reading Doesn't Need to Be Taught - How Unschoolers Learn to Read

After she had used the program, Miss 8 knew all the letter sounds and was able to read short books. However, she didn’t find this particularly interesting. She found blending the sounds difficult and could only read books with short easy words, which were boring to her. By the time she would work out all the words in a sentence she had forgotten what the whole sentence said anyway! She really wasn’t ready to read. Having now deschooled more in this area, I stopped encouraging reading and I feel like this was like starting again. It was as if she needed to forget how she was ‘supposed’ to learn to read and find her own way again. Over the years she has gone through phases with reading just like she does with other interests. Sometimes she will read every day for a week and seem to make a lot of progress, then she will not be interested in a month. Each time she comes back to it she has gained more knowledge, can read more words, has greater understanding and comprehension. I am SO grateful I realised that reading instruction was totally unnecessary before it was too late. She is now confidently and happily learning to read all on her own.

Now, at 8-years-old she can read picture books and is currently practising often so she can ‘know all the words’ because she would like to start reading novels. When she reads she rarely sounds out words. She simply asks me any words she doesn’t know and I tell her. After a few times, she has memorised the word. She is a big planner and is always writing down lists and ideas. She still learns a lot about reading from simply writing. She also plays Minecraft, which requires some reading. She types messages to her friends while playing and the computer reads out what she has written, this seems to be helping her learn to spell.

It is hard to tell exactly how reading has happened for her, but I have had some insights from comments she has made. After asking me a word once she said ‘thanks, I haven’t got that one in my head yet’. A few weeks ago she showed me how she finds smaller words inside bigger words to break them down and work out what the whole word is. It’s fascinating to watch.

“When kids learn to read on their own, they feel more happy. Because when you want to read a book you can read it in your own time and when you finish it you just feel really happy” -Miss 8

6-year-old

Reading Doesn't Need to Be Taught - How Unschoolers Learn to Read

Miss 6 has only very recently started to read. A few weeks ago, with her older sister’s current interest in reading every day, she decided she wanted to do the same. Only having Miss 8’s experience to go by, which has been slow steady progress over many years, I honestly thought she was a long way off reading. I was wrong. Reading for her has happened very quickly.

She first wanted to read a book that her older sister had just read. A picture book, but not an ‘easy’ one. It was incredibly slow and took her about a week to get through it all, but she was so persistent! She painstakingly sounded out every word and was overjoyed when she made it to the end. And then that was it. Every book since then has gotten quicker and quicker. Her next book, Fox in Socks, took her only 2 days to get through, and soon she was reading books in just one sitting. I have no idea how it happened.

Reading Doesn't Need to Be Taught - How Unschoolers Learn to Read

In her case, she knows all of the letter sounds, and prefers to work words out herself. She will only ask me to tell her if the word looks nothing like it sounds. Like her sister, she is not interested in reading simple books for beginner readers. She wants to read books she likes, so she does. She also reads with correct intonation and understands punctuation. She commented to me once that when her sister had read a book she was reading she thought a particular word said something else. So it seems she has learnt quite a lot about reading just from watching her sister read, and being read to.

Currently, at 6-years-old she is also reading picture books and practising every day. She also writes phonetically. Four weeks ago she was able to recognise some words but certainly could not ‘read’. I’m quite amazed at how it has all happened. She is delighted to be able to read and will read to anyone who will listen.

“Reading and writing is like play for us because we can do it whenever we want” – Miss 6

Learning to read is unique, and unpredictable, and natural. It’s also really fascinating to witness and I’m so grateful I get to watch it unfold for my children. Interestingly, they don’t really know how it is happening either. When I asked them how they learnt to read they said…

Miss 8: “I don’t know. I can’t remember. I just kind of try to work out the words and then once I’ve read it I don’t need help and I can read it again. Yeah, I don’t really know.”

Miss 6: “I don’t really know. I just decided to read a book and I read it.”

Reading happens, just like walking and talking. For children who are not forced to learn in a specific way, it often happens seemingly without any thought at all.

More Stories from Self-Taught Readers

When I first heard that children could teach themselves to read I wanted to read as many stories as I could! It was so interesting to me and helped me to deschool and trust my children in this area. I’d love to provide that for other people! I asked the unschoolers on my facebook page to share their stories and they did! Here are some more wonderful stories of empowered children teaching themselves to read…

……

“Miss 5, who has never been to school, taught herself to read at age four. She has always been an independent learner and one day it was just like a switch clicked and she was interested, and she, well, she just started reading. She recognised her letters at age two and loved pointing out all the letters on road signs and such like when we were out and about. So she was always interested in words, but then literally in the space of a week or two after she just turned four she started reading. She recognised there were words and just seemed to understand how to read them. I can’t explain it more than that! For her the process was so quick, it just happened!

I compare this to Miss 6. She started school age four and attended for a year and a term. From the first day of school, she was taught phonics. She is compliant by nature and happily practised the sounds and building words to start reading basic books. Her enthusiasm then started to wane. Being taught to read at such a young age means the books given to children to read are exceptionally boring! Think about it, stories written in English using only 3 letter phonetic words! ‘The cat sat on the mat’….’he got fat….’  Not that gripping eh? We did the books together, whilst both quietly losing the will to live…and I saw her initial love of books and her keenness to read started to drain away. We took her out of school (this was one reason of many) and started to unschool her alongside her sister. Her love of reading has never returned. I live in hope that one day it will.

In terms of their reading ability they are both very good readers but Miss 5 has a firmer grasp of language and can read a wider range of words. Being self-taught meant she learnt to read when she was ready and in the way that made sense to her. She wasn’t dictated to by a school system run according to the Government-of-the-day’s chosen method and tests. Mass schooling cannot accommodate the many different styles of learning that children may naturally benefit from following, nor are they able to progress at their own pace.

My youngest, Miss 4 hasn’t entered school. She isn’t close to having her epiphany reading moment yet, but the process is fascinating. She is working slower than Miss 5 did and it is giving me the opportunity to really watch the process this time round, and to really notice and understand each stage of the process. She can match most upper case and lower case letters, but she muddles some letter sounds currently – she might say the letter C as ‘see’, but B as ‘buh’. For example. This isn’t worrying and I don’t correct her. She is working it out slowly, slowly. Just last week I read her the title of a book and she excitedly pointed out each word – she couldn’t read the word but identified that each word was a separate entity from the others. These are the building blocks to reading and I feel privileged to watch her.

As a society, we are led to believe that reading has to be taught to children. Testing children, competitively inciting them to work at it to get to the next reading level, completing reading diaries to show books have been read and understood numerous times a week, rewarding children with stickers and stars. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Read to your children, that’s all you have to do. They will work the rest out for themselves. In their own way, in their own time.”

……

“Our son really wanted to learn to read from about age 5, but he still doesn’t like to write. He started off by asking us “what does that say?” for pretty much everything he saw! The “Open”, “Push”, “Pull” signs on doors, logos on trucks when we were driving, and he asked me to help him type signs into Minecraft worlds he was creating. We also set up iMessage on his iPad at about age 6, so he could message me, and a few other family members. The predictive text function has helped him heaps! At first, he always asked me to read the messages to him as they came in, but then one day started reading simple ones on his own, and was so excited about that milestone. All of a sudden, instead of asking me to read words he came across to him, he was reading them to me! One day, seemingly overnight, he was suddenly motivated to read entire pages out of books and long paragraphs of words. He stopped asking me to read him things because he now found it easier to do himself! Now, at age (just) 7, he is reading fluently and texting and writing too! He is so proud of himself and I’m so excited by how his reading developed – so differently from how he would’ve been taught in school.”

……

“I have an eight and half year old son and he is totally unschooled.

He learned to read and write all on his own, and … sorry for the lack of humility, in three languages.

From the day he was born, I read to him. I remember him two days old in my arms, and the book was bigger than him!

I read to him every night. The first book in French, the second one in English or Spanish. As he got older and when he could actually choose what book he wanted, I always started with the one in French and then he could choose English or Spanish, or both. When he was four years old, he would ask for the same ones over and over, and then change after a few days.

Anyway, one day as I was making lunch, and he had turned six and half almost to the day, I heard him read a book in English as he sat in the living room. He read it out loud perfectly. The same day, he did the same in French and Spanish.

And from that day on, well that’s it.

He also wrote on his own.

One thing that I think was important is that I never corrected him. Never. When he read to me and made mistakes or hesitated I never corrected him or spoke for him. Should I have corrected him, I felt I would have taken away the rhythm of the story, and to speak for him just seemed wrong to me.

With writing it has been the same. He never did letters or copied things. He just wrote when he started to read. He used to make many spelling mistakes and I never corrected them. Now he makes almost none and writes short stories with drawings and poems.

One thing I did a lot when he was three years old and older, was that when we would go out for a walk, we would often invent poems with things that rhymed. At first it was fun like “carrot” with “parrot” and then it got more sophisticated.

I also have to say that when I read to him it was really nice children’s book (not primary colours, but with nice drawings – many printed in France, Italy and Japan they have such nice books!) and also a lot of poetry like Silverstein or others. We also went through art books (adult art books) and I would read some parts and explain some paintings or let him tell me his thoughts on them.

So that’s it. It was rather simple as I never pressured him, and I never felt pressured.”

……

“I guess the background is that having witnessed children failing in reading at school whilst teaching, and being labelled so young, I just felt strongly that there was another, better way. When I had my own children we chose to home educate. I read to them both from babyhood whenever they wanted me to, which was a lot, like hours a day. We visited the library etc but my eldest, my daughter, only got interested in reading herself at around age 7. Eventually, at 7 and a half she asked me to ‘help’ her, so we did this by finding books she wanted to have a go at reading herself.

She began with those old-fashioned ‘Peter & Jane’ books, which I didn’t like but she did! They were all ‘sight words’ and since phonics make no sense to her, they were perfect. She read some with me now and again when she felt like it for a few months and at night I continued to read ‘Harry Potter’ to her. One night she just got bored of my slow reading and took Harry Potter to bed to try to read herself. The next day she took out chapter books from the library and on the way home we sat in the park and she read one of them. She was just turned 8.

That was it for her; it was like a very clever magic trick, she could just read anything she wanted after that……and she did. She read everything, hours and hours a day. She is 11 now and reading is one of her passions.

My son, a year younger, read in a different way, little bit by little bit he could read more words by having his favourite books read to him. I guess he became a pretty independent reader by age 9. his breakthrough books were by David Walliams; he used to read them in bits and then act out the scenes. It was just his way of making sense of the text. One day I found him on my bed, dive-bombing in an imaginary WW2 spitfire; book in hand. He was reading, but doing it his own way. It really made my heart swell with pride. He is 10 now and can read almost anything he wants. If there is a book he wants to read but is too challenging still (like Harry Potter for example), then he will ask me to read it to him. I continue to support his journey in the way he asks and this has meant that he has maintained engagement in reading. It is also a favourite pass-time for him.

Both my children still ask me for help with book suggestions, and we all talk about what we’re reading. I guess you could call me their ‘book whisperer’.”

……

“I was never worried about reading. I had learned early on that my kiddos learn and grow without me pushing them to be on my agenda or schedule. They actually learn better and faster when given the time to do things when they are ready. We never “taught” but happily answered questions. We never had a lesson but instead decided to just to tell them stories and read them book.

We started the Harry Potter series when Oli was 5 and Emmie was 6. They took to it immediately. Throughout a year or so, they started asking questions about sounds. Or sounding out words as we drove- like truck signs or store awnings. Emmie would often want to write words to go along with her drawings. Or write a letter to someone. I would spell very slowly, each word and sometimes show her the letters if she needed my help. Then one day, as we were reading Harry Potter, Emmie (6 at the time) told us she could read. Said she wanted to read the next paragraph. And she totally did! Like, she just read it. The way you or I would read. It just flowed. And from then on she was reading. Emmie has also told me that she regrets figuring out how to read because now when we drive by signs or walk by shops, her brain forces her to read everything. She is no longer able to daydream in the same way.

Oli also is a lover of the Harry Potter book. He also loves his computer and IPad. He spends his days researching about car physics games and playing them. When he was 6 he also just started spontaneously reading! Same as Emmie. He doesn’t regret learning as it helps him tremendously with his car research and game playing abilities.”

……

“I was unschooled and learnt to read at 9. I wasn’t pushed and it just got interested at that age, and by 12 was reading adult novels. I still love reading and topped all my English classes in high school when I decided I wanted to go to school.”

……

“My 11, almost 12 year old son refused to even entertain reading until he found value in it. No matter what I tried it all ended in tears. So I backed off and left him to it. When he was 10 he begged me for a certain 18 rated game. Fallout 4. I said originally no. But that’s all he wanted and with a few rules in place I agreed to get it for him.

4 weeks later he came to me and said “can you help me learn to read Mummy? I need to be able to read to play the game” so, we worked on it. We used Toe-by-toe and within 8 months he was reading enough he could play the game and now, almost 2 years later, he is reading at an age-appropriate level. My now 10 year old also did toe by toe (I did it with all 5 kids at the same time ad we were made to move from unschool to semi-structure to keep SS happy, but that’s a different story) but saw little value in reading till her step dad introduced her to Hulk comics. Then she was off and now is reading at an age appropriate level. My almost 13 year old daughter struggles due to dyslexic traits, but seems to be enjoying reading. The 15 year old, who left school age 7 couldn’t read and picked up a book a month later, read it, then begged me to never make him read out loud enjoys reading, but prefers audio books. the 8 year old isn’t really interested, but is working hard on Literacy planet and making some progress. So in one way or another, they were all self taught.”

……

“My Daughter (2nd child) refused to read, she had no interest…we showed her letters/sounds etc…but with her wild determination not to read we soon gave up. Where we live (Northern Ireland) kids start school at 4, I discovered that the real challenge was to change my mindset. I had always thought I would be fine letting them read when they wanted but yeah I struggled. I wanted her to know the absolute joy of reading, I knew that at times she felt embarrassed when younger kids could read things and she couldn’t, but slowly I learnt to trust her and let go. This summer she received a torch as a gift, soon she was following her big brothers footsteps and hiding under her quilt at night with a book and that it seems is how she is now, at 8yrs old, reading. As much as she has learnt I feel I have been taught even more and now feel so at ease with our younger children and their choice when to read. (Plus sooooo proud that she taught herself such an awesome, life changing skill!!)”

……

“Mathilda has grown up in a house with older, unschooled siblings. Sharing stories, poems and rhymes has always been a major part of our lives, but we have never used reading schemes, phonics, flash cards, or anything to ‘teach’ reading. Our 2 older boys learned to read fairly gradually at about 5, occasionally asking what things said or what sounds particular letters made, then figuring out how to put it all together, so they could read the words in their ‘Tin-Tin’ books.

Mathilda, however, did things a bit differently! I rarely tell people about the way she learned to read, as I very much want to help people to feel confident that there is no rush to read early, that early reading is no indicator of later academic success, and that, correspondingly, late reading is nothing to worry about. I feel almost guilty to admit, then, that with no help, pushing, teaching, or any encouragement beyond sharing stories, Mathilda could read fluently at 2 1/2. While I find this fascinating, I certainly take no parental pride in it! It was nothing to do with me, and is no more important an achievement than if she had chosen to put her energy into learning how to balance on a log or roll down a hill! I try really hard not to value one type of activity over another as my kids grow up, and instead to trust that their brains and bodies know what they need to be doing to find out about the world.

As I said, I tend not to talk about Mathilda’s early reading, for fear of discouraging other parents from allowing things to take their own course. I am aware that there can be a temptation to look at unschooling families and think ‘well, it’s ok for them, but my child has a different temperament and ‘needs’ teaching’, and I would hate to think that sharing what happened with Mathilda would encourage parents to think unschooling only ‘works’ with a special breed of ‘gifted’ child!

As it happens, as Mathilda got older she was diagnosed with ASD and ADHD. People…total strangers…often comment on how we ‘have our hands full’ or (as a criticism) ‘that one knows her own mind’. Her doctor recently suggested that we medicate her as her busy brain and ‘stubbornness’ will be a barrier to learning. I was able to point out that, in fact, her quick thoughts and admirable tenacity had enabled her to teach herself to read at 2, and that those characteristics, when allowed to blossom, will be the very thing that enable her to access any skills and knowledge she deems important.

Anyway…I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent, but I have three keen, able readers here, each with very different personalities, and each of them has done it entirely autonomously! I often wonder if adult nerves around autonomy in reading stem from the fact that it is a wholly private, insular activity, and our suspicion of this leads us to want to quantify and regulate it in some way.”

……

“Yes, I have a self-taught reader, she is 10 and reading and writing. Her older sister can read too I think, but she doesn’t choose to share that with us just yet, but even before they could read traditionally, word recognition and spelling words out was a daily thing. I helped when asked. Their ability to navigate technology is phenomenal, regardless of whether they can read or not.”

……

“Yes! My 6 year old taught herself! Apart from answering lots of questions & reading TO her for hours on end, our role was to remain hands off! It’s an absolutely fascinating thing to witness. I feel like, for some children, it’s a private enterprise- not wanting to reveal the fruits of their labour before they’re confident in what they’re doing. My daughter was like this- still is, really.”

……

“My 6 yr old basically taught himself to read too. He was always interested in knowing what the letters were, so we told him the sounds and he recognised and knew them when he was 2 ish. He played Reading Eggs on the computer for a bit when he was about 4, but other than that didn’t have any “teaching” at all. We have loads of books, go to the library all the time, read to him every night and he sees me reading lots too. One day, when he was 5yrs old, he pointed out the word “stop” on a sign and then within a few months was suddenly reading fluently. He seemingly skipped reading aloud too and now happily reads Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl etc to himself. It was quite baffling just how quickly he picked it up!”

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“My little girl (6 years old) started doing this only this week she picked up the book Green eggs and ham and started reading! The words she did not know she asked and for the first time my girl read to me! An Unschooling moment at its greatest! The more I let go and trust the more amazing things I see happen!”

……

“My daughter who is now 8 also taught herself how to read but it wasn’t because that was what she was interested in. We have always been big gamers and played a lot of games together and my daughter has always been very social. She got an ipod at 4… and soon after was texting family. She started with saying ‘hi’ and ‘I love you’, but her desire to communicate with the world propelled her into the world of reading and writing. By 6 she was having full paragraph conversations with people online connecting in games like Roblox and World of Warcraft and texting with family. It has grown since to a love of words and puns, and stories. She can also type faster than I can. She started writing her own story when she was five because story and imagining was her interest. Looking at my daughter’s journey so far I see throughout that she finds reading and writing as her vehicle. Nothing that I had to push her to do, simply natural and beautiful.

My son is 6 and he understands numbers like no one I have ever met. At 4 and 5 he started balancing equations and everything just makes sense to him through the lens of numbers. I got a lot of push from family to push him to read and learn letters but I resisted the pressure. And I’m glad I did. He is still a numbers fanatic but he is so interested in knowing letters and learning to read. Not to just learn it for learning sake but I see him finding his own reasons to learn. Every once in awhile he will read a three letter word or spell something out on his computer and I’m like whoa! You are doing it, and he is getting more and more confidence.

One more thing I want to add… because my 8 yr old is super strong in reading and writing and my 6 yr old is super strong in math concepts and numbers they lean on each other and use each other’s interests and strengths to build each other up. It’s incredible witness.”

……

“My 3.5 year old taught herself to read when she saw that her older brother had learned a few months before. We had a literature-rich environment, but she did not have any instruction. First she brought the BOB books to us, then she was totally inspired by Cat in the Hat, bringing it to us and insisting on reading it. She mastered it in weeks and advanced a couple of grade levels in several months’ time. I would have never in a million years tried to teach my 3 year old to read, it was a pleasant surprise to us all.”

……

“My daughter learned to finally read after 11. We were very concerned she wouldn’t be able to read well enough to go to college. She had/has severe dyslexia but her brain finally made the connections it needed too … plus she is such a hard worker! She’s now a self-published author of two books, a proficient and prolific writer, and almost done with her associates degree! Our youngest two boys are following in her footsteps learning late but they work hard every day so I know they will learn at their own pace and I am seeing progress.”

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“My 3 homeschooled children were not taught by an adult to read. The eldest was 4 when she worked it out by herself. She had always had alphabet toys and listened to read aloud books – CD’s and electronic books during afternoon rest time. Shen then taught her younger siblings without me knowing when they were both 5. I deliberately never made reading part of their homeschool time. They have never been forced to read or had to do read aloud readers.”

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“My 6-year-old who has had no explicit reading/phonics instruction just read Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop to me by himself today. The best part is that it is truly his own accomplishment. He was so proud. We read lots together; I’ve been reading The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe series to him in bed the past couple of months. We just love good stories and interesting words, and we’ve never pressured him to read whatsoever. I’m so glad it’s unfolding in his own time and his own way—it’s beautiful to watch.”

……

“We’ve seen exactly this happen with our 7YO – when he had a reason to read, he did – he was very motivated by minecraft guides, and so he knew that he needed to learn to read if he was going to be able to use the info. He’s now one of those kids that reads under the blanket with a torch! Added bonus is that once he started, the 5 and 3YO’s became really interested, and are gradually picking it up, too.”

……

“My 6 year old unschooled son hasn’t been interested in reading – in fact, he has been quite afraid of it at times (mostly when I freak out that he’s not reading so I spend time ‘helping him learn’)! I’ve just recently come to a happy point in my own deschooling journey, and bam. He’s reading. I have always read to him every night, and we are currently working our way through a chapter book. Today, he opened the book in the car, and proceeded to read me an entire page (with a little assistance from me on some pronunciation). Just like walking, he did it in his own time, and he did it with almost no assistance from me. It’s just magic!”

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“My 7 year old daughter has suddenly clicked. She has never wanted to sit and ‘learn’ to read, readers were boring, being watched over made her nervous and doubt herself. She needed to explore reading on her own, in her own space, in her own time. Since she was a baby we have read to her every single night, she has asked what signs, instructions and ingredients say, she has recognised words in her birthday cards from asking how to write them herself. She has asked for help for what she has needed and has had no real drive to need to know any more than what is relevant to her in her world. I learn more about my children each and every day that I spend with them. I learned that my 7-year-old was a perfectionist and I had a sneaking suspicion that although she said she did not want to read and that she didn’t see any real reason to ever learn, that she was quietly perfecting reading before wanting to read aloud to anyone else.

Last week I saw her in the playroom quietly and somewhat secretly reading a book to her little sister, then last night she sat with me and started reading! It wasn’t a book she had memorised, she was reading the words. And she read them with so much animation and expression and joy. She soaked up all these years of storytelling and she decided she wanted to learn to read because when mummy gets too tired to read me another chapter I can go into my room and read all night long! When I say clicked, she can’t suddenly read a chapter book, but she clicked in her mind that she COULD do it, she had a reason to learn and it motivated her to do so. She still wants to be read to every night, and we never pressure her to read to us. We totally trust that she will read what she wants to read when she is ready and that is absolutely fine. She is 7, she barely sits still and her priority in life right now is trying to befriend the fairies in the forest and practicing skids in the gravel on her bike. Reading will come when reading is relevant.”

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“My daughter taught herself to read although she did attend school. What she couldn’t do was read word by word. She takes in meaning in paragraph chunks. I was called at my school to tell me she was being sent to resource because she couldn’t read. I told them ‘no’ and that I would be there at end of day. God knows what the kid had gone through until I got there. She dashed across the busy street to my car quite upset. I had brought the book Chrysanthemum with me as a sample of her reading. They said no she can’t read that. She pretty well read it in a proper way not word by word. I refused to allow extra “help” and eventually they learned enough about her to appreciate her strengths. She also can picture exact paragraphs after reading and refer to them in her head if necessary. She now has her Masters and it appears her 2-year-old is headed along the same reading path. It is an extreme challenge to protect these kids from reading instruction! Downside: this kid would have a book that we just purchased read before we drove home. Once she could drive she would read books in bookstores! We never got into libraries as she wanted to own books. Cost me a lot to stop her tears to get out of print hardcover “Andy and the Lions” and a couple more like that. Books are her greatest comfort. If she awoke in the night she would say “bookie, bookie”. I had some I could do without picking them up or turning on the light. Readers are kids who were read to. Thanks for letting me share about my self-taught reader. If schooled we must protect them.”

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“I have five children. My oldest is 8 and he starting reading at age 3. We read to him a lot because he enjoyed it and he memorized many of his favorite books. He started recognizing words and even seemed to teach himself phonics. We, of course, supported him when he asked for help but he definitely learned to read on his own. My second child is 7 and she doesn’t have much interest in learning to read yet.”

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“My two oldest boys who are now 4 and 5, started reading at 3 and 4. Completely self-taught. We hadn’t thought about teaching them, thinking they were way too young to even be thinking about it. But seeing them teach themselves to read (and so much more) was really what opened my eyes to child-led learning”

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“Phelan (age 9) initially taught himself the alphabet, I seem to remember it was mainly by using a Dr. Seuss app on his tablet (which he was given at age 4). During this time we just read to him whenever he requested it and he started to point out any words he recognised. But we never asked him to read to us or pressured him to pick up books.

At around age 6 we (in a moment of parental wobbliness) downloaded the Reading Eggs app for him and he showed little interest. It quickly became apparent that he was a whole word, sight reader rather than phonics, which is held up a  magical “fits all” method in UK schools. He had always shown more interest in writing words than reading, he loved writing notes and short stories. We always waited until he asked for help with any spelling and he loved when we sat and read his words back to him and understood them. It was wanting to use messaging on Minecraft at around age 7 that was the first leap in interest in reading.

To be able to communicate with friends gave him a tangible reason to want to read. I would always sit alongside him and help when needed. He then, in the last year, discovered graphic novels via a favourite YouTuber releasing a book (Thanks Dantdm). The day he got it, he sat and read to me for the first time. He now confidently reads subtitles, signs and comics/graphic novels. He says he doesn’t like books with whole pages of text, but I know from his ever-expanding word recognition, that he could if he chose to.

It is hard to sit back and let this process unfold, when you are surrounded by family and friends immersed in the school system. My partner found it particularly difficult, coming from a family of teachers and a fee-paying school background. But it was amazing to witness”

……

My son is unschooled and taught himself to read when he was just shy of his 5th birthday. He knew the names of the letters and the sounds they made (from songs), and he was already writing quite a bit. One night, I was reading him a chapter book before bed, and he just stopped me and started sounding out the words himself. It was amazing! It was like the information he’d gathered just magically clicked. Now my 4.5-year-old daughter loves writing, though she hasn’t learned to read yet. I found it so interesting that the writing came first for both of them.

More About Reading and Unschooling

Want to read more? Here are some great links with more information and stories of how children learn to read without school:

Children Teach Themselves to Read – Great information on how reading happens for children outside of school, from one of my favourite authors.

How I learned to Read and Write – Experience of a grown unschooler.

Learning to Read Naturally – Lots of links here to stories of unschoolers learning to read.

Reading Age in Unschoolers – Survey of 85 unschooled kids and age they learned to read.

How Do Unschoolers Learn to Read? – Experience of two children who learned to read at age 11.

Learning to Read – Lots of links about reading here.

Our unschooly dyslexic reading journey

Reading Doesn't Need to Be Taught - How Unschoolers Learn to Read

19 thoughts on “Reading Doesn’t Need to Be Taught – How Unschoolers Learn to Read

  1. My grandson 7, at around age 5 started noticing signs. Example..he would ask wile riding in the car..what is, l u n c h or c a r w a s h . Just because “he” was interested.
    He would become interested in books with subject mater that he was interested in and wanted to read THOSE books.

  2. Pingback: Reading Doesn’t Need to Be Taught – How Unschoolers Learn to Read - Public Psychology

  3. Fantastic post and very inspiring for those of us in the deschooling phase and still experiencing oh shit moments occasionally about our kids reading. Thanks so much for writing this.

  4. Pingback: Self taught writing  – Wild Oak Academy

  5. This shows a complete lack of knowledge about language acquisition and language disorders. No a child needn’t read by 5, but there are incredibly important language abilities that begin to “turn off” by certain ages. That’s why adults don’t learn foreign languages as readily as children. Additionally, I read evidence her readers are not reading at all merely memorizing. That strategy only works for so long and then what? What an incredibly irresponsible article for parents whose children really do need help. Fine, many kids can use this method, but there’s absolutely no mention of the enormous body of scientific research on brains wired differently. I don’t mean what schools are doing. They haven’t paid attention to the reading science in decades (which is why it’s so unsuccessful for so many). However, it is irresponsible to never once mention a family may need to consider if there’s more going on than reading struggles or the lack of reading. After all, things like dyslexia run in families and the overwhelming majority who have it were never diagnosed… like me, my mother and probably my grandmother. Ignoring it doesn’t make it untrue, it only makes it harder to climb the mountain and climbing it alone is no fun.

    The advantages cited above for self-taught readers are advantages of homeschooling… to whichever philosophy you subscribe. I can say the exact same thing for my two dyslexics who were taught to read at home with a specific, scientifically proven, multi-sensory approach. It’s the opposite of the hands-off method given here because it’s what they needed. I tried the method above and it failed me, and more importantly, my son. I didn’t know his brain was different, not like other kids. Fortunately, I did more research on this topic and got my children the help they needed. No kids don’t need to learn to read at 5, but you can tell at the age of five if unschooling will work or a more structured approach will be required by a child. Do families like mine a favor and at least concede that your way may not be the best for families with language acquisition disorders.

    • Hi dyslexia momma,
      I agree with you 100%. I was a self-taught reader and was bored in school because of it. School never challenged my reading ability. Because of my love of learning and teaching others, I became a teacher. In my career, I have taught kids who were identified late, late language learners, and have disabilities such as deaf, deaf-blind, autistic, deaf-dyslexic, etc. Waiting until they asked or not giving them feedback hurt these children immensely. It also gave me the experience to see the signs in my own son at an early age. He showed signs of dyslexia at age 3 with speaking and listening skills. He is 12 now and still struggles with it but he knows he has it and he knows he has strategies to use.
      My second son is a self-taught reader by age 4. Even though he is self taught, I do use a curriculum to go over comprehension skills. And his younger brother (third son) joins him so he doesn’t have the “self-taught” by age 4, but he wants to be there. Each kid was different in learning to read. And the two younger ones get excited when I pull out the text book and workbook. And on weekends, they will ask for this school work. It is the approach and relationship, not the curriculum with my kids. (It is common core free). I go at their pace.

      • I completely agree. And for the record, I was unschooled and my children are unschooling. The line blurs when people discuss “self taught” children w/o a strong basis in pre-literacy development. What self-taught means to one parent is not the same as to another and this paves the path for neglect w/ permanent consequences.

    • Maybe read it again then. I specifically mentioned this.
      Of course help your child learn in the best way for them. I don’t think that excludes you from waiting until they are ready and want to learn to read, and doing it consensually.

      Memorising whole words is how some people learn to read. Didn’t you just tell me all brains are different? You can read more about how it happens for unschoolers here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201002/children-teach-themselves-read

      • It’s difficult to read comment on unschooling posts inferring that disabled people (like dyslexic kids) are a special exception to having freedom to learn, develop and acquire skills at their own pace. Assistive tech has come so far and is so deeply integrated with phones and tablets that the priority should be to support late readers and dyslexics to access these amazing tech supports (when they want to access written information and /or communicate with written words).
        Otherwise, if it’s not important, is tiring, uninteresting or is causing anxiety for a dyslexic child to be exposed to books and writing, why push it?
        There is so much else in the world and it should be about what our children value in their lives, not us.
        I’m married to a dyslexic and parent of at least one dyslexic. Both don’t love books and written words so much. They say it’s tiring and not their preference. My unschooled dyslexic has learned to read but I was OK if they never did, because they were proficient with using voice to text, youtube and audiobooks. I vlogged about it recently.
        Anyway unschooling *is* for disabled people. It’s tiring to be told constantly that we can’t be given freedom to learn like other unschooling families.

          • I wonder about the language acquisition abilities that supposedly “turn off” with age. Maybe this is a warped fact because school forces a certain way of learning which is not suitable for most people’s individual learning style and so hardwire the young brain in less-than-optimal ways that make learning for the adults harder?
            My husband is dyslexic, he speaks 3 languages fluently. Though his mother tongue is the worst/most difficult in reading and writing, English (his 3rd language) was self-taught at age of 25 because it became relevant to him, his spelling in English has improved incredibly during the last 5 years or so because of spell check/ word prediction on smart phone. He is a sound technician and can hear all the separate instruments in an recording, but he doesn’t hear the difference between ‘ship’ and ‘sheep’… He was not diagnosed as a dyslexic as a kid and was labeled dumb by a bunch of teachers, he used to hate to read but he is reading more now then ever in his life mostly in English though, and I think it has all to do with his schooled past vs his self taught now. I do believe that even dyslexic kids deserve to be in charge of their learning and they also deserve our full support in their journey. Pushing even the most scientific proven method on a child against his will is of little value. What is it worth to have a skill you hate and avoid using at all cost? What does it do to child to say because you learn different, you must now be forced to learn a certain way?

  6. I was talking with a colleague (who homeschools his eldest) about our unschooling, and his response was, “Don’t they need to know how to do long division?” It didn’t occur to me until later on that he would have probably found it much more horrifying that we didn’t force our kids to learn to read. And it would have been interesting to see his expression when he discovered that our kids “miraculously” learned how to read anyway.

  7. It should be mentioned that this is the ideal way to learn for those who have parents around them all day attentive and happy to provide enriching lives. You know many children don’t have that experience in their lives. So they need to be taught to read. And to do math. And their curiosity needs to be drawn out and indulged. Public schools have many more of these children than not; inexperienced, under-stimulated and uncurious about the world around them. Also, some are under-nourished and abused. Teaching children in these situations is often about holding their attention long enough to teach them something before their brains turn back to survival mode. I am a public school teacher who believes in homeschooling and unschooling ( although that name doesn’t accurately describe it) as the ideal but lives in the often unkind world of my students. Wish we all had the opportunities of those speaking here.

  8. I loved this post Sara!! What its got me thinking about is books though – having a selection of books available that might be helpful when my girls do start to read. We’ve looked at the books in the literacy section of our library at length but so many of them are horrible!! Any suggestions of books that would be good to have available would be lovely! – a post on the books your girls have gone to as they have started reading would be really interesting in your series of post about books you’ve read.

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