Homeschooling / Literacy / Unschooling

12 Ways to Support Learning to Read That Don’t Involve Curriculum

Chances are you’ve heard unschoolers say that their children learned to read ‘on their own’, right? Cue angry people insisting this is not possible and there is one specific way that all children must learn to read, i.e. the latest curriculum involving explicit instruction at specific ages.

The fact is, despite what people will insist, unschooled children do often appear to suddenly grasp reading all on their own. Not always! My children have all taken a slightly different path from each other. But, often enough that it seems pretty common among unschooled children that they will go from non-reading to reading in a short amount of time. It does feel like magic! And it does make you want to shout it from the rooftops that this IS possible. It DOES happen!

But what does ‘on their own’ mean? I think people get so angry about this topic because they believe that unschooling parents are against helping their children learn to read at all. This could not be further from the truth. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said it but, unschooling parents are more involved, not less. We care about learning and education, that’s a pretty big reason we didn’t put our kids in school.

Unschooling parents provide a lot of support around reading, it’s just that they don’t enforce a curriculum that a child did not choose and is not ready for, the way school does. That doesn’t mean that they sometimes don’t use a curriculum though. Some children will ask for direct instruction and want to learn that way, others will need specific help. Unschooling is about knowing your children and their needs and providing the environment in which they learn best.

So, how do unschoolers learn to read without being taught? By being surrounded by a literacy rich environment and supportive adults.

What does that look like?

12 Ways to Support Learning to Read That Don’t Involve Curriculum

Prioritise play

“In order for children to read, write and spell they must be developmentally ready. Some are ready at the age of four or five, some not for many years later. This readiness includes complex neurological pathways and kinesthetic awareness. It includes the proprioceptive sense developed through sensory receptors in the muscles, joints, and tendons: a form of maturation essential for a physical sense of self (even essential for learning how to modulate one’s voice and to hold objects carefully).

Such readiness isn’t created by workbooks or computer programs. It’s the result of brain maturation as well as rich experiences found in bodily sensation and movement.

These experiences happen as children play and work, particularly in ways that cross the midline. They includes expansive movements such as climbing, jumping, digging, swimming, playing hopscotch and catch, riding bikes, sweeping, running. They also include fine movements such as chopping vegetables, drawing, building, playing rhyming and clapping games, using scissors, and playing in sand. And of course there’s the essential growth that comes from snuggling, listening to stories, singing, trying new tastes,  enjoying make believe.”

-Laura Grace Weldon, Reading Readiness Has To Do With The Body

Play is crucial! For so many reasons. Too many to count, and probably a lot we aren’t even aware of yet. It is how children learn. It is how they have always learned. Science is now spelling it out for those who need the evidence. It’s does not just make for happier less stressed kids, it makes for better learners too. All of the play in childhood is preparing the brain for the skills of adulthood, and reading is one of them. You can’t skip to the reading part without the play. Well, you can, but you can’t expect there won’t be consequences.

“Studies have compared groups of children in New Zealand who started formal literacy lessons at ages 5 and 7. Their results show that the early introduction of formal learning approaches to literacy does not improve children’s reading development, and may be damaging. By the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who started at 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later.”

School starting age: the evidence

Unschoolers prioritise play and unstructured time. While others see this as ‘free time’ or ‘doing nothing’, we know that this is a crucial part of learning, and the first step to reading. Maybe you think we’re all about the play and no work. That’s because PLAY IS THE WORK OF CHILDREN!

Read to children

This is an obvious one, but read to your children. Read picture books and novels, fiction and non-fiction, modern literature and the classics, newspapers and magazines, letters and postcards, song lyrics and poetry, recipes and maps. Read widely and often! Show them the value in reading and the world it can open up.

“Young children whose parents read them five books a day enter kindergarten having heard about 1.4 million more words than kids who were never read to, a new study found.

This “million word gap” could be one key in explaining differences in vocabulary and reading development, said Jessica Logan, lead author of the study and assistant professor of educational studies at The Ohio State University.

Even kids who are read only one book a day will hear about 290,000 more words by age 5 than those who don’t regularly read books with a parent or caregiver.”

A “million word gap” for children who aren’t read to at home

Most unschoolers I know spend a lot of time reading to children.

Talk about books

Talk about what you read, share opinions, have discussions, debate topics, make predictions, come up with alternative endings, start a book club with friends, dress up as favourite characters. Reading and enjoying reading is so much more than just the act of decoding words on a page. Go all in!

Pick up a book yourself!

Do you read? Do you read in front of your children? Here’s your permission to sit down with a good book and read! Model what enjoying reading looks like. If they never see you reading and you only do it after they’re in bed for the night, how will they know it’s important? The best teaching is modelling.

Make up stories

Children love to hear stories! Your stories! Made up from your imagination, or stories from when you were their age. Make storytelling a regular part of life. Write down the stories they tell you and read them back to them at storytime too. Show them you value their work.

Answer their questions

There will be a lot of questions! ‘What does this say?’, ‘What’s this letter?’, ‘How do you spell banana?’, ‘What sound does this make?’ I think a lot of people think we don’t answer these types of questions. That there’s no input at all from parents and children just magically work it out. Of course we answer questions! We even make suggestions *gasp*. We gather resources, we offer to help. All of those things! We just don’t force children to learn, and especially not before they indicate they are ready or in ways that aren’t suitable for them. Answer all the questions!

Play games

There are so many board games you can play! Words are all around us, and board games are a great way to include reading practice naturally. I’m not going to give a big list of games because other people have already done a great job of that, so I’ll refer you to some excellent posts instead:

Playing with Language Games Your Kids will Love

20+ Fantastic Reading and Language Arts Games

Turn on the subtitles

This is not something we have done, but I have heard many people say their kids liked to have the subtitles on when watching TV so they could see what the words looked like.

Write notes

We have often had a little post box in our house to send notes to each other, or sometimes I will find post-its stuck around the house where I will see them, or notes on my pillow. When they are little I’ll write them messages with words I know they can read and they love it! It feels so good for them to be able to read a letter! I’ve kept so many cute little notes with creative and phonetic spelling.

Some of my children were interested in writing before reading, so making sure there were lots of opportunities for meaningful writing was important.

Magnetic words

Simple magnetic words on the fridge mean words are being seen and played with often.


One of the things about respecting a child’s right to be able to learn to read when they are truly ready, is that they often learn to read much later than what most people consider ‘average’. Though I am of the belief that if we really want to know what ‘average’ is then unschoolers would be a better sample of children to look at. You can’t force children to read at age 5 and then declare that is the average age people learn! That’s just the arbitrary age you decided to force them.

Anyway, back to the point… when you learn to read at an older age, you don’t really want to start with readers aimed at preschoolers, right? That can make things tricky! You also want to be able to access stories that are beyond your reading level. We have found audiobooks really fabulous for this. I can read books aloud but I often can’t keep up with their appetite for novels. Audiobooks are really fabulous and my older kids listen to them every night before bed. Consequently, they have been able to hear many more stories earlier than they would have been able to if limited by their reading ability. Now that they can read well they still love them, and I have noticed they have a really great knowledge of the anatomy of a story, and an impressive vocabulary.

No pressure/judgement/comparison

Children learn to read in their own time. Pressure, force, judgement, and comparison don’t suddenly make them ready earlier, it just makes them feel bad and incompetent. That’s not what we want for our children, and it’s not a recipe for a child who loves reading. Of course, if you know your child and you see they are struggling and need more help than you can provide, then seek help! No one is saying don’t do that. What we are saying is that often parents have unrealistic expectations and when children aren’t reading at age 5 or 6 they start to panic. Not being able to read at this age is completely normal. Please support your children to learn to read! Just don’t force them into it early.

Children learn to read at a variety of ages and no time is better or worse than another. The perfect time is when they are ready. As unschoolers we see our job as respecting their right to start reading when they are ready, knowing our children and their needs deeply, and giving them a whole lot of support along the way (as we do in everything). Those are the tools we use instead of curriculum, and it is amazing to see it suddenly happen, and the pride children feel at having ownership over the process.

Enjoy the magic!


Annette Kennedy
June 6, 2022 at 3:06 am

I am wondering if perhaps children labeled dyslexic weren’t sometimes forced by mainstream learning to have to learn to read before they were ready. Reading would not then be a happy experience and they develop a block.

June 6, 2022 at 4:11 am

Thank you, as always, for your great insight! My kids are 5 and 7. I love watching their natural curiosity towards learning to read. Because we unschool, I do not feel any pressures to get them to a certain level. Reading is all around them and they ask so many questions. Watching the lightbulb moments when they figure out a word on their own is so precious!

Elmarie Kleynhans
July 30, 2022 at 9:46 pm

As a qualified teacher of young children and with 41 years of experience I really found this article very very interesting. I often kept on changing my teaching styles and learning styles to accommodate the different children in my class. I changed my way of teaching and often got frustrated with following a curriculum. Unfortunately in most schools, you are told what to do etc. I often broke away from that and did my own things as I have a strong passion for each child’s needs. Children are individualists with their own way of learning which I observed when giving them that opportunity. I thoroughly enjoyed doing this. Children are all different and learn in their own way. I would like to receive more info from you. Thanks for this wonderful article. I wish more educators will read this and become more open-minded in the education field.

Sarah Teale
December 9, 2022 at 10:00 am

I have two unschooled boys 11 and 14 who are both good at reading, but don’t like to read. Guess what I just found out about? A sight problem called convergence insufficiency (CI) that affects 1 in 8 kids but often goes misdiagnosed! What???? That is crazy. It is hereditary (thank goodness my sister told me when her kids was diagnosed with it), effects kids with ADHD more significantly, and is often misdiagnosed as dyslexia or another reading disorder. It can be solved with prism reading glasses, or with vision therapy. There is an at home pencil test to see if your kid may have it (look it up on youtube). Just went to the optometrist – turns out both of my boys have it! The more you know

January 31, 2024 at 11:00 am

I recently was at a mother’s group with my son and overheard a conversation between two other mother’s, one of whom is a teacher. The teacher was saying, with eye rolls and lots of criticism, how the learning environment for a while went into not directly teaching literacy as much as it had previously, and the children were “behind” as they progressed through school. She said that it isn’t possible to just surround kids with quality books and expect them to learn how to read. I am hoping to unschool my son when the time comes, and I found her opinions a bit polarised and possibly biased. For me the problem isn’t that the kids didn’t know how to read at a certain level by a certain age, but that they were being assessed on their ability to read at a certain level by a certain age, in an environment that probably isn’t conducive to learning and doesn’t provide one on one support, nor individualised opportunities to learn. My greatest fear with unschooling is proving to the education department that my son is meeting “The Standards” they have set – what if he is not reading at a level they expect and they decide that the reason is because he is schooled at home? Even though my experience working in schools shows that many kids being schooled traditionally are not at the “expected level”. It’s all so mind boggling and frustrating for me, and no doubt many others who are trying to find their rhythm in homeschooling/unschooling.

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