How can you learn if you can’t read?

Shannon over at Phat Mommy wrote a great post this morning in response to all the “experts” lately (Dr. Phil, Luis Huerta in the New York Times article and Bonnie Erbe in her US News and World Report column) who seem very concerned about unschoolers “making it in the real world”. In It’s the Parenting, Stupid she muses:

What I’d like to know is what about parenting? I don’t have any statistics handy, but I’d be willing to bet that a statistically greater percentage of people with problems struggling to succeed and survive in the “real world” - petty criminals and the like - can trace those problems back to the way they were parented than to the way they were schooled.

Shannon makes some very good points, definitely take a moment to read it.

In the comments a poster asked several questions about unschoolers who did not teach their children to read until they were “ready”. I responded over there, but also wanted to expand on that response a bit over here.

What is your take on unschoolers who don’t teach their children to learn how to read until they’re “ready”? This can mean 8, 9, or 10 from what I have been reading.

I know that the first time I read about homeschoolers who had kids who were so “late” in reading, I was a bit surprised too. This goes against everything that we commonly hear…reading is the key to learning. Early reading is important.

Many schools nowadays are pushing reading so that if kids are not reading by the end of kindergarten it is recommended that they take summer classes to “catch up”. So the idea of a child of 8 or 9 or 10 not reading seems like it must be the kiss of death. And probably in school it would be. But for a homeschooled child, it does not have to be and in actuality can be what saves the love of reading for that child.

I learned to read when I was 4, and even though I didn’t always “like” learning, I truly believe it one of the best things my parents ever did for me. I feel as though a fondness for reading is CRUCIAL to success in any capacity and should be cultivated early.

I definitely agree that a love of reading and books should be cultivated early. And this is exactly what I did with Jason. He has always had a passion for good books and good stories from a very young age. A fondness for reading and books however does not always translate to early reading.

Reading is like walking (or any other developmental area such as crawling and speaking) which has a “normal” range of anywhere from about 9 months to 15 months. Some kids are ready to read early around 4. Others are ready to read at a later time like Jason. I read somewhere that the average age of reading is 8.

You can not make a child walk before they are ready. You can not make a child read before they are ready. You can however make a child think they are dumb or learn to hate reading if you push them before they are capable.

It seems like many people (educators and the general public alike) think that learning to read is just a matter of being taught. If you “get them early” you can give them a “head start”. But some kids (especially visual-spatial kids) need more time to develop then others. They just are not ready. And no amount of teaching can change that.

Sure you can start teaching them early, but if reading has not “clicked” with them, it really is like throwing those marshmallows. Why push, why make reading something “hard”, why risk having a child start thinking that they are dumb when waiting can bring out the same (or better) result?

Also, just out of curiosity, how does other learning get done without the ability to read?

The same way it does when kids are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or… By being read to, by doing interesting things and by playing. This is one of the great things about homeschooling. Not being able to read is not a hindrance.

In the years before he learned to read, Jason learned in all sorts of different manners…I read books all the time, he listened to tons of audio books, he watched lots of videos and tv shows, he played computer/video games, we performed science experiments, we played all sorts of games, we talked (a lot!). Now that he is reading we still do all of the above…reading is just one additional way that he learns. (Don’t get me wrong…reading is very important and makes a lot of things easier…but it still is only one way out of many in which kids learn).

Not reading did not hold him back. Now obviously, this would not work as well with a teacher who has 30+ kids. He/she would not be able to spend that much individual time with each child. Reading is critical for learning in school given a typical school model. But learning can and does happen with or without reading at home because we are free to change this model.

And the most important thing is that even though Jason learned “late”, he still absolutely loves books and and does not hate reading. And I can hear the sense of pride in his voice when he talks about his reading ability these days.

Now I am also not saying that you should always wait until kids are older…some kids wind up figuring it out for themselves at an earlier date. For other kids it becomes clear that they are ready earlier.

And I am not saying that you sit back and do nothing for kids who do not seem to be ready. There are tons of things (such as reading and talking about letters and sounds and so forth) we did before it clicked for Jason. But his not reading was not the focus of our homeschooling. I did not try program after program to figure out what the “problem” was. I had faith (thanks to listening to other homeschoolers who had gone through the same thing) that when he was ready it would click and I would know what he needed. And that is exactly what happened.

Waiting for a child to be ready also works for kids who are ready on a more “typical” timeframel. Last year when he was 5, Kyle became very interested in learning to read. He is much more of a sequential/typical learner, so I figured that we would give it a shot. After doing some lessons in 100 Easy Lessons it became apparent to me that he really was not ready. He loved the lessons but they were not sticking and I could see that he just was not totally getting it. So I stopped suggesting that we “do reading”. Kyle did not notice or remind me. We continued doing what we normally do…read and talk about reading and letters.

This fall, he again became interested in learning to read so I decided to give 100 Easy Lessons another try. The difference is incredible! He totally gets it. And remembers it. He reminds me to do his reading. It is coming very easily for him.

Now I could have spent this past year slogging through the lessons. But why risk him possibly learning that “reading is hard”? By waiting until he is ready, he is learning that “reading is easy” and reinforcing the belief that “reading is fun”.

And that, for me, is the best possible outcome…a child who enjoys reading and loves books.