This is a guest post by Lehla Eldridge. Her blog is Unschooling the Kids. Lehla’s family lives in Italy. Lehla’s girls are in the photo. 

I read to our daughters till they were eleven. I sat up at night, read books, tantalized them with stories. There was always that nagging feeling, that school-like gremlin of mine that would tap me on the shoulder and say ‘Ha, they are a little old for you to be reading to them don’t you think?’ I would push it away. Like the fear witch this gremlin knows me well…

So I would carry on, I LOVED reading to our girls. There were even those that said ‘Don’t you think you may be hindering their reading?’ I said ‘No’

But it was a hard thing for me to accept, I thought maybe I was hindering their reading and slowing them down. Me, who had learnt to read at the age of five, so my family say. I am not sure I believe that, I remember feeling very frustrated and tense. I don’t think I was ready to learn at such a young age.

So it is a year down the line from when I was reading to the girls. There was a moment when we stopped consciously helping one of our daughters read, she was struggling as her twin sister was zooming ahead of her. As we realized the more we tried to help the more it was a ‘thing’. Then that deeper part of me knew that we were making a ‘thing’ out of it and it was the worst thing we could do.

So we stopped, we stepped back and then she did it herself. She learnt to read. She now will not get her nose out of a book. She reads big fat ones, the books follow her around like friends. She did it and the best bit is she got there by herself.

They learn because they want to and I think that that is how it happens.

They learn to read through reading things like…

sign posts

letters from friends

e mails

cookery books

messaging their friends on Skype or on my phone

instructions in computer games such as Minecraft, or other games where you NEED to read to move up a level

packaging in shops

posters

Mindsnacks‘ for learning Italian which is a phone app ful of words games, there they learn to read in two languages and thinking nothing of it as they are playing!

the list is endless really…

The other day my daughter sat down with a six year old friend and read to her fluently in Italian (we live in Italy by the way.) I was kind of amazed as I never taught her to read Italian she just got there and figured it out, perhaps through ‘Mindsnacks.’ I think I have just said that the ‘ce’ makes a ‘che’ sounds and that the ”g’ in taglio’ is silent but I have very loosley passed on what I know about how to read Italian. We never sat down and went through learning how to read Italian.

When you think about it there are words everywhere and as they are exposed to them they soak them up. For sure our input has been there for when they spell something out, we say what the word is and we also read as parents. There are a lot of books in the house. So yes we are there to support their reading but we stopped sitting down and trying to teach them a long time ago as it seems to me that the learning just goes in, naturally. which is contrary to everything I was ever taught about learning at school and is a lot about what Peter Gray talks about here.

But as a conditioned adult, who had reading forced upon me at school at a young age, I still have that inner gremlin nagging at me sometimes. So I am now going to chat to him about our son who is nine, who says he will only read when he can read.

‘Does that make sense to you gremlin?’

‘No’

‘Of course not but you can go back and snooze in that worried, conditioned part of my brain and leave me alone because I know that he will be absolutely fine. He, my friend will read when he is ready’

31 replies
  1. INTJ Professor
    INTJ Professor says:

    For centuries, adults read to other adults, and presumably, to whatever children were listening too. The photo illustrating this post shows two children, each with a book. For most of the history of the book, purchasing those two volumes would have been beyond the reach of most people, and borrowing them, impossible. It’s only the inexpensive availability of books that makes us think that there’s something amiss in reading them to each other. I cannot think of a better use of time–reading to someone else–sharing the story as it unfolds–no matter what age the reader is, or the listener.

    • Kate
      Kate says:

      Absolutely agree- reading aloud is such a nice part of our family life- not always as often as I’d like in summer particularly- but they listen and fiddle with play dough or paper and pencils while I read- often stuff that (I) would consider a little above their heads but they like it and ask for more. My husband too!! Never to old for that!!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Such an interesting observation! And really there was never a children’s book industry, per se, until the 1970s, when there was disposable income for books.

      Penelope

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      So true. And you can see the effect that cheapness and ubiquity of books had on literature. So many books only worthy to be read once and thrown away. So many books that don’t make sense at all read aloud in chapters.

      I still read to my 11 year old son every night, per his request. Also, per his request, nothing too modern, because books written to be read aloud sound better read aloud. I’ve read him Moby Dick, the Odyssey, Don Quixote, David Copperfield, Huck Finn, Wind in the Willows, Vanity Fair, Gulliver’s Travels, LOTR… can’t even remember them all. I’m eager to finish Tale of Two Cities so I can start Three Men in a Boat for a little comic relief. Great fun.

  2. Kate
    Kate says:

    I enjoyed this. It echoes my experience with my girls- in the ‘getting there themselves’ without any real input from adults. It was truly astonishing to me to see- (I needed to SEE it to believe that it could happento my kids!) it does go against most of what I understand (understood!;-)) -about the idea of learning and teaching being two co-dependent things… You just plant the seed (the child) and supply the nutrients (the books and words) -laying around freely and in a variety of forms- our world does this largely I think- as you mention in the post- signs in roads and buildings… computers/phones etc and they soak it up. (Messy metaphor) I wish more people knew this. That they could believe it. There is no need to push. And the emergence of my eldest’s understanding of reading and writing helped lead me to believe that we could do this Home Education Thing. (And now we are doing it. Best decision I’ve made in a long time.)

  3. Fatcat
    Fatcat says:

    My youngest child did not read until the age of 10. He’s 17 right now and reading about 5 books at a time. He’s decided he wants to read the classics and has Beowolf and The Catcher in the Rye out of the library, among others.

    We used to read Leo the Late Bloomer quite frequently when the kids were little and when my son started finally reading, my daughter looked at me and said “He bloomed!”

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Sometimes I think about having a contest where everyone tells their homeschooling stories because I love reading them. I never figure out how to run the contest (who votes??? what’s the prize???).

      But if there were a contest this story would win. Short and lovely and a good reminder to me that it’s okay that my ten-year-old has not started math.

      Penelope

      • lehla
        lehla says:

        That is very nice! I just told the kids that you said that this story would win the contest. And my daughter looked me in the eye and said ‘Mum, I didn’t think you were in to competition? As that is too schooley?’ Oh…hoisted by my own Unschooling Petard!

      • Kirsten H
        Kirsten H says:

        I don’t know about a contest, but I would love to hear stories from other families. Just regular homeschoolers — not the ones whose kids are translating Virgil at age 8, and not the ones who have taken two years off to travel. Those of us who are stumbling along, maybe confident that the forest is in good shape, but worrying about trees from time to time. One of the reasons I read your blog, guest posts and related comments is to get a sense of the infinite options out there, and to remind myself not to freak out about how it doesn’t have to look a certain way.

  4. Jeff Till
    Jeff Till says:

    Thanks for the post. It’s reassuring to hear stories like this.

    Our seven year old unschooled son still can’t read a book and shows no interest. Somehow, though, he can use a remarkable amount of software and has no trouble with search engines and the like. It’s possible that my traditional “schooled” approach to learning reading might be antiquated.

  5. Shelly
    Shelly says:

    As a mom of 11, I still read aloud to all of my children (with exception to our adult son, of course). While everyone over the age of 8 is already reading on their own, I find it a valuable way to spend time together. And the younger kids greatly benefit from it, as well. Recently my 5 and 7 year olds have been asking me to move my finger under the words so they can see where I’m at, and my 4 year old is starting to recognize words. It’s so exciting to see this progress.

  6. sarah faulkner
    sarah faulkner says:

    Loved this post, it was a fun read. :) I struggle with so many voices in my head telling me why I am a failure. Loved the allagory to the witch and gremlins.

  7. Darcel
    Darcel says:

    Love this! My 8yr old learned how to read last year when she was 7yrs. Mostly by playing Animal Jam. She started out asking me what certain words were and then one day she didn’t need my help anymore. She was figuring it out on her own! She enjoys Skyping with her friends, reading signs, and short books. My 10yr old has severe Dyslexia and I’ve had a few people tell me that the programs for Dyslexia are the only way to go. I know my child and she may not be learning like everyone else, or as fast as others, but I don’t have a problem with it, so they shouldn’t either. She’s learning at her pace, by using some of the same activities mentioned in this article. It’s actually very freeing and fun to watch them learn to read on their own. And they have the joy of knowing they can do it without being made to feel inadequate.

    • lehla
      lehla says:

      This is such a good point, as I wrote in the article one of my daughter’s struggled with reading and when she was school it was very clear that she was ‘behind’ and there was a lot of stress around, in this way there is no stress, no shame, there is no one judging, looking or waiting for her to keep up. The beauty of unschooling is they are free to learn without judgement and at their own time. I like what you said here… ‘And they have the joy of knowing they can do it without being made to feel inadequate.’

  8. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    This makes me wonder if it is a particular skill to listen to another reading. I cannot understand someone reading. My brain does not absorb one bit of it, I need to see the words. My husband on the other hand enjoys me reading the newspaper to him, and at times his mail. He understands all of it.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Jennifa,

      You aren’t alone. I have a very difficult time understanding when someone else is reading out loud to me, unless I can follow along or read ahead on my own. I have to re-read it all myself if someone insists on reading it to me first. We aren’t all wired the same way.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Jenifa and YMKAS, me too.

      I read to my kids at least one meal per day, because we tackle the big history or literature books that way. Trying to find good history books or biographies geared to different-aged children is tricky, so I read aloud and we discuss. They follow it beautifully, I can stop for a vocabulary word and everybody knows what’s going on.

      But them read to me? I can’t do it. Especially when I’m driving. I can’t even really understand the traffic report on the car radio when I’m driving, because I get that inside-my-head eye trying to decode the traffic map or the information being read to me. And I switch off my driving eyes – bad!

      I can’t multitask.
      I have to see it to read it.

      • Melissa
        Melissa says:

        To be fair, driving is really complicated and boring and high-stakes and ordinary. It’s actually one of the worst things you can include in your multi-tasking mix, but most people feel a false sense of security about their skills and the infrastructure that they use.

    • lehla
      lehla says:

      That is such an interesting point, I am similar, yet I love reading out loud to others. The same way I struggle to listen to radio plays, to hold in all the information. But I if watch a play or read it I can take it all in.

  9. Gena
    Gena says:

    I’ve been so wanting to discuss the randomness of learning with someone! I think what comes through these stories is that learning anything is NOT linear! It’s random, making links, making connections, getting inspiration, desire… then boom! It truly is beautiful to watch and it is unpredictable, and we need a lot of patience. My son learned to read all by himself (observing me teaching his older sister) at 3! But, he just started to enjoy reading now, at 8.

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      Gena, I very much agree with your statements here about the non-linearity of learning and the various facets which make it possible. I’ll also add that it’s very difficult to measure learning even as you’re witnessing it first hand day-by-day. It really doesn’t matter at what age children are learning and mastering various subjects during their childhood. However, what does matter, is that they’re able to “pull everything together” sometime during their teenage years if they’re interested in attending college with their peer-age group. I think that’s the hardest aspect of homeschooling because it’s so unpredictable and out of your control. What I see as most important for the homeschooled child in their teenage years is to take agency and responsibility for their learning. So when I say “pull everything together” I mean having good study habits and be able and not be resistant to doing homework and taking tests. I say this because to be successful in college after gaining admittance will require doing these things whether desired or not. The how to get to college isn’t really important. It’s being able to adapt to some learning techniques imposed by the institution while still learning that does matter. Resilience and adaptation to achieve goals set.

      • Jennifa
        Jennifa says:

        Oh my goodness Mark W., this is so timely for me. Yes, it is something you have to watch and see if the kids are able to pull things together, even for kids who have been in public school for the long haul. And it is like watching someone walk a tightrope.

        The kids say all the time, “I am going to college!”, and I wonder, yes, but will you graduate? Especially for a first-generationer.

      • Gena
        Gena says:

        I’d love to figure out how a homeschooling parent can be more effective than the linear school approach. One way is exposure. The other way that I think has worked is introducing more advances concepts earlier than schools would and working towards them. Any other ideas?

        • Mark W.
          Mark W. says:

          I would concentrate on helping them find their strengths and the activities they enjoy the most to build their self-confidence and self-esteem. I would also encourage them to try new things and not be afraid of a failure. In fact, I would encourage them to go back and try again with the knowledge they learned from their first experience. As this is a post on reading, I would ask them questions about what they have read to get an idea of their reading comprehension. Also I would encourage them to use a dictionary and a thesaurus to better their vocabulary. I would encourage them to ask better questions (probably with my own questions) which would require more thought from them. Also I would have them work on their communication skills such as writing and speaking. And probably most important of all, your children will have done more self-discovery as a homeschooler than going to school. So by the time they’re ready to go to college, they’ll have a good idea of why they’re going there and know what they want to accomplish with their degree.

  10. Maura B.
    Maura B. says:

    My children are 7 and 10 and reading aloud or audio books are a big part of our homeschooling. I would love for my kids to read at their own pace but both have dyslexia. We have several older unschool friends who admit that their children suffered because they were not given reading instruction. They became frustrated because they could not go to a different level with their interests whether reading about a topic of interest or taking a class with their friends who came to reading easily. For some, going at their own pace just isn’t an option. Like all homeschooling, you need to do what is right for your kids.

  11. Jennifer Jo
    Jennifer Jo says:

    My daughter learned to read when she was nearly 13. We are visiting oodles of cousins this Thanksgiving, and this afternoon I found her upstairs in bed, reading.

    “Why aren’t you playing?” I asked.

    “Mom,” she said, “I haven’t read for two days. I needed to read!”

  12. Christopher Chantrill
    Christopher Chantrill says:

    On my reductive Three Peoples theory, the whole point of government schools is to take the children of the People of the Subordinate Self and make them into dutiful factory workers. Oh, wait. There aren’t any factory jobs any more, so government schools will turn out cubicle workers. People of the Responsible Self want their children to go to “the best schools, kindergarten through college.”

    But the People of the Creative Self, folks like you and me, don’t know in advance what education would be best for our children. Our children are going to be creative, and so they will have to discover what they love on their own. Hence homeschooling, unschooling. And a very good thing too.

  13. maria
    maria says:

    I see this totally differently, maybe because I wasn’t read to as a child but did my own reading. I pushed my son to learn reading English at 3 and Russian at 4 and now he spends (sometimes) hours reading by himself in both languages at the age of 6 while I can do other things and spare my vocal cords.

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