Not too long ago someone asked me for advice about helping kids learn to read. I must confess it’s something I feel totally unqualified to offer advice on. Look at my kids in these photos. Fiona (top left), since she got her glasses last summer, can read anything, right up to a pre-teen/teen level. The lower right photo is of Erin at age 4, devouring some big thick reference book. She spent hours and hours a day reading, and no, I don’t mean just two or three — sometimes she read for 12 hours a day … to the point that I seriously worried about her “reading addiction.” I did nothing to instruct either of them. I answered their questions (“why does the C in ‘ICE’ make the S sound?” or “what does p-r-e-s-s spell?” or [cringe] “mommy, what’s a ghennokyde?” [no, sweetie, that’s pronounced genocide]). Anyway, I answered questions. I think we owned a couple of alphabet puzzles, and went to the library regularly. That was all.
The other two kids were similar. They read “on time” or early — rather blindsiding their mother who hadn’t really got around yet to thinking about how to help them learn. So really, I’m not the person to ask for advice about getting kids reading.
I am thankful that one of Erin’s close friends throughout her childhood was a great counterexample to her early spontaneous reading. The whole time Erin was reading and reading and reading, J. was not yet reading. At all. The years rolled by. She was not reading at 7. Or 8. Or really much at age 9.
And yet it was clear that this kid was brilliant in so many ways, and was not struggling with a learning disability or other challenges. She simply had other learning on her plate, and reading was not up yet. She was socially incredibly confident and adept, was the perfect Waldorf-style unschooler, weaving and painting and caring for farm animals and with an incredible affinity for nature and beauty and music and art.
Erin’s friend helped keep my mind wide open. She single-handedly prevented me from becoming smug and self-congratulatory about my kids’ easy mastery of literacy. I taught J. the violin throughout those years, and loved everything about her — and it was clear to me that the only difference between my kids’ precocious literacy curves and her different path was that my kids were wired differently from her. I hadn’t done anything right — I had just been given children who were destined to learn literacy first (and hopefully catch up in the social adeptness department later!) while her parents had been given an equally brilliant amazing kid who was following a different path.
So not only did I not do very much to nurture my kids’ early achievement of literacy, but what I did do was probably almost beside the point. It’s mostly in the wiring, modulated by issues of temperament. Sure, an impoverished learning environment can cause delays in literacy learning. But a reasonably supportive nurturing environment? It’s in the wiring. The ages when perfectly bright non-learning-disabled unschooled kids will learn to read is all over the map. To put it in mathematical terms I’d say “a mean of 7 years, plus or minus 4 years.” Any age from 3 to 11, with some kids hanging off the ends of the bell curve and still perfectly normal for themselves.
Unschooled kids are not beholden to an age-levelled curriculum, so if they’re later-readers, they don’t suffer the side effects that their schooled peers do. They don’t spend their 7th year feeling befuddled by the letters that seem to be making so much sense to their peers. They don’t spend their 8th year feeling like failures at learning. They don’t spend their 9th and 10th years struggling with other areas of learning, like math and science, being increasingly dependent on literacy skills they don’t have in hand yet. And they don’t spend the rest of their childhood trying to recover from the effects of those first four years when they simply couldn’t learn what was being taught.
So here’s the lovely thing. Erin’s friend learned to read just fine. Quite easily, as it turned out, when it happened. She was almost 10 when she became fluent and passionate as a reader. And within three or four months she and Erin were sharing novels back and forth, talking books whenever they were together, secure in the fact that they were both strong, passionate readers. How cool is that? The six years, from age 4 to 10, while Erin was reading her eyeballs out, J. was busy learning lots of stuff in other ways. Suddenly we had two lovely bright 10-year-old girls, both reading very well and passionate about reading, both confident and happy, both having learned incredible amounts in the previous 6 years in their own ways.