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.

I have no advice

11 thoughts on “I have no advice

  • February 1, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    Beautiful. I’m learning so much about unschooling every day. My four-year-old daughter wants to learn to take apart a car engine. Sounds good to me.

  • February 2, 2009 at 7:28 am

    This is a nice post. I just wanted to point out one thing that happened to us at a Waldorf school and, I’ve since learned, has happened to others. If your child WANTS to read at an earlier age but is unable to, please seek help. This happened to my daughter and I was told that it would all come together in good time, I just needed to trust and stop being so hyperactive. When my daughter had low self esteem because she could not read like her friends, I was told she was simply a very melancholic child. Truth be told she is right brained and needed a different way of learning. It is five years after the fact and we are STILL working on repairing her sense of self worth.

  • February 2, 2009 at 10:41 am

    Tara, I’m sorry to hear about your daughter’s experience. That’s one of the issues we unschoolers don’t really have, since our kids get help if they want it, and don’t suffer the self-esteem issues of being non-readers in a classroom of readres. But it’s a useful warning for kids in school, for sure.

  • February 2, 2009 at 10:57 am

    I too was blessed with kids who learned to read pretty easily and are now avid readers. I am totally in agreement with letting them learn when they are ready and not pigeonhole them.

  • February 3, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    I understand what you are saying. I’ve known several other Waldorf schoolers (in or out of an official building) who have confused learning late naturally with wanting to learn early but having trouble due to dyslexia or other issues. I don’t think I made myself very clear.
    Anyway, it’s lovely that these children have been able to learn in their own time and thrive. A very nice account indeed.

  • February 7, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    LOL about “ghennokyde”. I’m just realising that the written word is no longer hidden information in our house. He was reading his dad’s and my Skype chat, and asking questions about it.

  • February 9, 2009 at 10:34 am

    Hi there,
    I noticed that you're from BC, so am I!
    I appreciate this post. I have 2 kids that learned to read at age 6(now age 10 & 11) and my son who is 8 is not yet reading. I also have a 4 yr old who may learn to read before his 8yr old brother!

  • February 10, 2009 at 9:08 am

    My kids are also “natural readers”, it really is amazing. My youngest is only 18 months and she is already a book junkie, although I’m pretty certain she’s not reading them yet, LOL!

    My oldest, actually, started reading at 3 but he has a terrible time with comprehension. He has a PDD (autism) diagnosis so I guess that’s why. I used to think that, as long as they can figure out the words that reading will take off. Not anymore, I’m now with the “don’t worry if decoding comes late and you have to read aloud to them for a little longer”. As long as they are comprehending the story, they’re all right.

    I do understand what everyone is saying about those who are trying to read and aren’t able to. Sometimes, decoding problems do work out on their own. We take our children to an optometrist who has specialized training in eyesight and reading difficulties. We were shocked to discover that our oldest is extremely far-sighted in one eye and not so much in the other. We had no idea that he would need glasses, I was looking for problems with eye tracking. It doesn’t affect his ability to read but does affect his depth perception quite a bit. Literally, the day he started wearing his glasses was the first day he could actually catch a ball. I would strongly suggest that all parents take their children for an eye exam at 4 years old, it can save a lot of problems later on!

  • February 10, 2009 at 9:34 am

    Susan, yes, I hear you about the eye exams. We had the other kids screened; Fiona was too young the last time we went, and because she had learned to read quite well starting at about 3.5, I wasn’t worried. But she’d never really progressed beyond big, unintimidating print like magazine headlines, ads and early readers. When we got her checked last summer it became clear this was a huge problem — her farsightedness is 7.75 diopters (Noah is moderately farsighted at 2.75 diopters and wears glasses for reading and computer work). She was on the verge of being legally blind without glasses. No surprise that her novel-reading has taken off since then.

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