I was very glad the other day to discover an excellent essay by Carol Black in The Washington Post. Black is a visionary writer on education and learning, and deserves a large readership.
Black says, “…people today do not even know what children are actually like.They only know what children are like in schools.”
I remember having a similar revelation when my eldest daughter was about twelve. In response to a discussion on developmental issues, her pediatrician xeroxed a section of a book on child psychology for me to study. That night as I flipped through the pages and read all about what was “normal,” it couldn’t have been more clear to me that the “normal” that was being presented was based almost entirely on children who live the majority of their days inside a school building. Hence, it wasn’t particularly relevant for me or my children.
Black’s piece also got me thinking about my children’s experiences learning to read. My eldest spent a year in kindergarten before I decided to homeschool. As a socially oriented child, she wanted to please and impress the teacher, and was keenly aware of what would be necessary to reach a high status in the classroom (one of the many reasons, actually, I turned to homeschooling, but that’s another story).
Only one child in her class was reading, and this made him special. My daughter came home, sat herself down on the couch, and told me she wanted to read. “Okay,” I said, and proceeded to do my best to help her sound out words. She was pretty good at phonics at that point, and could sound out individual phonemes, but putting them together was another matter. We spent many painful hours in which she would try her hardest, reciting “c-uh,” “a,” “tuh,” but lacking whatever cognitive mechanism was required to merge those sounds into the word “cat.”
Eventually, of course, she learned to read. Did all the phonics hullabaloo facilitate it? I doubt it.
Not long after, my kids’ father and I got divorced, and off they went to school for a couple of years. My son entered a one/two classroom (first and second grade) in an alternative school full of earthy crunchy, liberal families. He hadn’t gone to kindergarten, and his reading ability was nonexistent.
Even in this progressive environment, the pressure the children felt to read in first grade was enormous. My son felt none of this. His teacher, who lamented the worries these six and seven year-olds already had about their abilities, would tell me what a wonderful example my son was for the rest of the class. “I can’t read, can somebody help me?” he would ask. His openness made him a target for ridicule, and his reading level, or lack thereof, made him a candidate for special time with the resource teacher.
During the summer between first and second grade, he forgot about school and played. One day in July, I walked into his room and he was reading Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
He went back to second grade, and in October his classroom teacher called to tell me he no longer needed time with the resource teacher. He had been tested, she told me, and was reading at a third grade level, with a fourth grade level of vocabulary. “What did you do?” she asked me.
What I did, of course, was nothing. The teacher didn’t believe me. It was inconceivable to her that my son could go from being so “behind” to being so “ahead” with no intervention.
But wait, some might argue, it was the hours he spent in school, and the time he had with the resource teacher, finally kicking in. Without that, maybe he wouldn’t have learned to read. Again, I doubt it (so did the teachers; the giant leap he took over the summer wasn’t something they typically saw in a child already identified as a late reader).
Later, I remarried and had two more daughters, neither of whom ever attended school. We visited the library regularly and read books to them often. They also spent many hours looking at books. Formal reading instruction? There was none. If you ask me how they learned to read, I would have to tell you honestly, I don’t know. They just did.
I know my kids are not special. I’ve observed many kids learn to read completely by themselves. As someone who’s been around children who were not subjected to forced reading instruction in school, the typical curve for reading that Black describes sounds exactly right to me. Some kids might read at age three or four, others might wait until they’re ten or eleven. When left alone to develop their reading skills naturally, the age is immaterial. In the long term, they will read equally well, and, as with walking and talking, no one will know or care how old they were when they started.
The repercussions that Black describes so eloquently of forcing children to learn to read before they’re ready, willing, and able are real. “This is a choice,” she says. “In making it, we may be creating disabilities in kids who would have been fine if allowed to learn to read on their own developmental schedule.”
Fortunately, as homeschoolers, we have the option of choosing not to force, reward, or interfere with our children’s developmental schedule for reading.