Learning to read without being taught

Last week I saw an online discussion thread asking parents to share experiences of their kids learning to read without being taught. I thought about my two oldest children, who spent some time in school before being homeschooled. I had stories about their early reading, but none for my children who never went to school.

In kindergarten, my oldest was quite aware of the status that being able to read afforded in the classroom. For that reason she asked me to help teach her. I tried my best, but it wasn’t easy. While she had already mastered phonics, the ability to recognize how those discrete sounds turned into meaningful words wasn’t quite there yet. She would sit on the couch and vocalize individual vowels and consonant sounds, not understanding why she couldn’t figure out what the word was supposed to be. Memorizing some words helped, but she had to take that cognitive leap of turning “C-A-T” into “CAT” before she could really read.

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Her brother was in first and second grade at an alternative private school before I was able to homeschool him, so he, too, received reading instruction. He was a happy go lucky child blessedly lacking in self-consciousness, so the fact that he couldn’t read in first grade didn’t bother him at all. His teachers told me they really appreciated the example he set, because most of his fellow six-year-olds felt quite stressed about the whole issue. Despite her laid back attitude, and despite the fact that the school was known for its lack of focus on academics, the teacher set him up to work with a specialist because he was “behind” in reading. During the summer between grades one and two, he picked up Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and read it from cover to cover. I was pleased he seemed to be enjoying himself but didn’t think much about it otherwise. It was completely typical of his learning style to appear clueless and incapable one day and display mastery the next. In September he went back to grade two, and in November his teacher called me to tell me that the reading specialist reported that my son no longer needed to spend time with her. “She tested him informally,” his teacher said. “He’s reading at a third grade level and his vocabulary is at a fourth grade level. What did you do?” I had done nothing, of course, which was hard for the teacher to believe.

My two youngest children never went to school and never received reading instruction, but due to my having no idea how they learned to read, other than remembering how one of them loved and memorized “The Lorax” at age three, I had no stories to tell. So last week when we gathered for a family brunch, I asked them.

One daughter said she remembers watching people around her read books and wanting to do it herself. She remembers sitting with books and working to sound out words phonetically. Another daughter said she remembers the first word she read–it was “worm”–and how excited she felt when she did it.

On the surface, these stories are rather mundane, but I see gratifying deeper meanings. My kids who learned how to read on their own had complete agency over the process. Based on their observations of the world around them and the environments they were exposed to, they made their own decision that reading was a skill they wanted to master. If they felt they needed help, I have no doubt they would have asked for it, but they didn’t. They conducted their learning to read entirely on their own, which makes the pride one expressed at nailing her first word a whole different kind of feeling than the one kids feel when they’re praised by adults for doing a “good job.” Instead of pleasing someone else, she pleased herself. On the darker side of this coin are the countless children who are forced to learn to read before they’re ready, are labeled as slow, deficient, or worse, and wind up hating to read and/or feeling bad about themselves, a fate that my son fortunately avoided.

Our hands-off attitude sometimes led to funny discussions between my husband and myself, one which was recalled around the brunch table last week. Because worm daughter was a quiet child who didn’t broadcast her abilities far and wide, this conversation between my husband and myself occurred:

Me: “When do you think X is going to start reading?”

Him: “I think she knows how to read.”

Me: “Huh? How do you know that?”

Which is just to say that even very experienced, hands-off homeschooling parents worry, and talk about their worries among themselves. Of course at a certain point it was unmistakable that said daughter could read just fine. Her being able to exercise her chosen level of privacy around the process was as powerful and important as the acquisition of the skill itself.

As a longtime homeschooling parent I’ve been around lots of other kids who were given the time and space to read when they were ready. That experience tells me that declaring all kids should read at six is not only arbitrary, it’s harmful. There is no magic age for reading, and while some parents feel understandably concerned about making sure their kids learn how to do it, stepping back and trusting them to find their own process can reap rewards far beyond the ability to decode a book.



5 thoughts on “Learning to read without being taught

  1. The five year-old here is a private reader. He’s learning, and in the last year has occasionally seen fit to admit it, but mostly we see him look at signs, books, or screens, and come away with information from reading it all the while not quite fessing up to being able to read yet 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This post was a timely read for me. My almost 7yo has an amazing vocabulary and great sense of story structure, but cannot yet read or write, although the writing seems to be coming first. I want to help and I want to leave her to it, but I am sometimes afraid to trust the process in case it doesn’t work – particularly when compared (I know, I know!) to another home Ed friend who is 8 months older and now a voracious self-taught reader. I love watching my youngest pour over books and delight in them. And my eldest does the same. I guess it comes down to trusting and silencing the little fear voice in my head.
    Thank you for sharing your kids’ experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s natural to pay attention and even worry. I certainly did! My first child wrote a lot (in invented spelling) before she ever started to read. I spend a lot of time with an 8-year-old who just started reading. A year ago she couldn’t read at all, now she’s proficient. In my totally un-scientific experience of watching lots of kids read outside of a school setting, I think the range of “normal” is pretty wide. From 3 (unusual, but it happens) all the way up to 11. If I had to say what age I thought most kids learn to read naturally, I’d say 7-8 — but again, I’ve observed a really wide range, and no real difference in ultimate reading ability based on what age the kids learned. It’s like walking and talking. Kids do it at varying ages but once it’s done they’re equally good at it, for the most part. I think the exposure to books and finding joy in them is the big thing, and you’ve got that down!


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