7 Reasons I Homeschool My Teen

CafeMom recently posted “7 Reasons I’d Never Homeschool My Teen” by Ericka Sóuter. It’s not mean-spirited or anything, but it is ignorant … almost willfully so, since the points made are so well-refuted in so many places it seems like they should just Go. Away. and never bother us again. But since they haven’t, I’m going to refute them in one more place, right here.

Ms. Sóuter writes:

I recently came across the story of a Tesca Fitzgerald, who, at 12, is getting ready to start college and plans to be working her Ph.D. by age 16. Her proud mother credited her daughter’s genius to the fact that she was homeschooled. Amazing, right? But I have to tell you, that is as impressive as it is crazy. It made me wonder if I could homeschool my teen or pre-teen. With the cost of private school in New York City, the idea is an attractive one. But I quickly came to my senses and here’s why. Check out the 7 reasons I’d never home school my teen.

Before you say you’d never do something, you really ought to know what it is you’re talking about! Preconceived notions are so often wrong, as every single one of Ms. Sóuter’s points is.

1. I could probably get him through algebra and geometry, but we’d both need a tutor when it came to calculus. Sure, I took it in high school but it was in one ear and out the other as soon as the final was finished.

2. I can’t imagine his first intense classroom setting being a college lecture. Talk about intimidating.

Algebra, geometry, calculus: Get a tutor. Join a co-op. Learn alongside him. Enroll him in a community college class (which also takes care of that “first intense classroom setting” by the way). If he loves it, get him a curriculum and let him go to town on his own.

Or … let him skip it until he needs it (or finds he doesn’t need it) in college. Seriously, if you, a functioning adult, realize that calculus was “in one ear and out the other,” and you know you have never used or needed to use calculus since, and you did not retain even enough of your high school “learning” to work through a textbook with your child, then what’s the point? Just the mark on the piece of paper?

Through some sort of fluke, of which I can’t even begin to remember the whys and wherefores, I escaped high school without ever taking geometry. I didn’t take it in college either, and my life has not been blighted. As a matter of fact, I received two separate scholarships based on my ACT and SAT scores. Without geometry!

3. We’d get sick of each other by week four two.

4. When he complains about his bitchy teacher, he’ll be talking about me.

5. When I complain about my crappy job, I’ll be talking about him.

This … I’m sorry, this just makes me sad. My kids and I have never once gotten sick of each other. I like my children a lot, and they seem to like me back.

You would be very, very surprised to realize how much of the drama in your parent/child relationship comes straight home from the school. Now, obviously if your kid has been in school and you pull him out, it’s not immediately going to be all peaches and cream, because the relational patterns influenced by school have been set for years; but homeschooling from the get-go is a great way to avoid it all.

If your parent/child issues go deeper than that, you have a lot of work to do whether your child stays in school or stays at home. I suggest starting with this wonderful post on parenting and friendship. Read How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. Fix your relationship with your child.

Bitchy teachers and crappy jobs … see above.

6. I can’t teach him the same survival instincts you learn navigating your way though mean girls, jocks, geeks, or whichever else cliques exist these days.

The survival instincts I hope my children learn by avoiding all the high school drama and cliques is that they don’t have to fit into a mold or make themselves into someone that they are not, and they don’t have to trample on the ones below them, merely in order to survive the artificial construct of school.

7. I’m not a trained educator. Parents love to complain about their kids’ teachers but it’s a tough job. Probably one of the toughest. It’s a combo of instructor, counselor, soother, conflict resolution expert, and motivator. How exhausting is that?!

“Instructor, counselor, soother, conflict resolution expert, motivator” … funny, that’s how I would describe a parent’s job!

Fortunately, I am a trained educator. I say “fortunately” not because it has particularly helped me in my homeschooling career, but because it allows me to realize that the statement “I’m not a trained educator” is 100% a cop-out. There may be good reasons why you cannot homeschool your children, but not having a teaching degree is NOT one of them.

Acquiring a teaching degree involves learning a lot of stuff like how to grade on a curve and what to do with the bored advanced kids when the slower ones hold them back, and what to do with the bored slower kids when the advanced ones zoom ahead, and almost none of it has anything to do with actual teaching.

Actual teaching is learned by stepping into a classroom and actually teaching, so the mom of a kindergartener has a huge lead on the first-time classroom teacher, since the mom has already been teaching this particular child for six years. Everyone learns to teach by teaching; nobody learns it out of a book.

I tip my hat to all those moms and dads who successfully homeschool their children. It’s clearly not something every parent can do.

You’re right that homeschooling is not something everyone can do. You have to want to do it, and you have to believe in yourself and your child in order to succeed.

There are other things, of course; but that is the primary prerequisite. The rest is just details.

Learning to Read: How My Unnatural Reader Began Reading

– I have four children who have always been homeschooled. They learned to read in four very different ways, though there are some important similarities too (all four have me for a mother, after all). This is the second in a series of posts examining how each of my children learned to read. –

unschooling readingColter didn’t talk. Between his second and third birthdays, other than a tiny handful of very basic words, he added very few words to his vocabulary. Instead he learned to mimic all sorts of animal sounds, assigning them correctly to all of his little zoo. When he began making a funny sound something like “ayo,” after hearing it repeatedly I told my husband he was saying “elephant.” He pooh-poohed my insight, but guess what? The stuffed elephant Colter got for his second birthday, and which still sits on his bed, is still called Ayo.

He began gaining more words after his third birthday but still slowly. I used to joke that I could see the gears turning when he tried to express himself verbally: an elaborate thought would form in his head, go through several twists and turns and slowly make itself out in a much simplified two- or three-word format.

Despite the fact that he didn’t solidly grasp which was his left vs. right hand until he was at least ten years old, he showed an early and strong grasp of visual-spatial cues. I think he was three when he put together a wooden hands puzzle, the kind where each palm and finger is a separate piece. On ours the finger colors coordinate so both index fingers are red, both thumbs are blue, etc. As he put the puzzle together he began saying he needed a blue piece and looking all over for a blue piece; he didn’t want any of the other pieces I offered him. (He was sitting on it.) I didn’t understand what he was doing until I looked closer and realized he had one hand put together, and was assembling the second hand based on methodically matching the color scheme from the first hand.

When he learned to write his name, he wrote it in mirror letters for the longest time, and honestly couldn’t see the difference when I pointed it out to him. He didn’t even begin to understand the elaborate rhyming games Noa and I delighted in playing.

What Does This Have to Do With Reading?

Why do I tell you these stories, interesting only to a mother, at the beginning of a story on how Colter learned to read? Because all of the above behaviors are strong signs of potential dyslexia. These are some of the symptoms Colter showed (the entire list of possible symptoms is longer):

~ Difficulty putting thoughts into words; speaks in halting phrases; leaves sentences incomplete; stutters under stress; mispronounces long words, or transposes phrases, words, and syllables when speaking.
~ Trouble with writing or copying; pencil grip is unusual; handwriting varies or is illegible.
~ Clumsy, uncoordinated, difficulties with fine and/or gross motor skills and tasks.
~ Can be ambidextrous, and often confuses left/right, over/under.
~ Had unusually early or late developmental stages (such as talking).
~ Excellent long-term memory for experiences, locations, and faces.
~ Difficulty with rhyme and letter recognition.
~ Computing math shows dependence on finger counting and other tricks; knows answers, but can’t do it on paper.
~ “Word blindness” where child can be drilled on a word on one page and then won’t recognize it on the next page.
~ Reading or writing shows repetitions, additions, transpositions, omissions, substitutions, and reversals in letters, numbers and/or words.
~ Reads and rereads with little comprehension.
~ Spells phonetically and inconsistently.
~ Appears bright, highly intelligent, and articulate but unable to read, write, or spell at grade level.

Some of these symptoms persist for Colter at age fourteen – he still holds his pencil like a gorilla (and writes like one), his spelling is mostly by guess, and under stress he still has trouble expressing himself verbally – but the most critical symptoms, those that would prevent him from reading well or enjoying reading, are not a problem.

Just as it was clear that his older sister Noa would be an early and easy reader, it was clear that Colter would not be an early reader, or even an on-time reader (as if there is any such thing). I am perhaps most thankful for the early childhood emphasis of my elementary education degree in that it helped me to realize that my son was at risk for dyslexia, defined as a developmental reading disorder “that occurs when the brain does not properly recognize and process certain symbols.” (PubMed Health)

Early Intervention for Dyslexia

All the school experts say start early, persistent intervention to give the dyslexic a jump on his reading difficulties:

Though it is not a cure, stepping in early with targeted intervention could prevent reading problems from derailing a child’s education. (Dana Foundation)

The good news is that recent studies indicate that 90% of children at risk for reading problems can become at least average readers by the second grade if they are given intensive training in kindergarten and first grade. (Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities)

If his testing indicates that he is not quite ready to read, you have the choice of delaying kindergarten or allowing him to enter kindergarten and receive intensive, evidence-based prevention programs. Our recommendation is not to delay kindergarten; waiting another year will only delay needed help. (Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity)

Recent research shows that the reading delays of dyslexia are a merely a symptom of the way the child’s brain processes information. This brain process is not a delay or a problem to be solved (although preventing reading difficulties should be a paramount goal) but rather grants the person a different way of perceiving things that turns out to be very useful to society: dyslexics, as a whole, are some of the most creative thinkers, due to the way their brains process information.

As dyslexia is not a developmental lag but a different mode of brain organization, it cannot be prevented or cured and does not go away over time. (Dana Foundation)

Intervening on Intervention

Interestingly, despite the new understanding that the reading difficulties of dyslexia are a sign of a brain that processes information differently than most, conventional wisdom on preventing or treating dyslexia remains “more of the same.” Keep teaching reading the same way it is taught to other children, just more: start at least a year early. Practice reading every day. Work on letter recognition every day. Practice writing every day.

Learning to Read

So I took a deep breath and … left him alone.

I continued to read aloud to him and to Noa extensively (she is two years older than he). He occasionally would read aloud to me, haltingly and without comprehension. I would help him work out a word on one page, only to have him stare at the same word on the next page with no recognition whatsoever. So we would leave off having him read aloud, and I would read aloud the more.

I made sure, as best I could, that he loved stories. I read aloud every day. Dad read aloud to him most days. Noa even read aloud to him. Family members who dropped by read to him. We listened to Jim Weiss tell us stories in the car. We made up stories and played games with words. There was a permanent box of sturdy board books in the car. (Well, those had been there since Noa was a toddler.)

And gradually … nothing happened. Seven years old. Eight years old. The halting letter-by-letter sounding out. Not recognizing the same word on the next page. I reread for myself stories of children blossoming into their reading abilities at eight, nine, ten, even into their teen years. I reread Better Late Than Early and reminded myself that I was refraining from requiring from him something he was not developmentally ready to achieve. I read out loud some more and practiced my calm and cheery voice in case anyone asked the dreaded question: how’s his reading going?

No Reading Instruction

Learning to ReadThat fall kids his age were starting third grade, and he couldn’t read worth beans. He could puzzle out the sounds of each letter and sometimes make it into a comprehensible word, but at the end of a page of ten or fifteen words he would have no idea what he had read.

For all of his early elementary years, we had done no worksheets and no reading lessons. No charts or stickers for improvement. No handwriting practice or letter recognition exercises. No phonics instruction other than reading aloud and occasionally (once every month or three) encouraging him to read aloud with me: I would read a sentence, then he would read a sentence, letter by letter, slowly and haltingly, as I cued the letter sounds for him. We would stop very quickly.

Ninth Birthday

The summer before his ninth birthday was unusually busy. We traveled several times and had out-of-town visitors as well. We always take advantage of the many summer classes offered to keep schooled kids busy during their vacation, so I was driving them hither and yon. By this time our family had expanded to include a younger brother and sister (four and six years younger than Colter). It was a summer when we didn’t do a lot of sitting down and quietly reading.

So a month or two before his ninth birthday, when our summer schedules had slowed down, after months in which I hardly read aloud to him, much less asked him to read aloud to me, we sat down to read together.

For whatever reason, I picked up a book at a reading level slightly above anything I had asked him to read from before, a first chapter book: Mr. Putter and Tabby. He was certainly familiar with the story as Mr. Putter and his cat were popular read-alouds at our house; but he had never attempted to read aloud from one before.

After rolling his eyes at me for requesting he start our read-aloud, we opened the book and he began to read.

Mr. Putter and his fine cat, Tabby, lived in an old house …

And read.

… with an old porch and an old swing and lots of old things inside.

And read.

Mr. Putter and Tabby didn’t mind old things.

And read.

They were old too, so they felt right at home.

He read the entire first page aloud. Not smoothly or without stops, not perfectly.

Better than that.

He got through his bumps and bumbles. He read with meaning. He understood and comprehended and remembered.

homeschooling reading
Showing a proper pride in attaining readership.

His eyes met mine as he reached the end of the page, looking as astonished as I felt. We stared at each other wordlessly, then I watched his chest begin to swell out to almost painful proportions as he assimilated what he had just done: he had read independently.

His chin came up in a would-be nonchalant gesture and he tried to speak in an offhand voice as he said, glowingly, “I can read you another chapter later, if you want.”


I didn’t know he could read.

More remarkably, HE did not know that he could read. Something had literally gone *click* in his brain over the summer. Something had jelled. Some point of maturity had been reached.

He could not read. And then, with no instruction or practice … he could.

Learning to Talk, Learning to Read

Think about this: you talked to your baby. You talked, you talked, you talked. You didn’t define your words. You didn’t quiz her on the words she learned yesterday. You didn’t grade her or consult a checklist. Instead you encouraged her to join the conversation. You talked with meaning and expression. You showed your joy at her achievements when she mastered new or difficult words. You talked and made sense when you talked, and gradually she began to make sense of what she heard, because the human brain is uniquely wired to find meaning in language. In fact it is wired thus in many places, not just one, so that it can find meaning in every sort of language or grammar, whether it is perceived through the spoken language, hand signs, or writing.

Children, even children with reading disabilities, can learn to read in the same way they learned to talk. Reading is language. Barring physical difficulties with vision or hearing and issues such as mental retardation, humans can learn to read with the same ease – and with the same wide variety of “normal” ages – as they learn to talk.

Colter, The Reader

He didn’t turn into a fluent reader overnight. He still had to sound out his words and was more likely to read the first few letters and guess at the ending than try to sound it out phonetically. I just encouraged him to read, and I kept on reading aloud to him. (And yes, I corrected him when he guessed the end of the word wrong, and showed him how to read the letters that were actually there.) He remained an emerging reader for about a year; he didn’t love it or pick up books as his first choice of activity, but he could read, and he could enjoy it when he read.

Then he saw The Spiderwick Chronicles movie and when I told him it was a book, he was interested to read it. He read the entire series in a very short while. (They are very short books.) He told everyone he could get to listen that he was reading The Spiderwick Chronicles, a “real series.”

With one big achievement under his belt, he was raring to go. I was a little worried about him straining his abilities with his next choice but he was very insistent, so I let him go for it.

Less than eighteen months after he started reading, my ten-year-old son read all seven books of the Harry Potter series in under two months.

My boy who was sure reading was too hard, my son who could easily have been tutored into dyslexia by teaching him to read at the “normal” age of six when his brain couldn’t make sense of it … was a reader.

He still has the interesting brain functions that give him amazing creativity and allow him to know exactly where we are, almost anywhere I drive in our great big city. But he doesn’t have the reading disability that so often comes with it.

Colter loves to read. He is now fourteen and has read too many books to count, many of them above his “grade level” at the time. All of the Artemis Fowl series. All of the Percy Jackson series. Lots of big, thick series: Fablehaven, Gregor the Overlander, Hunger Games, Charlie Bone, Cirque du Freak, Ender’s Game. He doesn’t just read, he writes, and sometimes reads his stories aloud for friends.

Allowing Ability to Develop

I remember being in my child development class during my teacher training days. The teacher was telling us about his little son, who loved to be in their tree outside but couldn’t reach the low branch to climb up by himself. One day he heard his son shout, “Look at me, Dad! Look what I learned how to do!” He had reached the branch and was swinging from his arms.

The teacher smiled at us and assured us that he had congratulated his son and not pointed out to the boy that he had not learned how to grab the tree branch, he had instead matured in his development to a point where his natural ability to reach the branch was allowed to express.

If you have a child who is having difficulty reaching the tree branch of reading, please don’t try to force him to reach the branch before he is tall enough to do so. Just as children may reach their physical height anytime in a wide range of years, they may reach their “reading height” in a wide range of years too. Dyslexics need more time to mature, not more confusing instruction before their brains are able to sort out those types of abstract symbols. Their brains will naturally reach an age where decoding the symbols of written language becomes easy.

Learning to ReadReading doesn’t have to happen at age six. If you give him the desire to reach the branch, then when he is old enough, when his body and brain are grown enough, when his visual and auditory and cognitive senses are matured and working together well enough … then one day, you’ll hear, “Hey Mom! Look what I learned how to do!”

If you’re paying close enough attention, you might even hear the *click*.

This is the second in a four-part “Learning to Read” series telling how each of my children learned to read. You can see the first story here: How My Natural Reader Learned to Read.


More learning to read naturally stories from unschoolers.

Tuesday Poesy: In the Sultan’s Garden

I found this pantoum form of poem to be just fascinating! Pay attention to the repetitions and think about if you could construct a poem like this one!

In the Sultan’s Garden

Roxelane und der Sultan
"Roxelana and the Sultan" by Anton Hickel, 1780

She oped the portal of the palace,
She stole into the garden’s gloom;
From every spotless snowy chalice
The lilies breathed a sweet perfume.

She stole into the garden’s gloom,
She thought that no one would discover;
The lilies breathed a sweet perfume,
She swiftly ran to meet her lover.

She thought that no one would discover,
But footsteps followed, ever near:
She swiftly ran to meet her lover
Beside the fountain crystal clear.

But footsteps followed ever near;
Ah, who is that she sees before her
Beside the fountain crystal clear?
‘T is not her hazel-eyed adorer.

Ah, who is that she sees before her,
His hand upon his scimitar?
‘T is not her hazel-eyed adorer,
It is her lord of Candahar!

His hand upon his scimitar –
Alas, what brought such dread disaster!
It is her lord of Candahar,
The fierce Sultan, her lord and master.

Alas, what brought such dread disaster!
“Your pretty lover’s dead!” he cries –
The fierce Sultan, her lord and master –
“‘Neath yonder tree his body lies.”

“Your pretty lover’s dead!” he cries –
(A sudden, ringing voice behind him);
“‘Neath yonder tree his body lies –”
“Die, lying dog! go thou and find him!”

A sudden, ringing voice behind him,
A deadly blow, a moan of hate,
“Die, lying dog! go thou and find him!
Come, love, our steeds are at the gate!”

A deadly blow, a moan of hate,
His blood ran red as wine in chalice;
“Come, love, our steeds are at the gate!”
She oped the portal of the palace.

~ Clinton Scollard, Pictures in Song, 1884

This poem is a pantoum, a series of quatrains in which the second and fourth lines of one stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza. The final line of the poem repeats the initial line. As with “In the Sultan’s Garden,” the meaning of the line ideally shifts when it is repeated.

The Surprising Success of Finland’s Schools

Finland SchoolsFinland has had recent surprising successes in measures such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s PISA survey, which compares the fifteen-year-old students of various countries in reading, math, and science. For the past decade, Finland has ranked at or near the top, along with heavy hitters South Korea and Singapore, while the U.S. has muddled along in the middle ranks. Consequently, educators from around the globe are trying to mine the Finnish model for ideas to improve education in their own countries.

Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility, has authored a new book called Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? and is speaking to educators in the US about what is being done in Finland.

Anu Partanen reported on Sahlberg’s reception and the lessons US educators are NOT learning about Finnish education in the recent article “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success.” Sahlberg and Partanen both seem to believe that American educators are missing Sahlberg’s main points.

And yet it wasn’t clear that Sahlberg’s message was actually getting through. As Sahlberg put it to me later, there are certain things nobody in America really wants to talk about….

From [Sahlberg’s] point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: How can you keep track of students’ performance if you don’t test them constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice?

The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America’s school reformers are trying to do.

Partanen then lists several things named by Sahlberg that Finland does in a vastly different manner than American public schools:
~ Finnish schools assign less homework.
~ Finnish schools engage children in more creative play.
~ Finland has no standardized tests.
~ Finland’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves.
~ Report cards … are based on individualized grading by each teacher.
~ In Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.
~ If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.
~ The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.
~ Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.
~ There are no private schools in Finland.

Partanen accuses US educators of not wanting to listen to all of Sahlberg’s message, but Partanen is just as guilty as those he accuses. He actually quotes Sahlberg’s concern (above) that Americans are obsessed with evaluation and tracking and accountability but then ignores that point just as thoroughly as the US educators do in favor of his own apparent agenda. Which part do you think Partanen focuses on?

Herein lay the real shocker. As Sahlberg continued, his core message emerged, whether or not anyone in his American audience heard it. Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

No private schools. That’s the message Partanen gets, the whole message, and what he thinks we should import to the US. While I am not downplaying the importance of that part of the Finnish formula, and I do think less competition in educational fields is an excellent idea, I find it at best amusing that Partanen ignores so much of the rest of Sahlberg’s message to educators: Less homework. More autonomy of teachers to teach, examine, and rate children individually. More autonomy of principals to be in charge of the teachers rather that being bogged down in red tape regulations. No standardized testing.

These are the points that are at the heart of Finland’s surprising success, and apparently the points that Sahlberg himself is concerned are being missed. Standardized testing and tying teacher evaluation to student results means less individualized attention to each student, putting them all through a sardine press that fits none. Allowing teachers to have their own classrooms where they can connect with the children as individuals and without the pressure of standardized testing looming spectrally over all is what frees them to be good teachers, frees the children to get a real education.

How do I know this is true? Because private schools that follow this model in the US get the same results. Check out John Stossel’s excellent report, “Stupid in America,” to see how privately run schools, with no oversight but the intimate group of principal, teachers, and parents, get incredible results on a very minimal budget:


Muddling along as the US public schools do, with competition between schools, within schools, and between students on standardized tests, produces the mediocre results we have been seeing in US public education in recent decades. One way to get to the top of the heap to emulate countries South Korea and Singapore, which essentially eliminate childhood in favor of intensive study habits that according to some lead to increased suicide rates among teens.

The other way to get to the top of the heap, apparently, is to chuck nationalized educational standards altogether, and return control of the classrom to where it belongs: the principal, the teachers, and the individual students themselves.

Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful (Smithsonian Magazine)
Why Finland’s Schools Are the Best in the West (CBC News)

Learning to Read: How My Natural Reader Began Reading

— I have four children who have always been homeschooled. They learned to read in four very different ways, though there are some important similarities too (all four have me for a mother, after all). This is the first in a series of posts examining how each of my children learned to read. —

Noa is sixteen years old as of this writing. When she’s not drawing, she is either reading, or she is writing on any one of at least a half-dozen different fantasy stories she has going at any given moment. I am a reader myself, and I began collecting books for her early. Much to my husband’s bemusement, I began purchasing children’s books before the birth – I managed to hold off until I was at least five months along. (I remember the first one I had to buy: Animalia by Graeme Base. It was so beautiful, I couldn’t resist.)

learn to readI don’t specifically remember reading aloud to her while I was pregnant (though I think that is a good idea), but I did begin reading to her before she could sit up. She loved rhythmic stories such as Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb. If I have occasion to read it these days, I still read it in the same cadence she loved, keeping a steady beat with no pauses, even between the pages.

Books were her first, best toys. As a toddler, she used to sit on the floor in front of her bookshelf, put her forefinger on the top of the spine of a book, and pull firmly until it came off the shelf, repeating until she had all her friends on the floor with her. After she nearly put her eye out a time or two by flipping sharp corners directly toward her face, I transferred her books into baskets so she could make her messes with less threat of injury.

Starting to Read and Write

When she was old enough to hold the books and turn the pages herself, I would “read” to her while I was driving. We kept a basket of board books in the car, and I would recite each page (I had them all memorized by this point) and say “Ding!” when it was time for her to turn the page.

Sometime around eighteen months, when she was barely talking, she began saying a phrase I couldn’t figure out. She would walk around saying “ah goo, ah goo, ah goo” and I could tell it had meaning to her, but I couldn’t quite figure out what she meant by it. Then one day I saw her plop down with our well-read copy of Where the Wild Things Are, carefully turning each page, until she came to the page where “that very night in Max’s room a forest grew … and grew … and grew …” and as she turned each page she recited, “ah goo … ah goo … ah goo …” and I knew she was reading.

She would bring a book to anyone sitting still. This is my midwife, shortly after the birth of baby #2, being coerced into reading with Noa.

No, of course she was not decoding the phonics of the written words, but she was getting meaning from the book and understanding the story on her own, which is after all, at its heart, what reading is.

Around her third birthday, we had to send a birthday card to a family member. I handed her the card and a pen for her to “sign her name” … that is, make a scribble. She took the pen from me and carefully wrote each letter of her name. I had never shown her how to write her name or even talked with her much about the alphabet other than in the most general terms, and of course reading books such as Dr. Seuss’s ABC and Applebet, one of my all-time favorite alphabet books. I am not a proponent of programs to teach very young children to read, but it was clear to me that she was going to be one of those kids who just picks it up early and effortlessly.

Hitting a Speed Bump

Her headlong progress stalled out, however. I fully expected her to be reading independently somewhere between four and five – again, without me pushing, pressuring, or even teaching her to read, just because she was “that kind of kid.” But though she progressed almost magically on her own to the point of reading simple words or phrases, if I showed her a page with more than two or three words on it, she would physically turn her head away, stating, “It’s too hard.” Please understand, I wasn’t trying to get her to read books other than the simple picture books she loved, or even pushing her to read in any way; I was following her natural progression until she suddenly stopped for no reason I could discern.

I feel very blessed to have learned what I learned next, because it is not an avenue I would have pursued on my own, at least not so early. I was talking to a friend at church about some behavioral issues with Noa and she said, “You might want to consider vision therapy.” I had not heard of this but after she told me her child’s story, I had an appointment with her vision doctor quicker than you could say “Jack jumped over the candlestick.”

We already knew that she had vision problems. Around her second birthday, she began crossing her eyes. An exam with a regular eye doctor put her into glasses to correct her severe hyperopia (far-sightedness) and also mild astigmatism. When she wore her glasses (which she did at all times) her eyes didn’t cross, but as soon as they were off her eyes would cross again.

A Lazy Eye

Her exam revealed that she was not using her binocular vision; that is, her eyes did not work in sync, but one at a time. Look at a page of print and try to read it while alternating using your eyes: close first one eye then the other and repeat that in succession, and you’ll see why more than three words on a page was “too hard” for my daughter. Her glasses stayed, of course, as her vision was so poor, but our new eye doctor did remove the correction for astigmatism from her prescription. He said she did have astigmatism, but when she focused on something, her eyes corrected it on their own so she didn’t need the correction in her spectacles.

As I learned more about vision therapy and who needs it, I realized quite a few things about my daughter that had seemed like idiosyncrasies were, in fact, symptomatic of her vision problem. For instance, when I gave her stickers and paper, she would pile all the stickers almost on top of each other in a little square, leaving the rest of the paper completely empty: she hyperfocused on a small area that she could see easily, rather than looking at the entire paper. She ran almost sideways, looking over one shoulder. She had never crawled as a baby.

Eyes that work!

Vision therapy (which I will post about more soon) brought rapid changes in more than her reading ability, which blossomed within two or three months of beginning the therapy (though reading was not part of the therapy). She began to run in a straight line. In gym class (her fine motor skills were excellent but she lacked most of the graces having to do with large muscle skills, so I enrolled her in a fun, low-pressure gymnastics class around age four) she had always been bottom of the class, but the summer of her vision therapy, every coach in the class came up to me to mention her sudden and (to them) inexplicable improvement. She was in vision therapy for about nine months and came out of it reading fluently and running straight. She no longer crosses her eyes when her glasses are off … or at least, only when she wants to.

That’s All, She Read

And that’s really all I have to say about how Noa learned to read, because that’s all there is. I read to her extensively, I surrounded her with books, I taught her to love books. When she hit a snag in her development, I found the help she needed to get past it and get on with her reading. As soon as her vision was straightened out, she began reading without any further instruction or encouragement from me; she was already desperate to read and had the entire skill set necessary for it, she just needed working vision to implement it. She skipped over a lot of the early childhood literature, moving quickly on from the simple first chapter books to complicated books well above her grade level.

I will add this note of caution: read to your children, let them see you loving books, but don’t necessarily expect this type of response. This is Noa’s personality and how she responded to books. In the next chapter of this series, you’ll read about her mirror opposite in the learning-to-read department: her brother Lock, who received the same amount of “book stimulation” she did, but responded very differently.

Some of my favorite children’s books.
Teach a Child to Read With Children’s Books by Mark Thogmartin: This is the only teaching reading book I recommend for homeschoolers. It takes the natural learning to read process as shown by my daughter and describes the process in a way many parents will find helpful, especially if they are not avid readers themselves. It also gives ways to encourage and enhance reading while keeping it meaningful and enjoyable.

What the Kids Are Reading

I’m planning a series of posts telling how each of my four children learned to read. Obviously, I don’t have time to tackle that project until after Christmas, but here’s a little teaser in the form of what they’re reading right now.

Nova (16)

The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
… yes, at the ripe old age of sixteen, Nova finally knows where her towel is.

Lock (14)

Ender’s Game series
: Lock started this series somewhat reluctantly, at my urging. Of course he was instantly hooked, as I knew he would be! He has read the first two books, Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, and is now in the middle of Xenocide. I myself have read (and reread) the four books of the original series, but there are quite a few other books in the Ender universe and he says he wants to read them as well, so I’ve been finding cheap copies of them for him.

Kyro (10)

Harry Potter
: Kyro, who skipped all the “little kid” books so determinedly I thought he was going to be one of those people who just doesn’t have a taste for fiction, dived right in when he discovered long, involved series with intricate plots and thick volumes.

Mink (8)

The Warriors Series
: I have my miracle and Minky, who absolutely hated to read, is now going gangbusters two grade levels above herself! Erin Hunter’s Warriors is four series with six titles in each series; she is currently reading the third book of the second series.

What I’m Reading

The Vegetarian Myth
is my choice right now (I’m also rereading Harry Potter myself) and it is a simply fascinating look at how modern agricultural practice is killing the planet (and us) by former vegan activist Lierre Keith.

Merry Christmas, Now Play Nice! (Or, Let’s Boycott the Boycotts)

No, I’m not speaking to my kids, actually. I’m speaking to both sides of the “culture wars” being fought in the U.S. right now. You know who you are.

The Religious Right is boycotting places like Home Depot for being friendly to gays or something like that. Tell me, American Family Association, who you are helping by this boycott? I thought the mandate to Christians was to spread good news and love, the love of Jesus. What good news are you spreading? Who is learning about love by your actions? Who ends up believing the gospel because of your boycott? Sure, that’s just what the gospel message needs: put a bunch of people out of work by shutting down their stores. No work? No worries, because at least Home Depot can’t be nice to gays any more! (Christians: go read What Would Jesus Boycott? if you need more convincing.)

On the other hand, we have the LGBT groups boycotting the Salvation Army for the reverse reason. The Salvation Army is one of the biggest charity organizations around. They help enormous numbers of people. They are have one of the lowest overhead cost of any charity, which means more of your dollar goes to actually help people (as opposed to going to advertising mailers and salaries), and they are extremely well rated at Charity Watch. But – sorry, homeless folks. No Christmas dinner for you, because we’re boycotting this charity.

We’ve already established that I’m not talking to kids, right? This is America and not everyone agrees on everything … and most of us think that’s a pretty good thing. If you personally don’t like the Salvation Army, or Home Depot, or the corner store, then don’t take your money there. But seriously, grow up and play nice and quit the boycotts. Quit trying to drive everyone out of business who doesn’t agree with you. Guess what, you’ll never have everyone agree with you! So quit the name-calling and the “you can’t just tolerate me, you must agree with me” crap.

Next time you’re asked to join a boycott, ask yourself: Who is being helped? Who is being hurt? Am I hurting real people just to make a political point? And, practically speaking: Is forcing my agenda onto people who don’t want it actually going to help or hurt my agenda in the end? Let’s boycott the boycotts, because I can tell you then end of this war if you want to hear it: No one wins.

Take the Test!

Rick Roach took the test and started something. Roach, a four-time official on the Board of Education in Orange County, Florida, one of the largest school systems in America with 180,000 students, took the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test), Florida’s high-stakes standardized test for 10th grade math and reading. And he made the results public. I simply must quote Mr. Roach’s comments from the original article:

The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62%. In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.

It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate. I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.

I have a wide circle of friends in various professions. Since taking the test, I’ve detailed its contents as best I can to many of them, particularly the math section, which does more than its share of shoving students in our system out of school and on to the street. Not a single one of them said that the math I described was necessary in their profession.

It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.

If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.

It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning. Who decided the kind of questions and their level of difficulty? Using what criteria? To whom did they have to defend their decisions? As subject-matter specialists, how qualified were they to make general judgments about the needs of this state’s children in a future they can’t possibly predict? Who set the pass-fail ‘cut score’? How?

I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test] in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.

There you have it. An elected school board official from one of the largest school systems in the U.S., stating that standardized tests lack relevance to the adult, working world, and are perpetuated by specialists who lack perspective and are not accountable. There is actually a growing movement within and without the school system to opt out of high-stakes testing as irrelevant to any real-world application. In Fighting the Tests Alfie Kohn points out: “Don’t let anyone tell you that standardized tests are not accurate measures. The truth of the matter is they offer a remarkably precise method for gauging the size of the houses near the school where the test was administered. Every empirical investigation of this question has found that socioeconomic status in all its particulars accounts for an overwhelming proportion of the variance in test scores when different schools, towns, or states are compared.”

What Mr. Roach started by taking the test and publishing his results is actually a grassroots Twitterstorm tagged #takethetest: people are now challenging their own politicians to take their local standardized tests and publicize the result. Joe Bower actually managed to get Alberta’s Minister of Education Thomas Lukaszuk to respond to his challenge on Twitter (see a screenshot of the conversation); whether he’ll take the test or not remains to be seen.

Will you challenge your local politician to take the test? I wonder if any will respond?

Alfie Kohn The Case Against Standardized Testing
The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools
by Alfie Kohn