Teaching Themselves to Read

Reading is a deep and abiding passion in my life. “Read early and read often” is pretty much my life’s motto. So teaching my children to love reading has always been very high on my list of homeschooling priorities.

Thankfully — and probably inevitably given my readerly propensities — I began reading about teaching reading and homeschooling and unschooling long before I actually had children.

Recollecting how I myself learned to read, I knew that curling up on a loved one’s lap and hearing the words rumble right through the reader’s chest and into my very bones was a big part of learning and loving reading. One of my mother’s favorite short stories to tell about me (or maybe it was just one of my favorites to hear) was how I started in the fall as one of the youngest in my kindergarten class (with a spring birthday) and was able to read anything I picked up by Christmastime.

So it was no big leap for me to buy right into the idea that learning to read was little more than an extension of language learning. Language is language, and the abstract complexities of written language may take a bit more brain development to absorb, but there is little essential difference between learning to speak and learning to read.

In Children Teach Themselves to Read, Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, explores this concept in some detail. Most importantly, he states:

As long as kids grow up in a literate society, surrounded by people who read, they will learn to read. They may ask some questions along the way and get a few pointers from others who already know how to read, but they will take the initiative in all of this and orchestrate the entire process themselves. This is individualized learning, but it does not require brain imaging or cognitive scientists, and it requires little effort on the part of anyone other than the child who is learning.

Research done in school settings, where the a priori assumption is that reading is difficult and does not come easy, is of little use when considering how children learn to read organically. While a literate environment is naturally required, once that is provided the methods by which a child learns to read are as individualized as the children themselves. Gray reports on a limited study from Sudbury Valley School (an alternative, student-driven environment), referencing sixteen students who had learned to read with no systematic instruction after enrolling there.

What they found defied every attempt at generalization. Students began their first real reading at a remarkably wide range of ages — from as young as age 4 to as old as age 14. Some students learned very quickly, going from apparently complete non-reading to fluent reading in a matter of weeks; others learned much more slowly. A few learned in a conscious manner, systematically working on phonics and asking for help along the way. Others just “picked it up.” They realized, one day, that they could read, but they had no idea how they had learned to do so. There was no systematic relationship between the age at which students had first learned to read and their involvement with reading at the time of the interview. Some of the most voracious readers had learned early and others had learned late.

However, this study was over twenty years ago. Today, the teachers at Subury report, their students are learning even earlier and easier, due to our culture’s immersion into a text-driven society: computer games, cell phone texting, Facebook, and so on.

The written word is not essentially different to [today’s students] than the spoken word, so the biological machinery that all humans have for picking up spoken language is more or less automatically employed in their learning to read and write (or type).

After discovering all this lovely information, Gray polled a number of unschooling families and from their responses distilled several commonalities that highlight how reading ability happens in unschooled children. He has a great deal of explanation and expansion on each of these principles, and I highly recommend that you go and read them at his site. Briefly, the principles are:

1. For non-schooled children there is no critical period or best age for learning to read.

2. Motivated children can go from apparent non-reading to fluent reading very quickly.

3. Attempts to push reading can backfire.

4. Children learn to read when reading becomes, to them, a means to some valued end or ends.

5. Reading, like many other skills, is learned socially through shared participation.

6. Some children become interested in writing before reading, and they learn to read as they learn to write.

7. There is no predictable “course” through which children learn to read.

Of course, none of this should be construed to mean that children have to learn to read completely on their own. Being part of a literate society means seeing people reading for themselves but also and most importantly being read to in a loving and meaningful manner. Many children will begin reading from nothing more than this interaction. Others will ask some questions or respond well to being given some pointers. But as the mother of four unschooled children who are all fluent readers, without ever receiving any focused reading or phonics instruction, I can wholeheartedly agree that reading is not a difficult thing to teach or for a child to learn. If it is difficult to learn at age six, it will not still be difficult at age eight or nine or maybe thirteen.

Gray’s article contains a great deal of information as well as links to read more on this fascinating subject. I highly recommend you go read the whole thing.

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