Updated: Sep 6, 2020
One Early Reader
I originally wrote a blog post about teaching reading over 4 years ago, based on my experiences in teaching my daughter Alina to read. She was a precocious reader; I started requiring her to do reading lessons when she was preschool age, and by the time she was 6-years-old she was reading at a 7th-grade-level and reading Charles Dickens in her spare time. I thought Alina's reading success was greatly aided by our reading lessons, and assumed that my son Ian would be reading early, too.
But yet. Ian's personality is totally different from his sister's. Whereas Alina was eager to please and malleable from a young age, Ian was... not. He never did anything that he did not want to do, period. I could never talk him into doing anything that he didn't want to do, and he would stick to his decision for eternity. Thank goodness he is naturally geared to make right choices and likes following rules!
I've often said that if my son had been the firstborn I would have given up homeschooling early on, because the techniques I originally used (such as rigid schedules and forced academics) would never have worked with him. Now I know that those techniques were flawed from the start, and I no longer force my children to do academics (and instead focus on fostering a love of learning combined with them taking ownership for their own educations). But where does that leave 7-year-old Ian on his own journey to reading proficiency?
Is Early Reading Actually Better?
In the intervening years since Alina learned to read, I've become much better-educated about the reading abilities of children. I've learned that:
There is actually a very wide developmental age for learning to read. Some kids naturally learn to read at very young ages, but it is totally natural that some kids do not read until later, even until as late as 12 to 14 years old.
When a child naturally has a developmental reading age that is older, it does not matter how much the child is urged and pushed to read while they are younger. The child will not really learn to read until they reach their natural developmental age for reading.
The "late" readers generally end up being labeled as "slow" or "behind", when in fact they are not at all; they are just on their own developmental path and there is nothing wrong with them. And of course, that process of being told they are behind, of being pushed to do something they are actually not yet capable of doing, has a tremendously bad effect on their self-confidence and their belief in their own ability to learn. I have observed several children who were "late-readers" who went to public school: these children were made to feel like there was something seriously wrong with them. Once they reached their natural developmental reading age they were able to read easily; all efforts before that just led to frustration, anxiety, and low self-confidence.
Each child is an individual who has his/her own developmental timetables and needs. It is totally normal and fine for a child to be a "late" reader. Often, a child who reads late will be more advanced in other areas. For instance, I've observed that many "late" readers are more naturally attuned to mathematical concepts than to early reading. Neither "late" readers nor "early" readers are better or worse; they are just different.
There is no "right" way to teach reading. Some kids learn to read in the phonics approach (sounding out letters, then sounding out words) but others learn to read with the "whole word" method (where they basically just memorize what a word looks like rather than breaking it down into individual phonics sounds). Neither approach is better than the other.
Without any reading lessons at all, many kids will learn to read on their own when they reach their developmental age for reading if they are in a reading-rich environment (such as an environment where the parents are reading aloud to the child often). There is a good article about this here.
Were Alina's Reading Lessons Actually a Success?
Back when Alina was learning to read, I assumed my role was to be her teacher, who made sure she did her reading lessons and kept progressing. I pushed her to read just as I pushed her to do math and writing. She did learn to read early, but now I know that her early reading probably did not have much to do with my methods for teaching reading. She was just naturally a precocious reader.
In the end, my methods of pushing Alina to do academics actually backfired. She grew to think that schoolwork was akin to punishment, and to dislike math and writing specifically. She developed what John Gatto calls " provisional self-esteem": she came to believe that her own self-worth was related to how well she did academically and this lead her to become afraid of making any mistakes. People learn much through mistakes, so a fear of making mistakes actually hinders growth over time. Alina's fear of making mistakes meant that she did not trust her own learning processes and intuition, and that she was afraid to try to figure things out on her own. Our relationship was suffering, too, because of our interactions surrounding school work.
It has taken a long time for Alina to recover from these negative lessons, and in some ways she is still recovering from them. Even though it has been over 4 years since I found Leadership Education and stopped pushing her academically, I still see the shadow of those wrong lessons hanging over her at times.
Providing the Right Environment for Learning to Read
Now, while Ian is learning to read, I know that my own role is different than I had assumed years ago when Alina was learning to read. By knowing that children can learn to read easily when they reach their own developmental age for reading, and by knowing that academic pushing can easily create a hate of learning in children, my own role in the process becomes clear: I need to make sure the environment is right for Ian to learn to read and then just let the process unfold.
I am creating an environment that will help Ian learn to read by:
Reading aloud often, and making sure to read plenty of books that he finds very engaging. This will instill in him the belief that books are worthwhile and that reading is enjoyable.
Reading my own books. The more a child sees their parents reading, the more they will want to read, too.
Trusting the process. Showing Ian that I have confidence that he can learn anything, and not allowing the process to become stressful, is an important aspect of providing the right environment for learning to read. I've been careful to never give him the idea that he is "behind" in reading, and to let his own process for reading develop naturally.
Instilling in him a love for learning. Ian's love of learning is being nurtured through being supported in following his own interests and passions, as well as through exposure to great books, ideas, art, and music. This helps Ian be open and free with his learning, so he can naturally love it.
Creating a home atmosphere where reading is a main form of entertainment. In our home, limiting screen time makes it possible for reading to be one of the top forms of entertainment every day of the week. In quiet moments, we naturally seek out books to enjoy singly or together.
Buying him books that support his interests. Ian loves adult-level encyclopedias about cars (which we can find easily at our local used-bookstore). Even though Ian is not actually reading these books, he regularly spends time poring over the pictures in these books. In this way, he is building a habit of enjoying books.
Assisting him when he wants help with reading. I am letting Ian lead out with determining when and how he wants to do reading lessons. This underscores the fact that he is in charge of his own education, and allows his reading lessons to become empowering rather than coerced.
Ian's Self-Directed Reading Lesson Schedule
When children are infused with the confidence that they can learn, and that their own interests/passions are important, they will take ownership of their own education. Every six months or so, I have a homeschool mentoring conversation with each of my children, wherein we fill out a homeschool compass for the months ahead. During one of these conversations, Ian said that he wanted to start having reading lessons, because he wants to be able to enjoy books like the rest of us do.
Rather than me "making him" do reading lessons, I have given Ian the freedom to be in charge of the process. Ian likes to plan ahead, so he set a goal for himself to do two reading lessons per week, on Wednesday and Friday. With his naturally-structured nature, he makes sure he does his two reading lessons each week, and he often does them a day early! He is still in the early stages of reading, but he is making progress over time and seems to be enjoying the process.
2019 UPDATE: Ian Reached His Natural Reading Age at 8.5 Years Old
At around age 8&1/2, Ian suddenly started learning to read at an accelerated rate. His brain development hit that magic milestone where it was ready to learn to read! I had worked hard to make sure Ian never felt like he was "behind", but instead worked on instilling confidence that he would learn to read easily once his brain was ready for it.
Now at age 9&1/2, Ian has progressed such that he is reading 6th grade level chapter books. That means he progressed through ~5 reading grade levels in less than a year, almost effortlessly!
Want Some More Perspectives in Teaching Reading?
Check out these links for some more ideas to ponder regarding teaching kids to read:
Children Teach Themselves to Read from Psychology Today
The Reading Wars: Why Natural Learning Fails in Classrooms from Psychology Today
3 Kids, 3 Journeys to Reading from Simple Homeschool
On Waiting for Reading Readiness from Simple Homeschool
Teaching a Child How to Read from Yarns of the Heart
What has been your experience with teaching reading?
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