“I’m not planning on ever learning to read”, she said.
“That’s cool”, I replied, “there are four readers in this house, so there should always be somebody available to read to you when you need”.
This is how I remember a conversation we had when she was around 4 or 5. I hope some of you reading this are at least a little bit horrified at the interaction. After all, reading is an essential tool to get by in the modern world. Is this how unschoolers foster a love for learning? Horrifying!
If my eldest had said this to me when he was that age, he would have been in for a long conversation (coercion disguised as compassion) about how important it was to know how to read. As if young people aren’t able to figure this out by simple observation. This conversation would have confirmed for him, yet again, that my acceptance of him was conditional on my approval of what he thinks and feels, and subconsciously he would become more discerning about what he shares with me. And of course, I’d be pulling my husband aside in a panic, insisting that this unschooling thing doesn’t work. Look what ‘his’ son just said!
I can tell you that my response to my daughter was one of my prouder moments in our unschooling journey. It was tangible evidence that I had made progress in my deschooling journey. I had finally learned to trust. My early days of our unschooling journey was fraught with anxiety and fear. There was a huge disconnect between knowing about trust and actually trusting.
I was anything but trusting when it came to reading with the older boys, who are just 18 months apart. I felt a certain amount of anxiety about leaving it to natural learning and insisted that reading is not a natural human thing like walking and that we needed to ‘teach it’. And as unschoolers we needed to do it without it looking like we were teaching it (don’t ask!).
On reflection, my anxiety had three sources. The first was our society’s emphasis on the importance of reading: Early is better, more is even betterer. The prevailing attitude towards literacy increased my anxiety even more: Readers are leaders!; a reading person is a thinking person; and studies showing gaps in the vocabulary of nonreaders.
Without realising it, I valued reading as a measure of intelligence, morality, and excellence. It was more than just an essential tool for communication in the modern world. It had changed from being a tool to a measure of worth.
My own reading of all these research reports referring to vocabulary gaps, increased cognition of readers and other benefits that come with reading was a disruption to our peace.
The second source of my anxiety was my own relationship with reading. I get great joy from reading, and I wanted them to experience the same joy. And for some reason, I felt anxious that they were missing out on that joy. So, instead of sharing my joy with them, I went ahead and imposed it on them.
And finally, my last source of anxiety was wanting to feel vindicated for choosing unschooling as a pedagogy. And boys who could read would give me that.
There are, and have been in the past, millions of non-literate people the world over who display deep wisdom in how they relate to each other and to the living world around them. They are in relationship with the world unencumbered by the word. It seems obvious now, but I didn’t put it together then that reading is simply a tool. It is as liberating, exciting, damaging and harmful as the reader or writer using it.
Here are some examples of the ways writing and reading can be used for harm and for good:
- Literate slave owners used the written word to sell and buy enslaved people
- Written stories that inspire us to live our dreams or parables that make us reflect
- Pamphlets and books written to induce hate and violence or to induce love and peace
- Poetry that lifts one’s soul
- A treatise that liberate and expand our consciousness
- Colonising powers using the written word and legalese to dispossess indigenous people of their lands
- Religious authorities keeping a hold on religion by discouraging reading, and thereby, access to religious texts
- Books and pamphlets inspiring liberation
- Stories of fantasy
- Stories that tell a single story, representative of a small (usually dominant) group of people
So, even though I was a voracious reader, it is now obvious to me that I wasn’t a critical reader. Another lesson learned: Reading profusely is not the same as thinking critically. The reading material on the magazine racks at supermarkets says a lot about people’s ability to think critically.
Exploring Unschooling Friendly Reading Instruction
Since I was oblivious to the obvious, I went off to research how to ‘teach’ reading in an unschooling way. I couldn’t rely on the unschooling bloggers and groups out there to help with that because their mantra was relax, read to them when they need you to, and it will happen. But I knew that I knew better! I didn’t expect my research and the boys’ reading journeys to coalesce into exactly what those unschoolers whom I was ignoring were saying: Relax!
First let me share with you some of what I did while I was busy with my research. I’m separating this into actions that were intentional and directed toward developing reading and writing and actions that were part of living but that I suspect might have contributed to them eventually learning to read and write.
With the intent to develop literacy:
- I bought Letterland Magazines. Religiously. I loved them! The boys were lukewarm towards them. They didn’t see the point of a whole magazine devoted to a letter, but I liked them, went through them and found ways to sneak in what Letterland had to offer. Did it contribute to them acquiring reading skills? Who knows? What I do know is that my younger two knew how to read before knowing the alphabet.
- Craft activities: Drawing and decorating letters and finding words that start with the same letter. Did it help? Who knows? Let’s just say they have never voluntarily engaged in any craft activity that involved letters.
- I put together some words (cat, hat, mat etc.) to work through with my eldest. Did it help? My son says he has good memories of us sitting together and working through this. One of the sentences read ‘My dad is mad’, and we would both laugh endlessly when we got to that point. We never did progress beyond the ‘a’ sound.
Simply doing what we enjoyed doing:
- I read to them. Almost every day. No fixed time. Whenever it worked for us. Only books/material we enjoyed.
- We frequented the library and book shops
- Yu-Gi-Oh cards: It’s a duelling card game that requires reading each card in order to know how or when to use it. They played it endlessly, and we spent many hours reading those cards for them, often when mediating some very heated disagreements between them. Before long, they were reading words like premature, burial, dragon, forfeit. Oh, and they were adding and subtracting in the thousands as part of score keeping in the game.
- Yu-Gi-Oh Card Generator: This one was really a post reading activity. One of the boys loved making cards online. And I would be called on to edit them. I usually talked him through the changes, and before long he was no longer calling me. Later, he started using google to explore grammar rules to evaluate and improve his writing.
- Bought magazines that they actually wanted: Car magazine, Speed and Sound, Gadget focussed magazines and Yu-Gi-Oh magazines.
- Read the instructions for them, at their request, for the video games they were playing and helped them to research how to get unstuck at certain points in the game. Before long they were reading ‘play’, ‘start’, ‘pause’, and ‘quit’; initially only in the context of the games, and later, wherever they saw them.
Neither of my boys were particularly interested in reading simply for reading’s sake. They were too busy living life. And living life for them meant playing all day. But they did want to know how to read for the access that reading would provide to them. And that, it turns out, was enough.
Fortunately for them and their joyful playing, I was engrossed in extensive research and still more anxiety. I came across whole word reading, phonics, and psycholinguistic reading. All of them made sense in one way or another. But which one was the best? What was I to do? Who said unschooling parents are relaxed? The endless research and a difficult pregnancy conspired to have me back off the boys and park my desire to urgently have them reading.
Vindication: And I Breathe Easier
At around 8,5 years old, my eldest started reading. Rather spontaneously. At least that is how it seemed to me. He went from reading a few words in context to being able to read almost anything. The age range at which children start reading is between 3 and 14 years of age. Apparently 8,5 to 9 years is a very common age for free learners to pick up reading as a skill. Turns out I have very average children!
It was still amazing for me to witness! All of a sudden he was reading through the Yu-Gi-Oh rule book in one sitting. I also read the Yu-Gi-Oh manual and couldn’t make head or tail of it. While it answered a whole bunch of questions for him, it left me as confused as ever about the rules of the game. Context matters!
Both Frank Smith and Paulo Freire insist that the act of meaningful reading cannot happen independently of the world in which people live. My son had a long relationship with Yu-Gi-Oh, so the book made sense to him. I had none, and so I even though I could ‘read’ the manual, I struggled to understand it. Both writers have emphasised that the process of reading should always be contextual.
I saw this play out with all three my children. Initially, they could more easily read words that were meaningful to them in their context. I found it interesting that they could not read the simpler words like ‘the’, ‘this’ and ‘them’, but they could read ‘premature’, ‘forfeit’, ‘burial’ and ‘acceleration’. The boys were stronger with words that were contextual to Yu-Gi-Oh, FIFA, Need for Speed and Marvel and DC related stories/games, and my daughter with words related to Minecraft.
All three of my children’s reading processes were intertwined with meaning and context, rather than mechanical. We haven’t experienced the comprehension issues that are often mentioned as problems that some young people face. I am beginning to suspect that mechanical reading instruction devoid of any context could contribute in some way to these large scale comprehension issues that seem to plague education departments.
So the unschoolers saying ‘relax, it will happen’ and Frank Smith’s work concurred completely with our experience. All three times.
Frank Smith’s Theory of Reading
Frank Smith proposed that meaning comes from spoken word AND meaning comes from the written word. Or that the written word is its own language. So when we are reading, we directly extract meaning from words without necessarily sounding them out. That is apparently why we can read and understand words that we are unable to pronounce.
According to the phonics camp, the written word is a representation of the sounds of the spoken word and therefore we learn to sound out words. So when children are taught to read, they are taught to actually sound out words and then extract meaning from the sounds.
My own observation of my children’s reading experience confirmed Frank Smith’s explanation. I think the phonics version is popular because it provides tangible evidence of progress, that can be checked off a list. It is also systematic. This can definitely give the instructor a sense of comfort. There’s also a huge market to support the phonics philosophy: Reading programmes, magazines, apps, reading instructors, courses for teachers and parents, early readers, etc. There’s not much of a market to support Frank Smith’s philosophy. It is too simple: Read to them and let them engage with the written word and engage with life where the written word is present. It is through reading that children learn to read, which is very counter approach to our understanding of literacy instruction.
I should mention that I didn’t read much to my daughter. Fortunately, I had a few more years of conscious and intentional deschooling and could be respectful of her preferences. So I could listen to her when she declared once to an offer from me to read to her: “No thanks, I prefer my own imagination!”. I wasn’t going to insist that the imagination of a published author was more important than her own. Thank you deschooling! So we read occasionally for short stints, and she learned to read from engaging with text in Minecraft and other games, watching Aphmau on YouTube, and having a smartphone to play/download games and text friends.
I should also mention that she has an awesome vocabulary. No thanks to all the reading we didn’t do or anything special about unschooling. It turns out she’s a word person. She loves reading, writing and playing with words. She also mispronounces tonnes of words, and that is her ongoing journey. Mostly she self-fixes them, and sometimes somebody mentions something to her.
None of what I have shared above actually explains how children learn to read. It appears that people learn to read in a variety of ways at different ages. I am sceptical of the theorist that suggest they have finally uncovered the secret. Too often that secret is translated into ‘reading aids’ that can be bought.
As unschoolers we need to do our due diligence about reading, like we do with everything else. So don’t just take my word for it. And if you’re anything like I used to be, I know you won’t.
So here’s more reading for you to do (no pun intended):
- Peter Gray has a great piece titled Children Teach Themselves to Read – The Unschoolers Account of How Children Learn to Read.
- For an up close and personal experience of how it looks in unschooling homes, listen in on Pam Laricchia’s podcast – The Magic of Learning to Read Naturally, where she curates the natural reading experiences shared in previous podcasts into one really enlightening podcast.
- If you really, really need more convincing, check out Rethinking Learning to Read: The Challenge from Children Educated at Home by Harriet Pattison.
- Frank Smith, Reading Without Nonsense or Understanding Reading (there’s a PDF of this book on the web somewhere)
- Reading the World and Reading the Word: An Interview with Paulo Freire. Registration is required.
- And finally, as important as a tool literacy is in the modern world, I highly recommend this piece by Munir Fasheh titled How To Eradicate Illiteracy Without Eradicating Illiterates? It challenged some of my earlier held attitudes.
The Wonder of Hindsight
This is what I wish I had internalised when my children were younger: I wish I looked at my children and saw them for the humans they were, not through the lens of the reading guides and the memes. I wish I looked at them as people who wanted to get better at being able to function in this world and who knew themselves well enough to figure out how to do this and to ask for, accept or refuse help. And that I was there to respond to those requests rather than trying to shortcut their process.
If you are where I was, then here’s what I think it looks like in practice:
- Some children will want to be read to. They’re going to love stories, to listen to them, and to tell them. The same stories all the time and different stories. Whatever they enjoy.
- Some children use reading for information rather than entertainment. It’s a useful tool, but they don’t enjoy reading or read for fun. It is their right not to like it. It is our responsibility to not impose on them the need to enjoy reading.
- Before children are able to read, they will constantly ask for help with reading in order for them to do the things they want to do. Help them. Don’t try to sneak in reading instruction. You can offer, and if they consent, then go ahead.
- Some children are going to succumb to pressure and will want to read and will ask for direct instruction. There’s a conversation to be had about learning things when we are ready, about how reading happens—by reading—and that it takes time. If they still want direct instruction, then give it to them. And stop if they say they’ve had enough.
- Don’t privilege certain kinds of text over others. Books over comics, or paper over e-readers. It’s a good medium if it is working for your child.
- Most importantly, just relax. And to relax means to inform yourself, to understand that learning to read does happen naturally and that your trust and support goes much further than forced instruction.
Mother | Wife | Unschooler | Education Freedom Advocate | Child Rights Advocate | Learning Reimagined Conference Convenor | She/Her
For the last 25 years, Zakiyya has been experimenting with living and learning in freedom, also known as unschooling. She is an advocate for freedom in education. Her three children have never been to school, living instead as if the idea of schooling doesn’t exist. She has been supporting and has been consistently sharing her reflections on the intersections of unschooling with decolonisation, social change and unschooling’s foundational role in social justice. She convened the Learning Reimagined Conferences of 2017 and 2018, both groundbreaking in their own rights with the 2018 conference being the first conference globally to focus on the socio-political dimensions of Unschooling, Decolonisation and Social Change.