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On Learning To Read

How does a child learn to read if no one is teaching him? I’ve discussed the challenges I’ve been having with B in previous posts, such as this one and this one. I also talked about how, earlier this year,  I bought The Reading Lesson: Teach Your Child To Read In Twenty Easy Lessons.

Well. Easy for whom, may I ask?

Is structured phonics instruction appropriate for all children?

I started out following the instructions at the beginning of the book: keep the daily reading time below fifteen minutes, aiming to have the child read three to five pages a day. Some of the pages consist of lists of words. Others consist of sentences. A smaller number contain a story using the particular phonics skill and words that have been introduced so far.

When we first started, B seemed game to try it. But it wasn’t long before he began whining about it. Even though he was doing all right, albeit going slowly. By the time we got to lesson eight (each “lesson” consists of twelve to seventeen pages), however, I realized that he wasn’t retaining (or so I thought) some of the phonics skills. So we went back a few lessons and started again. Not soon after, I realized that B despised reading the individual words.

Okay. So, he could read just the sentences and stories. But by the time we reached lesson twelve, he seemed to have the same retention problem. Back we went again, to lesson six.

Somewhere in there, I figured out that he was mildly dyslexic, on top of manifesting pretty much all of the ADHD symptoms you can find online. So I went digging, and found a book about helping children with learning difficulties.

The light bulb came on. Oh, B has a “poor working memory”! The remedy? Do the same lesson several times a day in short bursts.

Wanting to be a good homeschooling mom, I started having B read the same three pages four times a day, spread out from morning to mid-afternoon. Now, how do you think that went down with my son?

The strategy did seem to work, as he seemed to remember words and phonics skills better than before. But if anybody were giving out blue ribbons for best whiner, B would have earned one.

I was done. Really done. Four times a day, I stressed about having to go in search for B and interrupt his project or play because “it’s time to read.” Four times a day, I had to struggle with his resistance against this, even though it took fewer than ten minutes a pop.

And truly, I was struggling with myself. Because by this point, I had read the dyslexics don’t learn to read by learning the phonics rules, but by learning whole words. Even though learning phonics was working somewhat for B – he’s not a “full-blown” dyslexic, I guess you could say – he seemed to much more easily retain words that we simply practiced by sight. I started to realize that the reason he preferred to read the stories was that his mind thinks in pictures, so the words and sentences in stories are much easier to figure out since they have a context to them.

I began to wonder what would happen if I just sat down and read books to him and had him follow along with his eyes. Would he just pick it up? (The author of the learning difficulties book had already assured me that yes, he would.)

Learning to read the natural way

We had finished with lesson eleven for the second time when that still, small voice started whispering “unschooling” to me. I got online and started digging. Found web articles, including testimonials from mothers of very late (mid-teen years!) readers. Podcast episodes. I read, I listened, and I prayed. Here are the main points I discovered about how children learn to read.

  1.  Print is everywhere in our world today. At some point, children will either start picking up its meaning or realize that they need to learn it in order to successfully function in the world. And they will learn to read when it suits them. And be able to catch up to their peers within a few days to a couple of years.
  2. Forcing children to learn to read is the best way to get them to hate reading, and will cause some of them to manifest supposed learning problems.
  3. Schools force reading on young children because teachers don’t have time to read all the texts and instructions separately to every child, nor to hear oral responses from every child when it comes time to “evaluate” learning.
  4. Boys who are left completely to themselves to learn how to read often do not begin reading until they are between the ages of eleven and fifteen.

Which piece of advice was the most helpful to me, do you think? Here’s a hint: at the time of this writing, B is only ten years old.

What I’m doing now to encourage B to read

Two things: first, shared reading ten to fifteen minutes per day, several days a week. Currently that means his eyeballs follow my finger as I read. Eventually, it will either mean that he reads part of the text, as well, or he suddenly begins reading on his own.

Second, white board messages. Now, lest anyone accuse me of not being a “real” unschooler (frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn if you do), allow me to say that I do not force B to read the messages. I simply tell him that he has a message. Inevitably (so far, anyway), he wants to read it. I think my keeping the messages a bit humorous and silly motivate him to give it an Australian go.

What kinds of things do I write? Well, doggone it anyway, I paid $18 for The Reading Lesson so I want to somehow use the whole thing, not just half of it. So, I’m writing messages using the phonics skills taught in the book, in the order that they are presented, and throwing in some more advanced sight words to mix things up.

At the time I had him quit reading from the book, he seemed to be struggling to remember that “ea” and “ee” make the long “e” sound. He seemed to be struggling to remember the two “oo” sounds (as in look and food). To my surprise, he is suddenly not having a problem remembering how to read those vowel combinations.

Was he simply overwhelmed by the amount of text he had to read at once in the book? Does “poor working memory” only crop up when a child is being forced to do work that he doesn’t want to do? Because, it doesn’t seem to be a problem now.

Slowly but surely, B will become a fluent reader. Yes, with some support and encouragement from me, but in a way that is fun and relaxing. Without having to endure a tedious phonics program. And he always will have the option to say, “No, I really don’t want to do that right now.”

This is the way that children learn to read without being taught.

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