But how will they learn to read?

When my son was less than 6 months old, we were given a cloth bag full of books by the health visitor. Bookstart had a parent guide explaining how important it was to read to your baby and so we diligently started – even though he couldn’t sit up yet and we had to hold the books away from him so he didn’t take a chunk out of a tasty corner. Everywhere we went we were surrounded with books and told how important reading was.  The local Surestart centre hosted playgroups where they went to great effort to recreate books like Dear Zoo and the Hungry Caterpillar with puppets and toys, and of course every session ended with a story, read from a book.  Princess Charlotte (aged 2) had just started an exclusive nursery who boast that with them ‘children embark on the first stages of learning to read, write and to understand simple numbers with the minimum of pressure’.

The message couldn’t be clearer. It’s never too young to start introducing literacy. Fun, tactile and chewable though the books may be, reading them rather than eating them or ripping them up is an adult agenda which it’s unlikely many pre-verbal babies would seek out for themselves. We are obsessed with getting children to decode text – you can buy flash cards for your baby and books on how to teach them to read before they can use the potty. When I looked around schools for my son (who was three at the time), a focus for all of them was their reading strategy, they had phonics groups in reception, parent volunteers listening to reading every day and colour coded books to bring home each night. We were given lists of key words which the children should have learnt to read in the summer before they started reception (when my son was still 3), and told how crucially important our eager participation in this great project of learning to read would be. It is as if, as a society, we are all terrified of the prospect of a child who does not learn to read – and in order to avoid this we resort to intensive coaching in literacy, right from the start. No one appears to question the mantra that earlier is better, both for reading to a child, and a child learning to read themselves.

So when we decided to turn down the place in the excellent local primary school where my son would have started ‘a gentle phonics’ group at the age of 4 years 7 weeks, in favour of self-directed learning and home education, it was hard not to feel worried about reading. So much so, in fact, that I recently found a book buried at the back of our bookcase, ordered in a frenzy of anxiety as we turned down the school place – Teach your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.

I never did teach him.

The year when he was four instead passed playing in the bath, visiting Legoland, doing drama and storytelling, running round the park, playing Plants vs Zombies, learning to swim (also without lessons) and doing whatever else we felt like doing. The year when he was five passed in much the same way. And six. And seven. And there was still no sign of any interest at all in learning to read. In fact he didn’t even want me to read to him. I worried a bit, that he would never see the point in learning to read. By this point the majority of schooled children we knew were reading. A few had already moved onto Harry Potter and chapter books. Other parents raised an eyebrow when they realised he couldn’t read at all. They seemed to be in a different world to us, we were still playing with Duplo and play dough if the fancy took us, and our days meandered and flowed, filled with play,  more play, and long baths which soaked the bathroom. Sometimes it seemed that he couldn’t even read his name, he didn’t recognise those pre-reception key words like ‘and’ or ‘the’. He started playing Minecraft, where every block is labelled with its type, but he didn’t read any of the words.

Then one day we were in the car and he looked out the window. ‘Does that say Zombie?’, he asked? It was a sign and it said Zone. From that moment on he started reading words around him. Stop. No. Tesco. Car Park. Way Out. Exit. M&S. Way In. Go. I got quite excited. I ordered some Dr Seuss books and he was able to read Hop on Pop, almost entirely by himself. He got quite excited.

Then he seemed to get tired of all this reading and certainly of the excitement and backed off. He didn’t want to read any more books and he stopped reading words when we were out. I backed off too. A few months passed. Then he saw some books in a charity shop and asked to buy them – they were level 1 of a Ladybird Reading Scheme. They had level 2 and 3 as well, and one level 4. We went home and he read all the levels 1 and 2 and 3, and then 4. We had finished the reading scheme. He seems to work out the words from the start and end and a bit of guessing, rather than using phonics. I downloaded some Learn to Read apps, he played them about twice.

What happened next? We didn’t read every day or buy more progressively difficult books. We had lots of books around. We sometimes pointed things out, like that ‘ph’ makes a sound like ‘f’. He started reading more complicated signs when we were out. ‘Please don’t walk on the Grass’, ‘Children under 8 must be supervised at all times’, ‘Emergency Door release’, ‘A different kind of January blue ”,‘First Train from Platform 2’. I pointed out words to him sometimes, and sometimes he pointed them out to me. The world was suddenly full of things he could read.

Advances came in leaps, suddenly he seemed to be able to read longer words. He picked up picture books at home and read them aloud to all of us. He read the instructions on packages of food. One day he could read enough to cook brownies from a packet, following the recipe on the back and measuring out the oil and water. He got interested in the Beano comic and found he could read it himself. He read trivia questions and board game instructions. He would read words by dividing them into pieces and identifying the parts he knew, ‘that’s like the start of ‘bread’’ he would say when trying to decipher ‘breakable’, ‘and then the end of ‘table’.

The whole process so far has taken about a year. He’s still learning to read. Last week he said to me that he could work out new words from the others around them and that he knew an unfamiliar word must say ‘daughter’ because of the sentence it was in. He reads silently now. He can read paragraphs, sentences and instructions.

It wasn’t magic and it didn’t happen overnight. The process was him piecing together information that he had and making new connections, then pulling in new information and resources from the world around him when he needed it. He has never read for the sake of learning to read, or because someone has set him a task of reading – he reads because he wants to, or because he needs to find out what information is in the text. So for him, reading has always had purpose and meaning. He has always read with expression and vigour,  even when he could only read a very few words. He has no experience of the monotonous drone of the child completing their required pages of reading homework.

It has been a magical process to watch, however, and for me the most important part of it is that he has felt good about his reading ability throughout. He was 8 before he learnt to read at all and 9 before he had any degree of reading fluency, but he had no concept of himself as a ‘late reader’ because in his world there is no such thing. We said that children read earlier, some read later, just as some learn to swim or ride a bike earlier and some later. Learning to read has been truly joyous and self directed process of exploration and figuring things out, as he wanted to and needed to.

​Learning to read and write, without being taught: Jessica’s story

We were given permission to republish this post by Unschooling parent and teacher, Mel Caden from the Monkey Mum blog.  Read more of Mel’s thoughts on learning without instruction here: monkeymum.blog

This is Jessica.

She is 6 years old and has never been to school. She has never had a reading or writing lesson in her life, yet she is a fluent reader and a very competent writer. No-one has ever sat down and taught her. Instead, driven by her own motivation to communicate through text, she has taught herself: discovering her own strategies, finding joy in experimenting with language, and feeling a profound sense of pride in becoming more independent.

Some people believe that children can’t learn to read without being taught. Jess is proof that they can.

From a very young age (probably before she could even talk) one or other of us parents has sat (or laid) with Jess in the evenings to read stories. As a baby, we’d choose the stories for her – picture books or board books – but as she grew into a toddler, she’d choose the ones she wanted to hear herself, from the bookshelf or the boxes we had scattered around the house. She would often choose the same books, night after night after night. She would listen, and learn the stories; she learnt the rhythm and the sounds of the spoken words; she noticed if you accidentally read something wrong or missed out a page, and she would pull you up on it. She wasn’t technically reading the printed words on the page, but it was all groundwork, and it was all her own.

When she was about three, she started to play around and have fun with the text in her favourite books. She’d place her thumb over the last word on a line, so that I couldn’t read it, and would giggle when the sentence ended up making no sense. She would ask me things like, “where does it say crash, mummy?” and she would point to words that started with the same letter as her name, and ask what they were. She would trace along the lines with her own finger, moving it faster or slower, and would whoop with delight when I changed pace to match her as I read aloud. Over those 2 or 3 years, she went from passively listening to stories, to being able to recite whole picture books by heart, to experimenting playfully with text and language.

Around the same time, she began to recognise a few words by sight, like the big ASDA shop-front sign, which she’d also spot on food packaging, and like the titles of her favourite books and TV programmes. I knew that she was recognising them because of their characteristic visual appearance (the bold, capital, green letters of ASDA, for example), but alongside that, just like with the learning of her picture books of by heart, she was creating associations (albeit likely subconsciously) between the way words and letters looked in print, and how they sounded when spoken.

Because she seemed to be fascinated by words and letters, we picked up some alphabet cards, and I blu-tacked them to a cupboard over out kitchen table, where we sat every lunchtime to eat together. I can’t remember how the game started, or who initiated it, me or her, but she ended up asking for this game every day. While we ate, I would point to a letter, stuck on the cupboard, and she would say its sound. I started easy, the J in her name, the M in mummy, the S the looked like a snake. She’d ask me for more. One day, when she knew a few of them, I moved them over to a strip of wall beside the cupboard, to get them out of the way, and so began ‘the tower’ of letters she knew. From them on, each time we played we’d build the tower of alphabet cards as high as we could, up the wall, and almost to the ceiling eventually. It was her game, her motivation. It was her asking to play.

At about 4, she began asking if she could read the bedtime story, instead of me. By this time, she was familiar with so many picture books, and knew many of them word for word. We changed how we managed bedtimes (we had a 3 year old and a 4 year old that we had been reading to together) so that Jess could be afforded the time and patience needed without frustrating Amy. She would choose a book, one that she knew inside out, and as she turned the pages of the book, she would tell the story. At first, she would do it from memory, some of her wording was different to the words on the page – she was retelling as best she could remember, rather than actually accurately reading the words. But I let her, because I could see the value in her sense of achievement and independence, and I could send the damage I would do if I were to stop and correct her. And besides, even we adults don’t always read things accurately, or we skim read and fill in the blanks. At that stage, technical accuracy was less important than the pride and self esteem I could see that she was getting from being the reader instead of the listener.

As time went on, she began to pay more attention to the actual text on the page. She would often spot when her own remembered words didn’t match up with the words on the page, and she’d look at the text more carefully, sometimes figuring it out from initial letters, sometimes asking me to read it instead. At some point, she stopped asking to be the reader, and wanted instead to go back to being read to again. And of course that was fine – we went back to all snuggling up together with me in the middle, reading. We followed her lead and went with it.

It was also around this time that she started to want to type words into her tablet. She’d ask me to type “surprise eggs” into YouTube, or she’d ask me to type in the name of whichever creature she had just created in an app. She started playing Minecraft, and asked me to help her write signs, or name her worlds. For a long time, I was her tablet scribe, which at times seemed endless and relentless and frustrating (for me and her!).

Playing Minecraft was one of her big motivations in learning this new-found skill. I’d join her in her world, from my own tablet, and we’d build together, sometimes working on the same structure, sometimes creating our own separate ones. She’d ask me about the names of the items in the inventory. She would read my signs I wrote around my Minecraft house… bedroom, bathroom, upstairs… ones she could easily figure out in context even if she couldn’t decode the whole word through its letters. She began to write in the in-game chat – things like “hi” or “hello” and of course, things she found funny like “poo” and “wee”. And I’d write really simple lines back, simple one-syllable words, that I knew she’d be able to figure out: “look up”, “take this”, “I love you”.

Soon, despite the fact we sitting on the same sofa, we were chatting back and forth through text on in-game chat. Jess would often tell me off if I said something out loud instead of writing it. She loved it.

She started writing more of her own Minecraft signs, to explain what something was, or to welcome you to her shop, or to label different people’s aeroplane seats with their names.

She started playing on Roblox and also on Minecraft minigames servers. She loved the games in which she’d be given a category and have to either build something or design an outfit to fit that category, which would then be put to a vote. Time and time again, I was called on to read the category to her, so she could compete. And I’d grit my teeth and read it to her, for the 29th time that day, trying not to sound exasperated. Then, one day, on Roblox, she suddenly found a way to do it without me. She would look at the word (winter, for example), and even if she couldn’t understand it, she’d type the letters into the search bar on the clothing inventory, and see what came up. The array of clothing in the results would give her all the clues she needed to then figure out the word. Suddenly she was independent.

With books, she had begun to enjoy hearing Mister Men and Little Miss books. She’d previously loved the Biff and Chip series, but had been looking for something different, and Mister Men books seemed to hit the spot for her. She loved the humour; she loved the layout and format, and she loved the fact that there were words that she hadn’t heard before, like nincompoop and calamity and curious. She suddenly found joy in exploring a whole new range of vocabulary  (something that’s conspicuously missing from any phonics reading scheme). At some point (the first time I remember it was on a short car journey) she started to read the books to herself, in her head.

Back online, she grew desperate to chat to other players in-game. Both on Minecraft servers and in Roblox games, she watched the chat. I never managed to get the hang of Roblox, but she didn’t need me. She played role-play games and would write her messages to other characters in the game: the shopkeeper, the school teacher, the baby she was adopting. Suddenly her ability to read words and sentences exploded, and she was writing messages back and forth in full-on dialogue.

By this time, we had set up a Skype account, to allow Jess to talk out loud, across the ether, to her friend that she often joined online. It wasn’t long before she started writing messages on Skype, too.

Offline and away from gaming, throughout those couple of years, she also began to add words to her drawings. Simple names came first, then speech bubbles and signposts. As she grew and her ideas and her stamina and her patience developed, her drawings became more like comic strips, with multiple speech and thought bubbles, leading on to cartoon-strip sequences, with some text in each picture. When she was 5, she had been given a DanTDM graphic novel as a gift. After asking me to read it to her in the beginning,  she had confidently read the rest of it independently, and I’m pretty sure this was a big part of the inspiration behind her comic-strip drawing style developing.

Jess is now 6. She loves to draw, but almost every drawing has some writing on it: a speech bubble, a thought bubble, a signpost or a caption. In her mind, there is no distinction between drawing and writing; they are two sides of the same coin – a natural progression in communicating the idea that is in her head, onto paper, to show others. She sometimes plays online games for hours, always socially, communicating with fellow team-members, competitors or role-playing playmates. She recently whispered to me (proudly but not boastfully) that she’d just read a whole chapter book in one go. And most recently, she brought her tablet to me, to show me the most amazing story she had typed into a book on Minecraft – a wonderfully crafted suspense story, complete with beginning, middle and end, of two sisters stranded in a haunted forest, and the horror that befell them.

One day recently, Jess asked me, “How did I even learn to read? Who even taught me?” And honestly? There’s only one answer I could ever give her… “You taught yourself. You wanted to be able to read, so you figured out ways to learn. No-one taught you.”

Of course, to her, it feels strange. She doesn’t remember the particular steps along the way. Her progress in learning to read and write was never a part of anyone’s laid-out plan. She was never told, “let’s learn about full stops,” or “great, now you can read 12 sight words,” or “you can’t read that book – it’s too babyish/too hard”. Instead, she was given the time, the space and the opportunities to pursue it as she wanted; as she needed. When the desire or the need arose, she seized it and never looked back.

Nobody else ever taught her to read. It wasn’t someone else’s teaching success. This was all her own accomplishment, her own achievement.

One that I hope she will always feel proud of.