Thursday, April 14, 2011

reading without schooling

I found myself in a fantastic children's shop yesterday. Surrounded by games, puzzles, books, experiment kits, building kits, art supplies.... I found I was being drawn to the workbook section. Again. I stopped myself. and thought,

"What? Have I learned nothing?"

from the last 10 years of unschooling our daughter?


Old thinking patterns die hard sometimes.
You see, I was an "early" reader. I was reading before I began kindergarten, and I did relatively well in school; at least until I was in middle school and the information was coming more quickly, and the distractions were greater and the social pressures were much stronger. But that is another story.

So I carried this notion that children in my family learn to read "early". Period. I accepted this as a given, as this had been true for a lot children in my family.

When we began the homeschooling journey, the last thing I was concerned about was how my children would learn to read. (GRIN)

I was in for a big surprise when my daughter had so much difficulty learning this skill. At first, it looked like reluctance. After the reluctance was lessened, it looked like major frustration. I am someone who had no trouble learning to read, and largely, I learned in a public school setting growing up. When my daughter asked for help, I was drawn to workbooks. To flashcards. To games like scrabble, and websites like starfall. This was not working.

I had read a few articles on brain development and natural reading. The theory is, as it is in harmony with unschooling, is that children learn what they need to know, as they need to know it, and as their natural ability to learn it develops. There were many stories of children who hadn't naturally learned to read until age 10, or 12, or even older. And yet so many children are attending school and learning this skill at age 6. And many homeschooled and unschooled kids learn reading around 6 as well. Below is a bit of info on unschoolers take on learning to read, as well as the results of a poll about what age children learned to read:

So what is going on with this?
Google "learning to read" and you will be assaulted with a plethora of websites proclaiming that their program will teach your baby to read; that your baby is a genius and just needs this program to unleash their full potential!

My heart is thumping.
Because I am sickened by the RUSH.

Rush to wean,
rush to walk,
to potty train,
to talk,
to sleep train your little one to sleep through the night....
RUSH and push your baby into independence!
this is the message.

Nevermind that weaning will naturally happen as a baby becomes more able and interested in eating solids, nevermind that walking, talking, and using the toilet are things that naturally develop as a body and mind grows to readiness. And the same goes for sleep and independence.

Yes, being a parent is exhausting,
yes, it sucks to have my sleep disrupted by my little one.
Yes, it would be nice to have a night alone with my hubby.
But I have no doubt
that when my baby cries,
I am being called,
my baby is trying to communicate a need or feeling;
and whether that need is for nursing,
or cuddles,
or comfort because of teething,
or help and love while falling asleep;
I am confident that their need is as valid as mine,
and that they will naturally grow more capable of meeting their own needs as they grow.
So why rush? Is there any benefit to the little one?

And somehow this RUSH has been added to reading. So what we have is a society and a school system that disregards each child's individual development, needs, desires, and learning style. We have an expectation that children will learn to read in the early grades; and we justify this expectation, by saying that children need to know how to read in order to learn other things. huh.

What if that isn't true? What if, in fact, the standard ways in which children are taught to read in school are actually doing damage to some children? Such as the children who have dyslexia? as is explained in the below article:
"These brain imaging studies show that teaching methods that may work well for a large majority of schoolchildren may be counterproductive when used with dyslexic children. Teaching methods based on intensive or systematic drill in phonemic awareness or phonetic decoding strategies may actually be harmful to dyslexic children. Such teaching might simply emphasize reliance on mental strategies that are as likely to diminish reading ability for dyslexic children as they are to improve it, increasing both the frustration and impairment level of dyslexic students."

Not to mention, that children tend to compare themselves to other kids?
Why is my classmate able to read, and I can't?
What's wrong with me?
And what conclusion are they left with?
That they are dumb, or different in a bad way, or that they are lazy.
Either way their self-esteem takes a big hit.

Which brings me to my big realization.
What if it can be done the other way around?
Could free and creative and natural learning and play, lead to reading?
And what would be the benefit of doing it this way?

When my daughter was in Kindergarten, we used a curriculum. (Unsuccessfully, as I explained in a previous post.) The curriculum was trying to teach reading color names, through coloring. Okay, this sounds reasonable, logical, and seems to hold the possibility of being enjoyable and incorporating a creative process..... except, it wasn't.
For example, a big picture of a tree, would be accompanied by the word GREEN, and the instruction to color the tree GREEN. LOL. A picture of an apple, with the word RED, and the assignment to color the apple RED. You get the idea. This didn't leave room at all for creative process, for problem solving, for expression; the whole thing felt dumbed-down to me, and I dare say it felt that way to the children as well.
I believe the intention was to blend art and reading together, so I give them credit for that. The intention is good.

What if we take away the tree, the GREEN, the assignment? We are left with a blank piece of paper, and a learner who may or may not be drawn to art. In this case, let's say the learner is drawn to art. Art and music, because my daughter is. Unschooling has allowed her learning to be a symbolic blank piece of paper. Let's say the learner is right-brained. Let's say the below is an accurate picture of her natural strengths.

(Taken from this site:

The right-brain is better at:

Right HemisphereLeft Hemisphere
  • Copying of designs,
  • Discrimination of shapes e.g. picking out a camouflaged object,
  • Understanding geometric properties,
  • Reading faces,
  • Music,
  • Global holistic processing,
  • Understanding of metaphors,
  • Expressing emotions,
  • Reading emotions.
  • Language skills,
  • Skilled movement,
  • Analytical time sequence processing.
  • Sensations on both side of face,
  • Sound perceived by both ears,
  • Pain,
  • Hunger,
  • Position.
Emotions Negative emotions (fearful mournful feelings), Positive emotions
neurotransmitters Higher levels of norepinephrine Higher levels of dopamine
Grey Matter White Maatter ratio More white-matter (longer axons) on right more grey-matter (cell bodies) on the left.

The question is:
Does free pursuit and exploration of these strengths lead to reading?

It has for my daughter. She has dyslexia, as well as auditory processing problems and a few other learning disabilities, or should I call them learning differences? I could.

She is 10, and as of this month something has "clicked", as the natural learning articles said happens around this age. She reads. On a good day, she can read well. On a bad day, which is happening less and less, she struggles a lot to read at all. This is the nature of learning differences.

When someone is diagnosed with something like dyslexia, there is talk of "interventions", programs and people that will help her to learn in a way that works for her. Great, I am thankful that she will have access to this help, if she wants it.

Much to my amazement, I think she has naturally searched out activities, that for her, have acted as "interventions." Activities, that played on her strengths, built her confidence, and helped her to start to overcome her difficulties. Here is what I mean more specifically:

She has been able to build solid friendships and mentor-like relationships with many, many people. People who, like her, are artists; and who, like her, had a lot of difficulty in learning some skills, like reading. These people have helped her to value her artistic talents; they have helped her to preserve her confidence. They have helped her develop her gifts.

She has been playing violin, and taking group lessons to learn this instrument. Reading music has helped her de-coding skills; which transfers into de-coding letters. Her music teacher has observed her ability to play by ear; a very valuable skill for any musician. I believe that her developing an ability to tell the difference in sounds of various notes, and identify those notes, has helped her in reading too. She has had a lot of trouble telling the difference between vowel sounds, and attaching vowel sounds to vowel letters. But since playing music, she is getting much better at this. Dancing for 5 years has helped her have a great understanding of timing, which has helped for learning to play music.
Working with clay, making sculptures as well as at the pottery wheel, has helped her ability to focus, to work through obstacles, to learn from mistakes, and to develop her major and fine motor skills. These are necessary skills for learning to read and write.

So here's the thing.
My beautiful, gifted,
amazing daughter has done it backwards
to how schools teach it.
Backwards to what I as a parent expected.
And I think it has been of benefit to her.
I think in alot of ways she has come out "ahead."
Ahead in the sense that she feels good about herself.
She knows who she is
how she learns best
she has confidence that she can learn anything.

Thank goodness I was able to let go of my own expectations
and be open to her doing this in her own way and her own time.
This was my HUGE lesson to learn.
Thank goodness she was a persistent teacher!
this is still an on-going process.

But here I am.

My boy now in kindergarten; and I am able to stop myself while standing in the workbook section. LOL
I am able to hear him say
"mom, those look boring! Let's go look at the games!"
I am able to accept that as valid, and true.
I am able to turn around, and follow my boy to the games.
I know that his process is his own,

and it will look how it looks, and that is fine.
He will amaze me too. He does.
He will have gifts, and talents. He does.
He will find people he connects with.
He will grow.
Grow in the true sense of the word: Spiritually, physically, emotionally, relationally. And we will grow.

without schooling.


  1. I am drinking up this post and am so grateful for it! It's funny, I just published a much shorter post of my own on this very topic (reading without schooling) and when I went to my Reader, this post came up simultaneously with mine. What timing! I must read this over a few times to really take it all in. I just love this Self Designing way of life.... I'll link to my post because I'm not sure if my profile links to our blog currently:

  2. Well. Well. You know I agree wholeheartedly. Big Boy and O are so very similar. So VERY similar. He really 'dug' her. Understands her. Or. Rather. Thinks she might understand him. I'm so happy to hear you guys figured this out before she was damaged by school like Big Boy was (in his first and only year, that's how quickly it happens, especially for kids like ours). Awesome writing Meagan. Love reading your blog!

  3. thanks for the link Krista! It is always good to read other unschooling experiences! And unschooling with a boy, I am finding to be a completely new thing!
    Mother Bearth, it is cool that big boy and O are at an age where they can connect in a different way, they really do have some things in common. This was a rough year for O, but since having a diagnosis, she is doing WAY better, funny how much of an improvement that can make.

  4. This was such a lovely post. I was an early reader too, and both my kids were as well. It's part of why I was able to relax and let the other things come naturally. I wonder how I would have dealt with them being late readers - thankfully there is so much good information out there (at least in the unschooling world) to reassure parents. Nothing is more wonderful than a child succeeding on their own terms: the confidence! Congrats to you (and your daughter!).