How do unschooled kids learn to read?

Unschooled kids learn to read the same way they learn anything – when they’re ready and interested. That’s how child-led learning works.

As parents our philosophy on learning to read is – reading is the fundamental basis of pretty much all learning. If you can read, you can learn anything.

We’ve approached learning to read as unschooling parents as well as regular homeschoolers. Eldest was taught to read before we discovered unschooling so her experience was vastly different from Abi’s and, if I had it to do again, I’d change every part of it. As an unschoolers, Abi learned to read much later and very differently.

Eldest was turning 5 when we first approached schooling with her. In the beginning we started out with a full curriculum, just like she would have at school, but it quickly became obvious that she wasn’t going to thrive when we split her time between too many subjects so we parred down. Eventually just focusing on reading.

This is when we bought Jolly Phonics and got down to the business of learning which letters made what sound.

We glued pom poms on letters and repeated the sounds, we used a Crayola whiteboard to draw the letters BIG, we traced letters with bingo markers. I practically lived on Teachers Pay Teachers, downloading and printing booklets and activity sheets to help Eldest get it.

But it didn’t work.

She was one of a small percentage of children who can’t grasp phonics, so we moved on to memorising sight words – after all, at some point most reading is just remembering what letter groups represent which words. This worked a lot better. We’d learn words at home and then go out to the shops to see if we could spot them.

Learning to read, unschooling style

The biggest difference between how Eldest and Abi learned to read is that we waited a lot longer for Abi. She had to be ready. She had to want it, because we weren’t going to push.

Poor Eldest was our “try it and see” child. We learnt a lot from the mistakes we made with her.

For a long time Abi complained about not being able to read, but when we offered to help her learn, or even just to download learn-to-read apps on her iPad, she wasn’t interested. She always had access to books and we did download reading apps for her (sort of like digital strewing), she just didn’t use them.

That was fine.

Unschooling is about waiting for a child to be ready and interested in something before the learning actually starts. It’s far easier for them to absorb the knowledge when they’re actually ready.

Abi’s a very independent learner. Yes, there are times when she needs help or explanations, but generally she’s much happier to take an idea and work it out on her own. This is how she has been with learning to read.

At least once she discovered that she couldn’t just wave a magic wand and know how to read.

In the past twelve months she’s been more willing to accept help (still, very much on her own terms). She tried Reading Eggs and while she did learn some things, it turned into a bit of a button mash session. She was powering through lessons, but wasn’t really taking anything in.

We bought I Can Read book packs, these have gotten a good work out. Pete the Cat: Pete’s big lunch was the first book she read all by herself.

Yes, there were words she got wrong, but it’s an amazing accomplishment for a girl who insisted reading was just too hard.

Other things we use

Minecraft chat, as read by Siri on Abi’s iPad. You know what they say, the family who Minecraft together stay together…or something like that. To be honest, it can be a bit annoying to here what you’ve just written repeated across the room, but you just have to grin and bear it.

Flashcards, yup you heard right. When there are words that she’s asked for help spelling I grab a coloured Sharpie and write it on an index card. We’ve also done this for letter groups that make specific sounds (th, sh, ph etc). She’s not obliged to use them, but we’ve found they’ve been useful.

Reminding her that she can read. Abi can be very negative and determined that she can’t do something (“it’s just to hard for a little girl” was her catch phrase for a while there), so pointing out that she can actually do that thing has worked wonders.

Look, learning to read it very much an ongoing process. But the ideal end result isn’t having a child who can read fluently, it’s having a child who loves to learn and our approach to learning to read has very much been in line with that.

I’d love to hear how you’ve helped your unschooled kids learn to read so post in the comments.

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