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Learning to read

I have a vivid memory of how reading was taught in my son’s first grade classroom. His teacher had returned to the classroom after working as a homeschool teacher, and had brought some pretty unusual (from the perspective of public school, that is) ideas back with her. One of those ideas was the given the right rich environment, most kids will learn to read in one way or another, but you don’t have to instruct or push them in first grade.

What? No more phonics/whole language wrangling? No “reading readiness” homework? Just enjoying learning? [Read Alfie Kohn if you want to learn more about this approach.]

Needless to say, her ideas didn’t appeal to all parents or all students. It’s hard for parents to feel comfortable when they’ve been taught that children learn to read in first grade, and here comes a teacher who says, children learn to read when they’re ready. In this classroom, the teaching happened through reading aloud, telling stories, writing, and sharing. One student who’d just had it with waiting for reading instruction had a friend teach her! (Of course, her teacher thought this was fabulous.)

My experience and the experiences of lots of homeschoolers say the same thing: most kids are going to learn to read when they’re ready, and though many of them are ready in that 6-7 age year, outliers disprove the idea that learning to read in that timeframe is necessary or even appropriate or healthy for many children.

Psychology Today just came out with an article on this very topic, which sums up what a lot of educators are noticing. First, kids learn to read at radically different ages if you leave the process to a more natural development. Second, the age a child learns to read actually doesn’t correlate with how well s/he will do in school, how much s/he will enjoy reading later, or pretty much anything else.

There are the outliers, of course: kids who learn to read fantastically early and then go on to show other remarkable early intellectual growth may thrive in a different type of educational environment. Kids who have problems such as dyslexia or other learning disabilities will clearly need a lot of instruction and help.

But all those other kids, it turns out, do just fine being read to, listening to recorded stories, and learning in the myriad other ways that humans learn without reading. Once they’re ready to read, they’ll show interest in learning and will ask for help when they need it.

The other thing that the Psychology Today article mentions is the harm that comes to kids when they are pushed to read before they are ready and willing. The process our public schools use for teaching reading can be brutal to a kid who really isn’t ever going to learn to read well until unusually late. I remember those kids in my school — the “stupid” kids. Yes, we all knew who they were, and the other kids could be quite cruel to them.

(I hope I was nicer than the kids I remember, but perhaps not. I remember a lesson in humility early on when I had to help one of those kids with a spelling quiz and I mispronounced a word – “wholly” – because I’d been reading in class rather than paying attention! He was actually very kind to me when he corrected me, and I think we both thought it was pretty funny.)

As all reasonable people know now, those kids aren’t “stupid” at all, and I bet most of them can read just fine now. Their success in life had absolutely nothing to do with the age at which they learned to read.

What else can happen to a kid who’s not an early reader? Being held back, for example. I was shocked when my sister told me that her son had to learn 30 sight words by the end of his kindergarten year or he’d be held back! My son, a prodigious reader, didn’t know 30 sight words by the end of kindergarten. Imagine if he’d been held back — what good would that have done him? (Or the school, given that when he took the STAR test in second grade, he was at the top of the curve.)

About why most children learn to read, the author has two memorable pieces of information: “Children learn to read when reading becomes, to them, a means to some valued end” and “Reading, like many other skills, is learned socially through shared participation.” It’s clear that most kids in that great variety of humanity will learn to read if they are in the right environment and they see good, compelling reasons to read.

If our schools relaxed their approach of pushing kids to read, they could pay special attention to kids who are showing real difficulties — special positive attention. There’s a difference between a kid who’s not ready to read at 7 and a kid who is showing signs of dyslexia, and a good teacher can see that. Then everyone can relax and not be pushed into being failures at the age of 6.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling, Parenting.


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