I was sad to see that after the demise of the long-running Home Education Magazine, the publisher chose to take down the entire site, and with it the archive of years of articles that they published. I wrote for HEM for only the last two years, but I loved being able to contribute to an important voice in homeschooling. Since these articles are no longer available online, I am re-publishing mine here on my blog.
There is an embarrassing piece of videotape somewhere in my collection of tapes that may never be watched again. I had set up the video recorder on a tripod, turned it on, and sat down on the floor with my son, who was just about to enter kindergarten. I got out my homemade flashcards and spread them on the carpet in front of us.
“Cat,” I said, then replaced a letter. “Bat.”
My son was patient. The baby in my arms was less patient.
“Sat,” I said excitedly. “Mat. Look! The cat and the bat sat on the mat!”
My son was patient.
Off to kindergarten he went. We had graduated from the alphabet to sight words. Every time he saw the word “the” he laboriously said, “tuh-HUH!”
“No, buddy, it’s the,” I said, probably less and less patiently.
Then I gave up. His kindergarten was Waldorf-style, with very little reading and writing and a lot of playing in the woods. I knew that was what we wanted, for him to have a rich, fun childhood, but how could a son of mine not be reading already? I didn’t even remember learning to read, it happened so young.
The next year, he got into an experiential learning charter school. I watched as the teacher read stories out loud, introduced a huge project about rainforests, and taught math with manipulatives. My son was having fun, but how was he going to learn to read?
And then, one day he read. He read a chapter book, then another, and then Harry Potter.
After school one day I was chatting with the teacher and I said, “I’m amazed at how much my son has progressed in reading.”
“Oh, reading,” his teacher answered. “We haven’t gotten to that yet.”
But there was a twinkle in her eye.
Both of my children ended up being that sort of child who would mysteriously learn to read, seemingly overnight. I shouldn’t have been surprised, given that I’d been that sort of child. But I believed what school and our larger culture had taught me, that kids need to be “taught” and that the “right” way to learn was through phonics.
I believe that my attempt to introduce my son to phonics actually slowed down his reading, because it taught him that he was reading “the wrong way.” He and his sister both became whole word sight readers, tackling chapter books long before they could sound out a page of The Cat in the Hat.
I see homeschoolers online worrying about which reading program is the right one to use, and I always want to give them advice I myself wouldn’t have listened to: Wait. Watch your child. How does he interact with books? Does she “pretend” to read? Is he the kind of child who learns one bit on top of the next, sequentially, or the kind who seems to learn by osmosis?
Some children will need to learn to read with phonics, but many others will find phonics so difficult (and uninteresting) that it may actually put them off reading. After my experience with my son, I didn’t even try to teach my daughter to read—and she ended up reading much earlier.
A common worry about children learning to read whole words before phonics is that “they won’t know how to sound out new words.” That was true of both of my kids, at first. But then, just as in any other area of learning, they found that they were being held back by something and they decided to fix it. Both of them showed an interest in how words are pronounced well after they were reading long chapter books, and both of them ended up learning to sound out unfamiliar words adequately.
My boy who didn’t learn to read on my schedule is now excelling in community college classes at the age of fifteen. For the vast majority of kids, reading is not something worth worrying about. They will do it, and they will do it well, whether they learn at three or at eight. If there are no other warning signs, a child who isn’t reading yet is probably simply not ready.
If I could rewind that videotape and get another chance, I’d throw out the phonics and go back to what we’d been doing all along: Reading out loud together, talking about words, and pointing out interesting and funny aspects of the English language. My son knew from the beginning how important language and reading was in our family, and I didn’t have to do anything more in order to make him into a lifelong reader.