Saturday, January 19, 2008

learning to read

My sister-in-law asked a great question about unschooling and learning to read, and I wanted to think out loud about it a little bit more. She wondered how I planned to approach the teaching of reading to Little One, as an unschooler.

Let me first say that while I freely admit that my approach seems like unschooling, smells like unschooling, looks like unschooling, I am not comfortable with that term. For me, it conjures up images of children playing video games all day. When I use the term, what I mean is that I don't know where we're going to end up, and I don't have a strict schedule. Curriculum flows from what the children ask about, write about, read about. I really believe that this is the way it should be, and that it is the very best way we can respect our children as fellow human beings.

But this is far from a completely undisciplined approach. We "do school" at the dining room table and there is a certain amount of skill drill for Big One, in the areas of math facts, grammar, handwriting, and punctuation. But what I find is that the time we need to spend in these pursuits is quite short, and the rest of the day can enjoyably be spent drawing, reading, doing legos, listening to music, singing, doing yoga, going for walks, etc. I consider all these pursuits to be "school" as well, but I don't have to schedule them or insist that they take place. They just happen, and that is the essence of unschooling as I am choosing to use the term.

Now then....

Little One loves books. He likes to look at books on his own, he loves to have them read to him, he does some spontaneous writing in his drawings and in the letters he writes to us. He recognizes all the letters and knows what sounds they make. He knows about rhyming, and knows that some rhyming words look the same as each other,while others look different. He will happily write a word on the grocery list if I help him with the spelling. All this, to me as a teacher, constitutes the teaching of reading. And I expect that he will naturally come into reading sometime in the next year or so, without me sitting down with him and explictly teaching him "how to read."

Big One did it this way. Sometime after his fifth birthday, his teacher and I realized he was decoding text. That is, he could figure out how to read unfamiliar words. This was with very little explicit instruction, but with lots and lots and lots of experiences with words and reading and stories, and so on... It took another 18 months before he really "became a reader" and was able to sit with a book and just enjoy the story.

And now here is the important caveat: I can tell from my teaching experience and my work with Little that he is going to learn to read easily and naturally. If it were otherwise, I would be taking a more direct teaching approach with him. Because I can tell it's not going to be hard and that he is coming to appreciate the world of books without me pushing them on him, I know I don't have to worry about his learning to read.

And this is the crux of the matter: if it were going to be very challenging for him to learn to read, I don't think an unschooling approach would work. Given that reading is an essential skill for any life I can imagine either of my children wanting to live, they must learn to read. There are some children who really struggle with reading, and many of us avoid what is difficult for us. If it were going to be hard, I'd have to spend a lot more time and effort on it: an unfortunate irony.

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