Trusting Natural Reading

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

While we were in Vermont these past few weeks, the only thing my seven-year-old missed more than her city friends was her city library. A voracious reader, she relishes the abundance of books available in our main library. As soon as the elevator doors opened on the top floor of our city library's children's room, she practically ran to the young reader series section, grabbing as many books as she could possibly hold, giddy at the sheer quantity of books available to her. She sat for hours, reading several books to herself and to her siblings, delighted to be surrounded once again by an impressive array of library books.

We never taught her how to read.

As most unschoolers will agree, when surrounded by literacy and given appropriate time and space, the vast majority of children will learn to read naturally, on their own terms, without instruction or worksheets, phonics or curriculum. They learn to read because reading is an essential tool in our modern world and children are perfectly designed to recognize and learn the important tools of their culture.

Professor Peter Gray writes about natural learning and reading quite a bit, including in a recent post where he examines the reading wars and why natural learning fails in classrooms. He states: "While children out of school learn what and because they want to, children in school must learn or go through the motions of learning what the teacher wants them to learn in the way the teacher wants them to do it.  The result is slow, tedious, shallow learning that is about procedure, not meaning, regardless of the teacher’s intent."

When children are surrounded by literacy, when they have frequent access to books and libraries, when they are read to frequently and when their parents and caregivers model the importance of literacy and a love of reading, most children cannot help but learn to read. They may be "early" readers. They may be "late" readers. But they will learn to read, of their own accord, when they are given the time and space and resources to do so. And when they learn to read, they will become passionate, fluent readers who see reading as an important (and enjoyable) tool that opens pathways for new knowledge and skills that interest them.

As Peter Gray writes in this post on children teaching themselves to read: "As long as kids grow up in a literate society, surrounded by people who read, they will learn to read. They may ask some questions along the way and get a few pointers from others who already know how to read, but they will take the initiative in all of this and orchestrate the entire process themselves...Each child knows exactly what his or her own learning style is, knows exactly what he or she is ready for, and will learn to read in his or her own unique way, at his or her unique schedule."

All this is to say that our local city library is a vital part of our family's homeschooling journey. We have seen, first-hand, how a child will learn to read, on her own, without instruction, without a set curriculum, and will now read everything from picture books to her younger siblings, to chapter books, to The New York Times -- all because she wants to, because it is meaningful to her, and not because it is expected or required.

When we trust our children, and surround them with the free and abundant resources of our communities, we provide them with everything they could possibly need to learn, to grow, to blossom into the distinct, fascinating people they truly are.

We don't need to show them the way.

We need to get out of their way.


  1. I firmly thought this was true but I know not it is not for all children. Both my husband and I were 'early' readers. My daughter was a very early talker (words at 6 months full sentences at 12) She cannot learn to read on her own. Some children's brains just don't decode words the same way we do. She literally cannot decode! She began 3rd grade basically not just not reading at grade level, she could barely read at all. That's with millions of hours of being read to in her lifetime, constant access to books etc. Without alternative methods, tutoring and hours of help each week both in and out of school my now 5th grader (finally reading at grade level) would not be reading at all. I write to show the other side. I think unschooling parents should be on the look out for the signs of a reading disability in case they need the extra support..

  2. Great post. Yes, we have become such a culture of "intervention" -- in birth (as you write about), in childhood learning, etc, that we have forgotten --or ignored-- what is natural and don't allow things to happen naturally, in their own good time, without regard to some expected timetable. While I agree there are some kids who do need intervention, it is a small, small slice of those currently receiving it.

  3. Unschooling definitely works. My daughter showed no interest in reading, sounding out words, etc. before the age of 6. Had she been in school, she would've been labeled as slow/disabled/whatever. But at age 6, it all just clicked, and she zoomed through the Bob books and early readers all the way to chapter books in a few months. Now, at age 7, she reads anything and everything. It wasn't easy to get out of her way and let her figure it out, but I'm so glad I did. :)