Normalize learning to read at vastly different ages: here’s why

Learning to read is made out to be such a huge thing. 

I suppose it is, in a way, because if your child attends school there comes a point when they literally won’t be able to keep up with the work if their reading is not at the right “level”. The whole idea of this is just ridiculous.

It simply makes no sense to me because it takes the child out of the process entirely, and makes an arbitrary decision about what would serve an adult-led system better: that children should all be reading at the same level at the same time.

What are we doing? Are we supporting our children to love and get pleasure out of reading, to use it as a medium or a way to reach their goals, or are we pushing them to read so they can complete specific schoolwork at a specific time?

This question might seem confrontational, but I feel like it needs to be asked.

Are we respecting our children’s right to learn at their own pace, and to have some say in their own learning?

My two children learned to read in completely different ways, at completely different times. Everything was different about their reading journey. 

My daughter just didn’t seem to get it for what felt like months, but she was desperate to. She pretended to read books over and over and learned them by heart, but was still not really reading the words. She learned partially through the Montessori method, and partially through sheer repetition. She loved the early reader books. Once she’d got the hang of it, she was off on her own and within a few months she was reading proficiently. She was 6 (in some countries, this might be considered ‘late’). She’s 9 now and has never stopped – she can read pretty much anything now, her comprehension is amazing, and she will often be found curled up with a book.

My son loves to be read to, but was never that interested in reading himself. I’m not really sure how he learned the alphabet – probably partially from school (he did kindergarten), and partially from us pointing out letters. He learns a lot from books, but I’m the one reading them. We never did phonics because I knew it would be a disaster – he just doesn’t have the patience to work through it, and nor do I frankly. I just kept reading to him. He listens to lots of audiobooks and claimed, up until recently, that he just didn’t care about learning to read. We discovered Reading Eggs and that seems to have given him a bit of a boost and some confidence that he can, actually, read, if he sits still enough to try.

That last sentence is crucial. He struggles to sit through something that can initially be excruciating, in order to master it. This is not lack of determination. He has mastered many challenging things in his life, through sheer determination and practice. He knows how to reach goals, he know what being driven, what practice, means. It’s just that he’s never been particularly interested in applying these skills to reading, and sitting still is just not his thing. At least not for now. He’s 7 years old. 

He asked me to buy a chapter book he could read. He has never wanted to try Early Reader books, they’re dull and make no sense to him. Recently, we tried Magic Treehouse book 1, and he’s on Chapter 2 now. He’s reading quietly to himself, not aloud to me. He asks me about words occasionally and I tell him. I know better than to ask him to sound them out – I’ve tried before, he just finds it frustrating that I’m not answering his question, as I would I suppose if I asked someone what a word meant and they told me to look it up, or sound it out. He can read The Magic Treehouse, so I guess I can assume he is somewhere on the reading spectrum now. But I have no expectations about where he’ll go with this. Who knows, he might not persevere with it, and he might put it down and not pick it up for weeks; or, he might steamroll through the series and progress quickly. Or somewhere in between. 

The reason it doesn’t really matter how my children learn to read, or when, is that we home educate. I am letting them find their own enjoyment and delight in reading, so that every time they pick up a book, I will know and they will know that it is not out of a sense of duty, but because they genuinely want to know what it’s about. There will be a purpose, and a sense of joy, around reading.

Reading is important in our family, my husband and I are big readers, we value reading and it makes up the fabric of our lives. We are often reading, we read to each other, we discuss things we’ve read, we give books importance in our lives. This is enough. I know deep inside that my children will eventually know how to do it. They’d have to be living under a rock not to.

Children absorb information about their environment and the culture they grow up in. If reading is part of your family culture, then it’s very likely your child will learn to read. Maybe not when you think they ‘should’, but it will happen.

(I want to say that my children did not have any difficulties that made reading harder than it typically might be. Of course it will be different if your child does. )

I reckon there are as many ways of learning to read as there are children. I recently enjoyed reading Harriet Pattison’s study of home educated children and how they learned to read, which among many other things, questions teaching as a primary way that children learn to read. It’s worth mentioning that, when reading is mostly child-led, or self-directed in some cases, there is a huge range in ages when children learn to read, but also in approaches to reading and ways it is achieved. The end result, however, is the same. The child learns to read, in the end. 

We need more of this. 

So in honour of this sentiment, here are a few reading resources that we have personally used, at one point or another. This is a limited selection because I won’t recommend something that we didn’t try, or didn’t work for us. I think everyone needs to do whatever works for their child. Only you can know this.

We are consent-based and self-directed in our learning, so none of these resources were used in a systematic way. It was more about making them available and occasionally suggesting they might enjoy them, but never about forcing them to do it.

That said, a combination of these things worked for both us:

Montessori moveable alphabet. These come in all shapes and sizes but the traditional one is fairly large, and often pricey. Both my children used this to make words before they were confident writing, and also to play around with letters. I should mention that in Montessori practice, children often learn to write before reading, and then the two sort of progress hand in hand. This can make sense, for some children. You may notice your child is writing (not correctly spelling words, but writing nonetheless) well before they have learned to read proficiently.

Early Reader books

My daughter loved the BOB books, and the Berenstein Bears books

Montessori literacy materials (these are also easy to make at home, I sometimes did that rather than buy them) – Pink series, Blue series, etc. I got some from here too.

Read-alouds 

We have always read aloud a lot, and I’m guessing most people do this anyway. But I think it’s worth mentioning that the past year of home education I’ve been reading a novel a month aloud to the children. It’s usually something aimed at age 8-10 or so, because it needs to be suitable for both children. It’s sometimes a little much for my 7 year old but I feel like it’s really improved his comprehension and his vocabulary. The novel we read is discussed often and I love how it exposes kids to the amazingness of storytelling and beautiful writing, even if they are not reading it themselves. I read a chapter or two almost every day.

We also read a variety of non-fiction books each week, as well as books of poetry for children. I really care about finding books that are representative of a wide diversity of people and ways of life, so that is something I always look out for. I get lots inspiration from instagram – great accounts to follow on this are @educatingella and @weneeddiversebooks, for starters. I also look out for ‘living books’, which is a Charlotte Mason idea. You can find more about that here.

Audiobooks

Similarly to readalouds, this works on comprehension, vocab and general appreciation of literature and storytelling. Listening to audiobooks has made my children appreciative of what a good book feels like. Once you know how it feels to listen to a book, it’s not a huge mental leap to wanting to read that book yourself.

Reading Eggs

My daughter never did this, but my son does and although we’ve never used any “educational” apps and I’ve been pretty resistant to this when it comes to reading, Reading eggs has really helped boost his confidence with reading, given that he was never into the Early Reader books. It’s basically a substitute for reading the very simple books he finds too boring to persevere with. 

I’d love to hear how your child or children are learning or learned to read!

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