Can Children Learn to Read without being Taught How?
© Beverley Paine, April 2006
"I really like the idea of natural learning, but feel insecure about the process, feeling the need to 'test' the child. At the moment I am wanting to start with reading. Perhaps in a natural learning environment I would wait until the child wanted to start with reading. I'm just concerned that if I totally take the child's lead, I will end up with an illiterate 8 year old who has no inclination to learn how to read."
This was my worry too. Every child is different and there are definitely children who won't learn to read naturally, though most will if their environment is one reading and writing is valued and used daily.
I've written extensively about our son Thomas in articles, online and in my books, because like Alice I was very worried he wouldn't ever master reading. At age 10 he had the reading ability of a year 1 student. By 15 he was writing and publishing tutorials and articles on the internet. What happened? We think the maturing process connected some wires in his brain at around age 13. I had read accounts of boys suddenly learning to read at the beginning of adolescence in Growing Without Schooling and was hanging out for this to happen with Thomas. The insecurity took a long time to dissipate however. I remember worrying how he'd go with the written test for his learner's permit - the first 'exam' he'd ever taken. By this age Thomas was completely in control and responsible for his learning.
As a young child Thomas would often declare that he would be a writer. He loved writing stories. I'd scribe for him. He wasn't prolific but it was easy to see that he enjoyed communicating his ideas. He's a great talker too and is introspective. I think it is this aspect of his personality - the need to communicate - that held him back from decoding print. I've no proof, just a hunch. The brain is an interesting organ. Different brains focus on developing different skills at different times. Thomas always seemed to know what he wanted to say, or write. His knowledge of words, his ability to name and say them, to convey the meaning he wanted to communicate, lagged behind his thinking process. Maybe it's because he thinks so deeply and takes the whole process seriously - he likes to think things out for himself rather than read what other people think or know, for example - that there wasn't room in his brain to concentrate on decoding? Anyway, it all came together for him in his early teens, and I've seen this so many times with other boys that I am now confident that it's okay to give a non-reader some time and space to develop in their own way.
Thomas and I agreed when he was ten that if he wasn't beginning to put reading and writing together adequately by the age of 13 we'd get some expert help. In the meantime I kept checking for progress, which although unbelievably slow by school standards was actually happening. To keep the relatives, and my nagging inner critic, happy I collected *all* his writing efforts and presented them as 'samples' of learning.
Our eldest, April, learned to read in a natural way, at the age of three and a half. Roger, who is four years older than Thomas, began reading simple sentences at age six, and was a confident independent reader at eight. All three children used different learning techniques and methods. April memorised whole words; Roger decoded, and it's a bit of mystery for Thomas - we tried all sorts of approaches in a low key way, but one that seemed to help him the most was learning the most popular words in the English language from the age of ten onwards. By the time he got to the more difficult words everything had fallen into place.
Naturally, it's important to check for any kind of disability, especially eyesight and hearing. Some children have trouble focussing their attention. There are optimum conditions for anyone to learn: working out your child's learning style and needs is very helpful.
I put together a booklet on learning to read - it's available from Always Learning Books.
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