How My Unschooled Son Learned to Read

I will be honest. Although I liked to think of myself as a hardcore unschooler, when my twins were 7 1/2 and still showing virtually no interest in reading, I reverted. If only my mind, I fervently committed to trying every evidence-based reading method I could find. It was obvious that I was crazy, selfish, punishing my children with my adolescent ideals. How could they face other children? How could I face other parents? How could I face my own parents?

I had heard the stories. Children who showed no interest in reading a word, happily playing video games eight hours a day, and one day at age 10 were found hiding in their room devouring Hunger Games or Harry Potter or White Fang. But these stories were so distant, so few and far between, it seemed they must be about some different kind of human, strange reading savants of some kind.

If I am going to be really honest (which I did say I was going to do), it was really one of my twins I most worried about. The one who could not remember his letters, or spell 3 letter words, and became explosively angry every time I tried to work with him. By the time they were 8, his brother had at least begun to read short books and make steady progress, while he only grew more resentful as he sensed the growing pressure. I began to override all of my parenting instincts, like paving over a field, fiercely and relentlessly, forcing him to recite letters and phonics, drawing Waldorf style letter pictures. We took turns reading books meant for 5-year-olds aloud, and I pretended he was enjoying it. He started to become withdrawn, sullen, depressed. His brother was reading avidly now, adding more fuel to his determination. He was not going to try, not going to care, lest he admits his inferiority. I cried at night, a mix of shame, fear, and frustration. I looked desperately around for support, advice, experienced parents who had been through the same thing, and found little except those few stories on unschooling blogs.

Eventually, my guilt and fear of losing my relationship with my son, and of destroying his impulse to learn completely, forced me to give up. Not, I hoped, giving up in the sense of failure and resignation but giving up in the sense of desperately clinging to the belief that his intrinsic motivation (coupled with a fiercely literate society) would lead him to discover the joys of reading somehow, sometime. I lied to my parents, telling them he was coming along. I lied to myself, telling myself I was OK with this.  I stopped talking to him about it, or my partner, and changed the subject whenever anyone else brought it up.

To keep my worried mind occupied, I lost myself in secret, slightly obsessive, research on the process of learning to read. Schooling vs. unschooling, phonics vs. whole word learning, the politics of reading, the effect of literacy on the developing brain. A constant roadblock is that there is very little organized research on unschooled children, (though this is changing).  I knew John Holt had said, “reading instruction is the enemy of reading”, which made me feel guilty. I had read “The Alphabet Vs. The Goddess” by Leonard Shlain, which made me terrified of corrupting my child’s mind with literacy. I was vaguely aware of Rudolph Steiner’s connection between body proportions and reading readiness, which just confused me even more. And, perhaps most concerning, I had heard of the concept of a “critical window” for learning, the idea that after a certain point in development, a child may not be able to learn to read without intensive intervention. Though this sounded completely irrational to me, I nonetheless worried about it.

The main thing I got from all these competing ideas was the understanding that there is no consensus on how humans learn to read. This, at least, helped me keep an open mind. There is one study I have recently discovered that I wish I had known about them. It’s a 3-year study on Always Learning Yahoo Group about the mean (or most common) age of reading acquisition for unschoolers, which, lo and behold, happens to be 8-10, where the total spans anywhere from age 3-16. Jo Isaac, July 2016. “Reading Age in Unschooled Kids”.

I’m sure this information would have been helpful, but again in the spirit of honesty, I think there’s nothing that would have truly waylaid my anxiety. I had stumbled onto one of my own deeply embedded trigger points.

Here’s where, in other stories like this, the parent talks about the magic moment where they found their child curled up with a stack full of comic books or sports magazines. In reality, nothing happened for a long time. Close to a year, probably. I stopped thinking about it, out of sheer exhaustion. Then, when he was 9, somehow, without us hardly noticing, he began to pick up the books his brother had finished, and skim over them, at least. He would stare at them for longer and longer intervals, none of us knowing if he even understood what he was looking at. I believe, for some period of time, he pretended to understand, and would talk about what a great story it was, without seeming to actually retain anything. We let this pretending go on, and eventually realized he was, for all intents and purposes, reading. Now, at eleven, I still wonder sometimes how much he really retains. However, as he spends the majority of his free time hidden behind massive books and displays unreasonable panic when he is about to finish the stack we checked out most recently, I would say that he counts as an avid reader. His spelling is still atrocious and he often misses key concepts in school reading, but the life long fire has been lit.

The lesson is always the same in these stories, I suppose. But that doesn’t make it easier to learn. If my son had been a less emotional or expressive person, if he had not made it clear that I was in danger of breaking him, I might never have gotten it. Though I had to turn myself inside out to do it, in the end, all I really needed to do was get out of the way. And perhaps most important, have some faith in my child.