Continuing with our series of posts in which we ask veteran unschoolers to share their experience and wisdom, we’d like to ask:

How did your unschooled kids learn to read?

Well, I wasn’t an unschooler at the time, but we accidentally unschooled learning to read My daughter — age 3 — absolutely ADORED having me read to her… before she was two she would demand two or three hours of books at a time. By the time she was 3 1/2, I had a 18-month-old and a newborn in the house, so the time available for me to read to her was drastically reduced. In frustration with the state of affairs, she grabbed some books and set about doing it for herself! So, why did it work? 1) She was highly motivated, of her own free will, 2) I’d already shown her the “fun” of books, introducing the idea of reading as something she might like (strewing), and 3) at the time, she was completely resistant to potty-training, but because of the two babies, I wasn’t pushing it. It turned out that once she mastered reading, she potty-trained herself in 48 hours. (Yes, because her birthday fell in the middle, she read at 3, but was still in diapers at 4!) Without knowing it, I had let her lead until she chose to learn it. Funny, but because they were both her choice, they took days instead of months, and there was no formal curriculum needed for either ~Keelie S

As with all of our girls, the youngest, now 12, slept with us and my husband would go to sleep first. So, we would have to put the subtitles on the tv, since otherwise it would keep him awake. So, she pretty much learned to read by following the subtitles. Also, she really enjoyed animal books – like the animal encyclopedias on the bargain shelf at Barnes and Nobles. She wanted to learn about them so much, that she would pick out small words she knew and it just blossomed from there.~Traci G.

I don’t have time to write my stories out just now, but here are two blog posts about my two youngest, always unschooled kids, and how they learned to read. First, my now almost 14 year

This is my youngest child’s story. She finally nailed the reading thing at a later age than her older brother, so there were more challenges in terms of learning to trust that she was learning in just the right way, at just the right time, for her.

Their two stories are a great contrast to my second oldest, who attended school until he was 8 years old. When he came home, he could already read. He has been taught using a very boring phonics program. He hated reading. I used to ask him to read aloud to me, before we discovered unschooling.

One day, he was dutifully reading a chapter book to me while I washed dishes (I was very proud of my multitasking!). After a little while, I realised that the story wasn’t making much sense and I commented on it. He sheepishly admitted that he was skipping pages to “get it over with more quickly.”

That was the last book I asked him to read aloud, and the last time I expected him to read.

He only read a handful of books after that, but when he did read, he read them because he wanted to. Eventually he decided that reading was hard work for him, and that he had trouble concentrating on the story because of focussing on the skill of reading. He didn’t read books again for quite awhile, although he did peruse magazines occasionally, about bodyboarding or skating.

I recently went into his room and noticed a very interesting book on his bed head and made a joke, saying, “You’re not reading a book, are you?” (my teens love humour ). It turns out one of his friends had been reading it, and he’d borrowed it, gotten totally hooked within the first few pages, and decided to buy his own copy.

It’s been lovely to see him gradually, gradually recover from the way he experienced reading in the school environment and then, later, in a homeschool environment. It has been amazing to see the difference between his experience of reading, and that of his younger brother and sister, who have always unschooled.
~Karen L

I have four kids. I read to them, they learned to read. Actually, the two youngest learned to read when their older brother, my dyslexic who didn’t start reading until age 9, began reading them comic books at bedtime. I’ve told each of their stories – all very different – in detail on my blog, and I’ll post them here. The first is my oldest (now 18).

Second is my son with dyslexic problems. He’s now 16 and reads extremely well – and what’s more, enjoys it.

The one above taught his younger brother (now 12) to read inadvertently, when he started reading Calvin and Hobbes aloud to him at bedtime.

Fourth is my hyperactive butterfly (now 10), whom all the teachers would be pestering me to medicate if she were in school. ~Carma P

My boy is six and he learned his letters and sounds through watching Leap Frog’s Talking Letter Factory (around 2.5) and he has started learning to read through me just reading to him. He has played a couple of sight word apps on the tablet but he mostly has just learned how to “build” words by sounding things out and asking me to spell them. Reading and writing have gone hand-in-hand with him. I encourage him to write his own name on birthday cards (it started as just a scribble and slowly progressed to his name) and he started wanting to write more (I love you Opa instead of just Opa on my dad’s bday card) so he asks me how to spell words. Mostly we just do a lot of reading. He now has many books memorized and “reads” to himself of his brother, making up or recalling from memory any parts that he can’t actually read. Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure how much reading he can actually do because I don’t really track his progress (I just trust that it will come) and he constantly surprises me with how much he knows.

My 3 year old isn’t reading yet but his older brother has been teaching him letters and they ask for things to trace letters or he just copies things from a book onto a mini whiteboard. My boys have decided letters and words are way more fun when there is dry erase involved. Or cutting and building and gluing things.
~ Tessa W

My middle daughter loved looking at books and would pretend to read them. She showed an interest in letters and their sounds at around age 6 so I showed her She quickly caught onto that and was reading simple words. I would help her write out her name and other small words when she would ask.

She listened to a lot of audiobooks, lots of reading being done in the house by older sister and by mom and dad. Visits to the library for fun all the time. I read out loud to the girls and we attended family book discussions. So a LOT of reading/literature happening in the house naturally without any pressure on her to hurry up and read.

Then she just started taking off – about 6 1/2 through 7. I realized she was fluent when she read “no loitering” in the bathroom and didn’t need help with pronunciation. She read signs everywhere we went. And started reading and chatting on the computer with friends through Skype, Minecraft, Roblox.

She continues to ask when she needs help spelling a word – her writing is improving from when she plays store with her little brother. She likes to write notes and stories. Just the other day I noticed she is starting to type whole sentences, spelled mostly correct, in the chat in Minecraft. I mention the writing because I think a lot of kids actually write before they read. It’s all inter-twined in the real world and it just seemed that her writing and reading developments came together in spurts. ~Aadel B

I just asked my 17yo how he learned to read. “I don’t remember. You taught me my letters, I learned how they sound and what words they formed, and the rest is history. Some took longer, and some just came.”

Alphabet colouring books, YouTube clips of Sesame Street’s two-headed monsters doing basic spelling and phonetics, and most of all, lots and lots and lots of reading aloud to them.

We read a picture Bible to them every night. It was one of the few things my dh would absolutely always do with them, no matter how busy and overwhelmed he was. For my part, storybooks and chapter books, library books, computer screen reading aloud on anything of interest that comes up… the main thing is that they associate it with togetherness and enjoyment.

They’re now 17.5 down to 12, and will still gather around for a good children’s book if the author is skilled and entertaining. (Kate DiCamillo is a favourite. And lately, we killed ourselves laughing at Neil Gaiman’s “Fortunately, The Milk.”) ~CathiLyn D.

My youngest taught herself to read by playing on the computer. I believe her motivation was to communicate with the other kids and to navigate the webpages. I asked her several times if she wanted me to teach her to read at ages 6 and early 7, but she wanted nothing to do with my phonics book. She also spent many free hours with her older sister and brothers observing their world of gaming and communicating on the web. Monkey see, Monkey do.
~Monica B

My oldest, will share her own story . (Severely dyslexic, and was eclectically homeschooled until about 10-ish? And me being a special ed teacher had a lot of pressure early on so took a while to deschool.) My middle daughter learned on her own while I was busy elsewhere- I just remember she suddenly started reading while my oldest was very sick in the hospital so… 6-7? I had nothing to do with that one at all. Was too busy with a sick kid.

Issac just started reading at about 10. He knew the basics (liked workbooks and hooked on Phonics- his own way of using them but loved doing them). Listened to audiobooks all the time. I didn’t teach him to read at all. He just picked it up a little here a little there. Lots of closed captioning on tv (I need it on so it is always on), lots of audio books, lots of computer games- we read aloud the bits needed until he was able to do it himself. And then suddenly he wasn’t just reading but was reading big words without even noticing. Now at 12 he has suddenly had it all click as far as spelling too. No longer refuses to type but instead just asks how and I give him the word rules with it if any apply. “Wow, I didn’t know that! ” Then he adds that word to his “list of words he now can spell”. It was just really a case for all three of waiting till their brains were ready and then it all fell into place. ~Heather Y

I wasn’t unschooling at the time, but she improved her reading with the closed captioning on the tv. I also think all the read alouds we did helped, especially with vocabulary.
~Sherry G.

My dd9 unschooled reading last summer. She started playing Minecraft last spring and was using creative spelling in the chat. Her constantly asking how to spell things was getting annoying to her sister at the next computer so I offered to read the BoB books with her. Not so much progress but some. Then in June she chose to sign up for our library’s summer reading program. We chose books for her and sat down together to achieve her goal. In doing it I realized that phonics mean nothing to her. She needs to repetitively read a word and just learn it (is that Whole language learning?) By the end of summer she was reading those books on her own, started doing the occasional Sequential Spelling list and wasn’t asking for so much chat help on the computer. By winter she was reading Magic Treehouse books silently, reading over my shoulder when I read aloud from Life of Fred (I’m a mathie ) and reading Minecraft how to books on her own.

She is the poster child for “they will learn it when they see a reason to.” ~Brenda B.

My dd11 learned to read between her 9th and 10th birthdays while playing Minecraft and Roblox. Like Brenda’s, my dd learned it when she saw a reason to.~Donna M.

Books were and are our thing.
We filled our home with books, labeled common household items, turned and left on the closed captioning. We read stories together from the time the kiddos were born, all the time–during the day, at bedtime, waiting in lines. I’m sure it helped in some way that they saw me toting a book of my own all.the.time.
We noticed our son could read when he was about 4. I remember the moment his speech therapist asked us if we knew he could read–she and we were incredulous. I knew he loved books but due to his communication struggles (he’s hearing impaired and took awhile to sign/talk) I hadn’t noticed he could actually read.
Our daughter was about 5 when she asked me to read a book to her, mid-story I paused for some reason and she continued reading the story. She looked at me with wide eyes and said ‘I can read!’ She went to get another book and another one, checking to see if she could read those LOL! ~Dana Britt

Organically. I label things all over the house with my label maker…read read read to them and have them read to you. I do some sight word flash cards from time to time……some sentence copy from time to time. I did nothing formal with any of my 6. Leap Frog DVD’s for letters and sounds was AMAZING! ~Karla W.

I saw this question earlier today and asked my kids how they remember learning to read. Now, I bought a copy of “Teach your child to read in 100 easy lessons.” But, only the two younger girls remember it being a help to them. The oldest girl said that Sesame Street and an alphabet book she and I made together and following along as her dad and I read to her is how she learned. The younger girls learned mostly from older sister and brother reading to them and copying words from books or magazines onto paper and asking us to help them sound them out. The boy was diagnosed dyslexic at 10. He was reading by the time he was 9. He told me that he memorized the sounds the letters made and then tried to put them together in the words he was reading. He memorized the smaller words like “No” and “And.” Then he really watched as I read to him. I can remember him coming to me over and over again as he was trying to read something and asking how a word sounded and what it meant. So, that’s how the oldest 4 learned. My son who is 7 now is not really interested yet. He can write his name and recognize certain words, but he doesn’t even know the names of all the letters yet. This morning he was writing his name on the chalk board and said the “N” was a “D.” He’ll get it eventually.. ~Jen C.

My son isn’t quite reading yet so my answer is somewhat limited.
However Gabriel(6) does know a few words by site. Most of what he knows about reading has come from going through stages where he asks what every word he sees says for days and weeks on end. But the most recent thing he has started has been asking me what WHY a word says what it says.
So we talk about it. I tell him the sounds of each letter in the word, then sound it out. So he can see how the sounds fit together.
He is starting to get that. But isn’t interested enough to pursue it yet.
The biggest obstacle to his reading is the fact that he doesn’t process auditory things very well so he doesn’t like to be read to. Even picture books are difficult for him to process sometimes. So exposure to lots of words being read to him hasn’t been a big part of his life.
His interest in reading has increased of late as he wants to start playing RPG’s on the xBox which require a lot of reading, so he doesn’t get to play them nearly enough for his own satisfaction because his 2yo brother prevents me from sitting and reading the game to him for more then a 1/2 hour at a time if we are lucky.
Anyway, we aren’t far in our reading journey but it has been born mostly from conversation and waiting until he asks more than anything. ~Cyndel J.

Ha! Another thing I just thought about… my older two learned to read in public school. That process was MUCH more painful and worrisome with my ds (came out of ps in 3rd grade) than it was letting my youngest do her own thing. And I wasn’t an unschooler at that point.~Elizabeth H.

I’m giggling at being a “veteran Unschooler” when it’s really dd9 who has allowed me the designation. Dd13 learned to read s.l.o.w.l.y but also took off once she got going.

They both enjoyed the Leapfrog DVDs but dd13 really took to the phonics rules naturally and when I said “the silent e makes the first vowel say its name” she *got* it. Dd9 just doesn’t puzzle out words the same way do she doesn’t know some smaller words but can read many three syllable words with ease.

I read aloud to both and am starting it up again and that helps with their usage but I don’t require writing, so that hasn’t affected their reading. But reading quality books to them has made dd13 a naturally good writer IMHO.~ Brenda B.

My oldest, who is now 14 years old, attended public kindergarten and has been unschooled ever since then. All he learned in kindergarten were the sounds of the letters and several 3 letter words. He could not “read” at all. He has always (since age 3) been an avid video gamer and computer gamer. We never limited his use of these resources, and always had a variety of games he was able to play. In addition to the games we owned, we would rent video games from video stores and borrow computer games from the library. He never showed any interest in learning to read whatsoever. Right before he turned 10, seemingly overnight, he could read! It was like a light bulb went on in his brain and he was able to connect all the little pieces of a puzzle. I never did any lessons with him all those years…none…yet he was able to learn to read on his own, not by books, but by screens.
My twins, who are now 11 years old, have always been unschooled. I never did any lessons with them either, and they could not even read 3 letter words by the time they were 7. I knew they were interested in the classic comic books at the library, so we started playing around with a Hooked On Phonics set I got from my local Freecycle group. We were all VERY relaxed with it and had fun, so the boys loved doing it. After the first week they were reading the beginner books in the set! They were finally at a place in their mental development to easily and quickly grasp the reading concept. It was never a forced chore to learn to read, so their drive to keep learning more words/lessons was a sheer delight.
Today, all 3 boys enjoy reading…as long as it interests them, of course I am amazed by how easily it came to them! ~ Leigh K.

I think in a sense, everyone learns to read the same way: by watching their parents, by being read to, by appreciating stories, by being surrounded by the written word, by playing with colors and letters and numbers and shapes, by finding patterns in the world around them. I think the biggest difference between my three boys is just the catalyst that really put them past the tipping point from *learning* to read to actually being a reader.

For my oldest, it was Dr Seuss books. He loved Dr Seuss, and we read them to him every night, over and over. Eventually he was reading them on his own. My middle son has always loved computers, and has used one competently from the time he was a toddler. So it’s no surprise that he learned to read largely through computer games. My third son was a few years older than the others before he really started reading. The thing that really made it “click” for him, besides just being ready, was Facebook and Skype and wanting to talk to his friends. He reads quite well now, and spells beautifully, and is getting better all the time, through self-motivated good old-fashioned practice. ~Jennifer M.

I didn’t use any reading materials or require reading, and my boy read in spite of it. (you can read about him here my girl is just now learning at 6 so I have no post for her. She wanted to do the book-it program with her brother and she’s pretty competitive so she didn’t want me to read it to her if he was reading himself. She’s struggling some but she doesn’t get too frustrated because she stops when she’s annoyed and she isn’t required to do anything so she comes back when she’s calm. We’ve always had reading time as a family where I’ll read aloud while they do whatever.. or I’ll read bed time stories. Reading has always been treated as a fun and voluntary activity here so as yet, nobody hates it as long as they are reading about stuff that they love. ~Traci P.