Home Education

Why you don’t need to worry if your home educated child isn’t reading yet

It’s a familiar concern of a parent of a child 5 years plus, that their child isn’t reading yet. In the unschooled community, reading at 5 would be mostly unheard of. Those parents have made a commitment to go at their child’s pace, but it is hard. Their friends children are all learning to read at school and family and friends are often starting to make negative comments.

Firstly it’s important to understand that mainstream UK schools did not pick age 5 for any reasons relating to a child’s actual development.

Professor Lilian Katz, Professor of Education, University of Illinois who was addressing an international conference on foundation-stage learning at the University of Oxford, said there was a danger that the British model could put children off reading for life if pupils were forced to learn before they were ready.

She said: “The evidence we have so far is that if you start formal teaching of reading very early the children do well in tests but when you follow them up to the age of 11 or 12 they don’t do better than those who have had a more informal approach.”

The evidence also suggests starting formal instruction early is more damaging for boys than girls.”

During my teaching days I saw many more boys than girls damaged by early formal reading instruction. These boys suffer huge dents to their self-esteem, and often behaviour difficulties follow. They decide early on that reading, then writing is just not for them and it impacts on all future learning.

Some home educators also follow curriculums and encourage early reading, though they have the luxury of teaching one child at a time. This is often a more gentle child-centred approach, but can still result in abnormal development of brain pathways. If your child is not actively consenting to your help, it is very likely they are not ready either developmentally or motivationally. Either way, your encouragement and support will most probably backfire.

According to Jane Healy, a well-respected educational psychologist:

Early childhood programs that implement a directed academic curriculum often replace essential, hands-on learning activities with skill-based performance and rote-learning tasks. In doing so, they risk the developmental growth necessary for children’s future academic success. Experts believe that when rote-learning tasks are used extensively in an early childhood classroom or other setting, normal growth and development of the brain can become distorted.”

(Healy, J.M. 2004. Your child’s growing mind. New York: Broadway Books)

If you are trying to formally teach your young child (under age 7) to read, you need to consider what they could be doing instead! Playing! Playing is vital to brain growth and future learning. By investing time teaching them to do things they are not ready to do, you are actually depriving them of time spent doing exactly what they need to be doing.

Anecdotally I can tell you that when my daughter learned to read at 8, she swapped play for books overnight. I am glad she did not learn earlier and thus stop hours of imaginative play earlier. She could also suddenly read everything everywhere, every headline, every billboard, every protest banner, things I am glad she could not read at 5 quite frankly! Literature is everywhere, but our society can be pretty inappropriate for 5 year olds and trying to explain our world to an 8 year old was tricky enough.

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Lego makes a great case for play-based learning up to age 8. Of course, they have Lego to sell, but the actual research they base their theories on comes from the most esteemed universities in the world. You can read Lego’s research and theories here.

You can also read my own personal thoughts and experience with play here.

Many more home educators do in fact take a much more unstructured and relaxed approach to reading. However, many of those parents, who have been schooled themselves, do find they worry about their child’s apparent lateness to reading.

Let’s define late. Most people are reasonably comfortable with their child not being able to read up to 7 years old. Pretty much everyone understands that in many European countries children are not taught to read until 7.

Beyond 7 however, the fear factor really starts to ramp up, but in actual fact, most home educated children learn to read somewhere between 4 and 14. Many I know personally learned between the ages of 8 and 12. I don’t adhere to the concept of ‘lateness’ to reading. A child will learn the skill when they are ready and motivated to do so.

Many parents I have spoken to want to know how best to support their home educated child’s ability to learn to read when the time is right for them.

Dr Katz suggests the following:

For children’s brains to become highly developed for learning, repeated experiences are essential. Connections become stronger and more efficient through repeated use. Reading to children every day, for example, helps strengthen essential connections. Connections are also made stronger when children have daily opportunities to develop both large- and small-muscle skills, have the chance to practice developing social skills, and interact directly with their environment. It is vital to incorporate rich language into all of these activities, since exposure to rich language creates the foundation for a child’s use and understanding of words, and increases the likelihood of reading success at a later age.

In short, your child simply needs access to books and people to model the skill, plus a variety of people to talk to and extend their language with.

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I would also be wary of young children appearing to want to learn to read. Often they have simply soaked up society’s expectations, or maybe even your expectations. Development is never really linear either; a child might make some progress with reading and then want to leave it for a while, or progress might happen very suddenly and all in one go. Always be respectful of your own child’s learning journey; there are no rules!

This is a good link with more ideas and information from the unschooling advocate, Dr Peter Gray: ‘Children Teach Themselves to Read’.

You can read about my own children’s unschooled reading journey here. For us, you will notice that technology did not play much of a part in my children learning to read because for many of their formative years we lived in Ireland and it just wasn’t a big part of everyone’s daily lives. There was certainly no broadband on their grandparents farm and access to technology was not something I deliberately went out of my way to provide for them. I didn’t believe it was needed and they certainly weren’t asking. It was more cows than computers in that period of our lives!

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Although technology wasn’t a resource we used in our children’s early reading journey, it has become an important element in their learning more recently. Most unschoolers I know where we now live in England use technology and find it can be an excellent tool for supporting literacy skills (I intend to write a lot more about this soon!)

Whatever path your child takes on their learning journey, I hope it’s enjoyable and that they love books regardless of the age they learn the skill. At the end of the day you can quash your fears with unschooling articles and blog posts, but the real guide should always be your own child.

Children know exactly what support they need and when they need it.