Sharing Some Thoughts on Learning to Read

I was asked to share some thoughts on learning to read and write. Shall I start with reading?

When I created this blog, Gemma-Rose was almost a fluent reader so I haven’t written many stories on this topic. I will try to think back to how she did acquire these skills. Did I teach her to read, or did she learn to read by herself?

A common question people ask about reading is… “Can a parent teach an unschooling child to read or should she be left to pick it up by herself?” It’s rather a frightening thought to stand back and leave a child entirely alone, to learn such a complex skill, isn’t it?  And I don’t
think it is necessarily the right thing to do. Unschooling doesn’t necessarily mean no teaching.

“Mum, I’d like to learn to read. Can you teach me?”

“I’m sorry, we’re unschoolers. You’ll need to work it out for yourself.”

It sounds silly, doesn’t it?

I guess the key is knowing when a child wants to read and so is ready to learn. Then we can offer to help them. What do you think?

All my children wanted to learn to read. But they didn’t all learn to read at exactly the same age. Perhaps most of us get anxious to some extent if the ‘right’ age approaches and then passes, and our children aren’t reading fluently. I know I had some worries even though none of my children were very late readers.

I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. I’ve persisted trying to teach a child when they were obviously not ready and didn’t show the necessary interest. I’ve turned reading into a battle. I’ve worried about what other people might say. I’ve felt under pressure. Even with Gemma-Rose, I had times when I wasn’t very relaxed. But it all started well…

We tried an online reading course but it was only in the developmental stages, and Gemma-Rose soon ran out of lessons. To be honest, the avatars were more interesting than the reading lessons. I’ve just remembered what she did learn: mouse control!

Children want to learn to read so they can read books. It sounds obvious but sometimes I’m sure it doesn’t seem that way to a child. A lot of workbooks and exercises have to be completed before a book can be read. And then the initial books seem so contrived and boring. Gemma-Rose wanted to read real books. So I spent some time most days reading with her, just short periods of time.

Gemma-Rose chose the books we read together: delightful and enjoyable picture books. She also loved Dr Seuss, which I love too. I didn’t worry about whether a book was too difficult or not. We’d read books together, with me filling in the words Gemma-Rose didn’t know. I didn’t insist she sound out every word. I‘d give her the words freely.

I remember saying to some of my older children, “You must know that word. I’ve told you what it says a dozen times. Just remember!”

I feel rather sad when I recall those words. If they knew the word, I’m sure they would have told me. Why wouldn’t they? I didn’t trust them at all.

I would point out to Gemma-Rose how letters work together to produce certain sounds, but I didn’t make a big thing about it. Sometimes I’d
write down words in an exercise book to illustrate what I was teaching her. Sometimes I’d forget the lessons I’d learnt and I’d ask Gemma-Rose to write the words for me, and made reading into a chore. That was always a mistake. She’d close up, and scowl and I could see she didn’t want to do that. When teaching becomes a battle, I find that not much progress is made.

Gemma-Rose was doing well. Her reading was good, but I did wonder if she’d ever get to be a fluent independent reader. That stage seemed to be taking its time arriving. Reading seemed so slow going to me, even painful at times. Sometimes I’d bring a reading session to an end early, or finish the book for her. I think Gemma-Rose was happy enough but I became a bit impatient with the whole process.

In the end, I stopped actively teaching her. I don’t really know if it was because I became busy with other things or whether it was because I was becoming frustrated. It could even have been because I knew Gemma-Rose wasn’t quite ready to move on. To my surprise, one day she offered to read me a book. She was a fluent reader. She’d learnt in her own time.

I’ve (unfortunately) remembered something else I sometimes said to a certain child: “When are you ever going to read? What’s wrong with
you?” That must have been so disheartening for the child. It wasn’t good for me
either. I used to get so hot and bothered.

I do believe all children will eventually learn to read in their own time. But I think a couple of my children wanted to read but they found it hard to learn. I considered a little extra help to be appropriate. Though before offering any, I might have considered if it was my child that wanted the extra help, or whether I felt compelled to push him along, regardless of whether that help was wanted. I think it was a bit of both. It all worked out anyway. I wrote this post:

Well as you can see, I am a slow learner but I finally got there with Gemma-Rose. It’s just as well I had so many children! I actually wrote a
post called…

Maybe I would sum up learning to read this way:

  • It’s okay to teach a child to read
  • But a child needs to be ready to read and want to learn (otherwise, it’s frustrating for everyone, and a waste of time, and it damages relationships)
  • The ‘right’ age to read is different for different children
  • A child’s readiness to read must be respected
  • A method has to take in the needs of the child. There are lots of different options and some suit certain children more than others
  • A structured course isn’t essential
  • Learning to read by reading real books is good
  • Maybe some children find reading more difficult than others,
    and extra help might be needed
  • But then again, some children just might need more time
  • Offering help when a child needs it, and not withholding it, until a mother feels the child needs it, works best. (Here, I am thinking about choosing to tell a child what a word says, instead of insisting they sound it out every time)
  • Children will learn to read in their own time, and not a mother’s
  • Sometimes lots of time is needed (or what feels like lots of time)
  • It doesn’t help when we become frustrated and angry and impatient (Perhaps I am the only person who has experienced this!)
  • Children who learn to read at a-later-than-average age, catch up quickly
  • It’s impossible to tell which of my children were early readers and which weren’t

A few of my children learnt to read so easily, I didn’t really have to do much. But a couple of them… I made plenty of mistakes. I think Gemma-Rose is glad she is the last child. She has benefited from all that experience.

These are only my thoughts, based on my experience teaching my own seven children to read. Maybe you will come to different conclusions through your own experiences. I am the first to admit I am not a reading expert. I am certainly not an unschooling reading expert.

Would a child learn to read entirely on her own? I have no idea. I hope that’s not the question you wanted answered! I did try a few things when teaching my children to read, but not that.

Talking about reading has taken up so much time, there’s none left for sharing ideas about writing skills. If you are interested…next time!

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  1. Reply

    I used the same reading series for all of our children – the old-fashioned Ladybird books. They're based on sight reading, but I explain the phonics as we go. The only one who struggled was number 3 but he picked it up in his own time – like you say, I think you have to get the timing right.

    Teaching reading has been a togetherness time for us, a time cuddled up on the sofa sharing stories together. Which reminds me, we only finished the Ladybird series with one child because they got bored with the stories. By level 9 or so, we moved on to better stories or they started teaching themselves.

    Thanks for sharing this, Sue.

    God bless:-)

    1. Reply


      I still remember reading Ladybird books with Mum! The older ones are much better than the modern ones, in my opinion.

      I love that image of togetherness time! Despite all my mistakes, I did enjoy those individual times with each child. I think they felt special too, having me all to themselves for a while each day.

      God bless!

    • Anonymous
    • March 15, 2013

    Hi Sue! I have used the book Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons with all my kids. With my third we tried another program but it wasn't working. We have not really used phonics workbooks about which I am glad but I have pushed the kids in the past too hard and engaged in power struggles. The power struggles occurred when we used a syllabus from one of the home schools. Also, the syllabus suggested the child read to the parent for 30 minutes per day in second grace and that was too much for my kids! I dreaded each day's reading time. I did that with my first two. Now with my third I have him read to me about 5-10 minutes per time. That seems right for him at this point.


    1. Reply


      It's wonderful when you find a method that works. I think we can sometimes be distracted by some new attractive resource, but later find that the old method worked better.

      I hate power struggles where everyone is left feeling exhausted and out of sorts with each other. I eventually gave in! Expectations from outsiders can really mess up family relationships. We know our kids best, I'm sure! Sounds like you're working that out just fine too.

      Thank you for sharing your experiences!

      God bless!

    • Miu
    • March 17, 2013

    I taught myself how to read, so I think a child can learn reading on its own.
    However, my sister was learning it in school and I was somehow learning along, so I don't know if I would have learned it without her learning it in school.

    1. Reply


      Maybe children can learn to read with very minimal help if we are willing to leave them to it. If we answer their questions as they ask them, I'm sure they'd work it all out. You seem to have done so well by just observing your sister!

      Actually, I am in awe of your ability to write and read two languages. Your English is excellent. I don't think I would have picked up that it isn't your native language, if I hadn't visited your blog!

      God bless!

    • Weiyun
    • March 23, 2013

    Thanks again for this post Sue, on reading. I find it very comforting to know that it is a process that we all have to figure out for ourselves, for our kids. There is no hard and fast rules about when reading should happen and how it should happen. And it's most comforting to know that that includes teaching a child, if that's what is required at any moment.

    Where we live, knowing three languages is considered the basic (English, Malay, Chinese). So you can imagine, that's a lot of unschooling to do! I'm not sure how that can happen all the time.

    Another thing I learnt is, unschooling is a Natural process and with all things natural, it takes Time. We cannot rush it. I'm learning to be patient, above everything else in homeschooling. I've heard it said before, "homeschooling really does build character…… For the mother!" :).

    1. Reply


      You speak three languages? Wow! I am so in awe of my multi-lingual blogging friends. I am guessing that children pick up languages so much easier than adults. Did you learn these languages as a child?

      "homeschooling really does build character…… For the mother!" I agree! I have learnt so much over our years of homeschooling, not just all the academic stuff, but more importantly such things as patience and love. Unschooling is definitely about doing things in God's time and not our own. I think if we can allow our children to develop into the people they are meant to be, at their own pace, we will give them a gift like no other. When we think about it, we have plenty of time. There's no reason to rush!

    • weiyun
    • March 24, 2013

    Yes, I learnt all 3 languages as a child. In fact, there are a few dialects too. That's considered "normal" to be a Malaysian 🙂

    1. Reply


      I am just beginning to realise how easy we have it, living in a country that only uses one language. Maybe we are also a bit arrogant, expecting others to learn and use our language. I have a friend who translates her blog posts into English so I can share them. I'm beginning to think I should make an effort to learn at least a little about her language. Also, it might be very interesting!

  2. Reply

    Thank you! I've been such a teach by the book mom (which seemed to work for my engineering-minded son) but my creative and free-spirited daughter hasn't picked up reading in the usual methods. I've been trying to be much more nurturing and supportive with her and also with my youngest daughter. It seems that we get better as parents with each child – like making pancakes – the first one is either over or underdone, the next is better, and as you keep going they get great.

    1. Reply


      Oh yes, different children might need different approaches when it comes to reading! I do like how you've compared parenting with pancake making. I know just what you mean! I used to worry my first children missed out because they got the inexperienced parent. I have come to terms with this though. There are advantages and disadvantages associated with every position in the family. My eldest daughter never fails to tell me how much she really loves me when she phones home. She never complains about my inexpert way of bringing her up. That is so consoling!

  3. Reply

    I would LOVE to see/hear how you encouraged your children in writing. My daughter doesn't care to read and struggles a bit with it loves her audiobooks. She also loves to write little stories and she has the quickest wit.

    1. Reply


      Did you see the next post in this series? It's called Sharing Some Thoughts on Children and Writing.

      I have written other things too on this blog, and I also made a podcast about unschool writing. It was one of the earlier ones.

      Maybe your daughter will come to love reading as she gets older. If she likes audio books, she certainly loves stories. I bet her little stories are pure delight! Children do have a wonderful way of expressing things, and yes, they can be very witty. My daughter Gemma-Rose is like this. She writes with personality! I'd love to discuss writing further with you if my other posts aren't helpful. So nice to chat with you today!

    • Amy
    • July 21, 2015

    Goodness….I could write a book here (no pun intended). It was so easy with my first born…..I never 'taught' him to read at all….just encouraged him & answered his questions like you said as he went along & before I realized it, he was reading! Then we came to my second… was like she refused to read. Would sit at the table & stare out the window. I knew she knew letter sounds & whatnot, but she had NO desire to even try. My husband would get frustrated & tell me that I really needed to work with her more….but to me it was like that old saying 'You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink'. Well, don't you know that by the time she hit 11 or 12ish (a very late reader according to outside standards) she began to devour any type of history book she could get her hands on at the library. By the time she hit her later teens, she was reading all sorts of classical literature. Non of the usual teen-ager type books you might think. Pride & Prejudice is still one of her favorites. And after struggling through her very first college writing class….this child has gone on to write for the university newspaper….even winning awards for her editorial dept. and is now interning with a local magazine this summer. PLUS she's helping to tutor a friend right now with her first college essay writing class. All of that ramble to say/agree with you as to how very different each child learns. AND the fact that she was such late bloomer/no desire for reading at the time & now look at what she's doing. Pretty amazing to me!

  4. Reply


    Isn't it wonderful when we see our children acquiring a skill we once worried about? And not only acquiring the skill but doing amazing things? I just love your story! It's so encouraging. Looking back, I often wonder why I ever worried about such things as learning to read. Yes, children are all different and learn things in their own time. If we try to push our kids before they're ready, we're just wasting our time. No desire to even try… I remember! Thank you so much for sharing your daughter's story. Congratulations to her on all her achievements!

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