Will my unschooled child ever learn to read?

Do you have a child who is “late” to learn reading and/or writing by school standards? Do you worry about it? 

Do you try and push your child to do more reading or writing? 

Is it a source of stress or conflict in your relationship with your child? 

Are you interested in self-directed learning or unschooling? 

If the answer to any of these questions is Yes, I’d like to tell you a little story. Not to brag. Just to encourage you to question your fears about your child’s learning and to trust in the process of self-directed learning (if that’s what you want to do). 

My younger son showed little interest in reading or writing until he was 12 years old. Prior to that he’d learned the alphabet, some sight words and could write his name. He loved being read to, playing with Lego, watching movies and he spent a large part of every day playing video games. 

When he turned 12 he suddenly got the desire to learn to read. It happened virtually overnight. Unlike his older brother who taught himself to read (also in his teens – but that’s another story) my youngest wanted to be taught by me. So we began the process of sitting down together every day with a pile of picture books, workbooks or flash cards and working out how he was going to learn to read. It was a process of try-it-and-see. We explored various approaches together and I was told very clearly when it “wasn’t working” for him and what he found helpful. 

Writing and spelling came a little later but we used the same approach. He asked to be taught, I found a range of resources for him to try and I gave him my attention and answered his questions. He wanted me to sit with him while he practiced writing and to spell words out loud to help him learn spelling. 

It was not an easy or a quick process even with a wholly self-directed learner. I found it challenging at times. He sometimes experienced frustration and anxiety and projected it into me. As with the whole of our unschooling journey, I got the opportunity to investigate some more of my old patterns of thinking (the school mindset) and to question some of my fears, such as “This isn’t happening fast enough.” 

By age 14 he was clear that he liked a structured approach to learning and he decided he wanted to go to school. I was very uncertain about this as I wasn’t sure he was ready for it academically or socially, but he was determined. He put pressure on himself and on me to improve his reading, writing and learning in all the “school subjects” so he could start school and not be “behind” his peers. He did weekly sessions with an English tutor for two months to build his confidence. Then at 15 he started at our local public high school in Year 9. 

It was an interesting time; with two months of school followed by two months back at home because of the corona virus. He was very happy to go back to school full time after that and see his new friends and teachers. 

He came home a few weeks after that and gave me the results of his first ever in-class exam for English. He had to write an essay on two poems about World War 1. He was delighted to tell me that he was given an A grade. That’s one of a few A grades he’s received at school so far. 

I’m not keen on the assessment system in schools for so many reasons but I know how happy he is to have got where he is today and I’m happy for him. I’m also glad that I didn’t interfere with all those years of self-directed play that he enjoyed when he was younger. He was always learning. Every day. It didn’t matter if I couldn’t see or quantify all of it or if it didn’t follow the school curriculum. 

Above all, I’m glad that I questioned my fears and didn’t buy into the role of education-controller. Questioning the school mindset allowed me to relax, trust and enjoy my time with my son. Give me happiness over achievements any day. 

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