Will He Ever Learn to Read?

When my children were young and we were unschooling, year after year would pass and my son was still not reading. To keep myself from worrying, I clung to a story of a boy who didn’t learn to read until he was thirteen. This boy (about whom I had read) spent his days fishing. Eventually he did learn to read and later became an engineer as an adult. Sometimes we need stories like that to remember when doubts and worry creep up on us. These stories help us hold our tongue when we feel like coercing our children into learning something they’re not yet ready to learn.

I’m writing this article for any parent who is interested in unschooling or anyone in the midst of experiencing child led education in their home… or for anyone who is worried about their child not learning some skill at the age in which the school system expects him or her to learn it.  I know some of you have your doubts or perhaps you’ve have in-laws or parents who are asking you when or how your children are going to learn to read. I want to tell you about my son in his journey to reading so you too will have a story on which to cling.

All three of my children taught themselves to read when they wanted to learn to read. They also taught themselves math… and I will definitely write those stories later.

Hopefully your child has better things to do than learn to read right now. I am SO thankful that my son did not read until he was eleven. He was doing things that are much more valuable than reading during his early years. He was creating all the time.

And I am convinced that there is a correlation between early reading and lack of creativity. I came to this conclusion from watching my kids and several other children. I don’t know which comes first. I am sure that the less creative kids get more attracted to books, so they are more motivated to learn to read early. But I also believe that they end up reading so much that their minds have less time for imagination.

Anyway, if you have a child who is not yet reading, savor this time. Once they start reading they lose some of their gift of creativity… their connection with their inner guidance is weakened. Not that they can’t get that back, but they’ll have to work at that and they might not do so for another 50 or 60 years. So cherish this time.

When my son was young, he was drawing, building things with his Legos and using his imagination all day long. And he was listening to really beautiful literature, not the kind they were promoting in schools and the library, but books with rich vocabulary and complex sentences with subtle meanings. We borrowed books on tape from some company that would send us the cassette tapes. We would return them by mailing them back. He would be in his room sometimes for several hours, listening to books on tape while building with his Legos. He also spent a great deal of time outside. And he had a good friend with whom he would play for long hours.

Often I skip an important part of this story. But with shame and embarrassment, I’ll tell you it now. I did what I will encourage you not to do. I buckled under the pressure of my kids’ grandparents who were afraid my son would never learn to read and, at some point during the years when other kids his age were reading, I tried to teach him to read. I am sorry about that now. I think the damage done was a little more than I can explain. But think of it this way: if you could teach yourself something, wouldn’t you rather learn by yourself? No one taught you to walk or talk.  Reading can (and I think should) be learned the same way.

I used to say that you cannot keep your child from learning to read, if you read. Now days, less people are actually reading, but almost everyone reads enough for their children to pick up the habit.

Fortunately, my son did not learn to read when I was teaching him. I didn’t know at the time that he had dyslexia and dysgraphia. We didn’t learn that until he was seventeen. I’m glad we didn’t know. I think it’s unhealthy to label children. Anyway, since I was getting nowhere trying to teach him, I just gave up, and he went back to using his imagination all day long.

Sometime during my son’s eleventh year, we bought our first computer, and pretty soon after that, he wanted to build a website. So the very first book he ever read, and the book that he used to teach himself to read, was on HTML. It was a very thick book, and he took it into his room, closed the door, and somehow taught himself to read it. Basically he was learning a different language (HTML) while he was learning to read. Then he built a website which was quite advanced; it did some of the things I didn’t see until years later on professional websites. And when he was thirteen, he built himself a computer out of scratch (not from a kit).

Also when he was thirteen, I kind of tested him (without him knowing it) and found out that he was reading at “college level”… I know, shoot me! You should never test your child. But he didn’t know he was being tested, and (because I did test him) you now know how quickly children can advance their reading ability when they are older. Keep in mind, that he had been listening to books on tape that were way above his “grade level”. So he was used to listening to a rich, mature vocabulary. And he wasn’t watching television (except for Bill Nigh the Science Guy) or playing video games.

My son now has a masters’ degree in International Business and a marketing job in Hong Kong. He earned two undergraduate degrees in four years, graduating with students his age. So don’t think learning later will keep your child “behind”. My son’s creativity (which was strengthened BECAUSE he didn’t read until “late”) and his social skills (which are outstanding BECAUSE he did not go to school) are what got him a good job in a very competitive job market.

I hope my son’s story helps you relax if you were worrying about your child or children learning to read. Some people say, “But, your son seems really smart”.  Well, he just wasn’t “dumbed down” by school or television. And let me ask you this: doesn’t your child or children seem really smart too? And don’t they seem really resourceful?  Remember you didn’t have to teach them to walk or talk. They can also learn reading without being taught …. unless they are often watching television or playing video games… In that case, they may not have the incentive to learn to read. Someday, in the not too distant future, no one will need to read. That may be the case when your children are grown. I don’t know.

I mentioned that all three of my children taught themselves to read. I actually taught myself to read too. I know this was very common historically. One of my daughters was reading chapter books by the time she was five years old, and my other daughter taught herself to read when she was almost nine. The one who learned to read later, just graduated (in four years with students her age) from a university ranked 27th by U.S. News Best Colleges. I think it’s better, for many reasons, for kids to learn later, but you can’t stop them from teaching themselves to read when they are ready, just as you couldn’t stop your child from learning to walk and talk. It’s just going to happen. And you wouldn’t want to deprive your children the opportunity to teach themselves.

Claire Timberlake, M.Ed.


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