A few days ago I posted about realising and accepting that unschooling is my default mode of parenting. This following post is in response to Katie’s question.

Hi Susan, I really enjoy reading your writings, and are pleased you are continuing to blog. This radical unschooling is something I’d really like to try. I had a 9+ year old boy who is verrry slow to pick up reading. I am trying to do a bit with him every day – he knows all his sounds – phonograms in isolation, but when put into words and sentences – that’s when we have trouble. Do you get your children reading then use an unschooling method, or do you wait until they are ready – which there is no guarantee of an age. Would appreciate your comments on this matter.

Hi Katie,

Thanks for being patient and not expecting my response immediately. That shows strength and graciousness. I am happy to share my experiences but please bear in mind that they are my experiences…I don’t expect that it suits everyone or that our way is the only definitive way to do things. So, with that I will offer my initial thoughts…


I taught my girls using a fairly rigorous phonics program and they learned to read at quite young ages. The have continued to read of fairly high quality and they still love books. Then came my boys. Different story. I tried to teach ‘Master J’ using phonics but he just didn’t get it. We’d try- he wouldn’t get it- I’d put it all on the back-burner for a few months and try again. He still didn’t get it. I thought this boy would never learn how to read, let alone enjoy reading. We weren’t unschoolers at that point- I was constantly striving to be a perfect homeschooler.

I slowly started to see that I had pushed the girls prematurely. Oh it wasn’t all a waste as we had a good time and strengthened our relationship but I  wasted many hours of work and stress. It was all around this time that I started to see that my children were able to learn many thing without direct instruction from me…but I had to help by finding out what motivated them.

My Late Reader

I actually stopped trying to teach ‘Master J’ to read when he was about 9 years old. Oh there was part of me that worried…but stressing over it and pushing him was only giving us a sense of frustration and agitation. I figured that if I couldn’t teach him to read in peace and harmony then maybe he’d be better off not learning to read just yet.

While perusing through the second hand shops one day I came across a whole set of books that I thought looked good for boys. Hey, if nothing else I could pass them on to someone else, eh. I came home and put them in my ‘give away’ box (actually I have a few of those boxes) and then I promptly forgot about them. I continued to provide a print-rich, literary environment for the boys but in a very gentle and natural way. We didn’t do reading lessons- I simply read aloud to them. I didn’t require them to read silently but they saw me read during our quiet time in the afternoon. They saw me read street signs and food labels and eventually ‘Master J’ started to see that reading for information and knowledge might be a handy thing!

One day, I saw him walk out of his room with one of those books. I asked him to be careful with it as I wanted to sell it or give it away. He looked a little taken aback at that so I went a little further. I nonchalantly commented that I didn’t think he’d be able to read those books…that they were a bit ‘above‘ his reading level. Well, they were the right words at the right time for, with all the heroics that a young boy can muster, he took that on! He went on to devour the whole series not twice, not three times but several times each book! He learned so much through those books, aside from learning to read. They are a great series that I thoroughly recommend. The author is Willard Price and he wrote ‘The Adventure Series‘.

During this time, I asked him if he wanted to keep the books for himself or if he’d like me to read one aloud. He nearly jumped out of his skin with excitement! I only read the one book aloud but he often shared little tid bits of information with me; information that blew me away and I often expressed my pride and admiration for him to see. This also spurred him on. While I read aloud, ‘Master C’ would grab a spare copy or cuddle next to me and he’d follow the words along as I read. (I believe that teaching reading is an art, not a science) Meanwhile ‘Master C’ was busy learning many road signs and reading labels on Weet-Bix packets and milk!

Reading the Natural Way

I  liken reading and many other skills to toilet training! When ‘Miss A’ was little I felt pressure to have her toilet trained. So we worked on it. I tried everything from sitting her on the potty all day; waiting to catch her in the act and then offer praise. Everything from offering lollies, gentle encouragement all the way to not-so-gentle encouragement! It was so tiring and produced a lot of frustration (we won’t even mention the mess!). I eventually stopped trying and thought I’d wait until I saw signs of her being ready. (In hindsight, it was rather a DUH! moment) Well, what do you know…a few months later ‘Miss A’ (who was barely 2 at the time) just decided that she wanted to use the toilet like adults do!!! It wasn’t hard to *teach her* at all- it was all quite natural and stress-less. I just had to watch for signs of readiness, and then seize the moment when I saw them. Hmmm, I think there’s a lesson here that applies to much in parenting. It’s about observing the child and waiting for signs of readiness – waiting till they are developmentally ready. Reading and writing is also a developmental process.

Types of Reading

Over all the years, I have explained to the boys that there are different types of reading: reading for information, skim reading, reading for pleasure, etc. I guess if I had to summarise I would say that the following list contains the things we did:

  • Surround ourselves with fine literature and good vocabulary (Rich-print environment.)
  • We read aloud a lot
  • We buddy read (Parent reads a paragraph. Child reads a paragraph)
  • Listened to audio books.
  • I deliberately, but subtly pointed out labels and signs, directions, instructions, etc
  • We read lots of picture books. Many picture books are of a high literary quality and the artwork is often superb.
  • I removed all forms of pressure: I stopped expecting or requiring output, rather I focussed on giving input and allowed the literature to do its work.
  • I observed my children a lot. I watched and was ready to seize the moment.
  • I tried to play with words via the use of poetry and silly rhymes, tongue twisters, etc. One of my goals is to encourage a love of literary language.


Okay, so where are we now?

‘Master J’ loves to read and he reads very well. He reads a wide variety of books. He reads for pleasure and for information. After quite some time of learning to read (gaining fluency) and practising in a non threatening environment, he is a proficient reader with good comprehension and output (Understanding and narrations). One would never know that he didn’t read until he was 11 years old!

‘Master C’ can read and enjoys it but not as much as his older brother…yet. He can read well for information but he reads at a slightly lower level for pleasure. But that’s fine. He is developing fluency, and a love of words. He absolutely loved reading his developmentally appropriate Day by Day Kids Bible. That was the book that helped spark a sense of achievement and accomplishment in him. He loves listening to books being read aloud and is having fun with rhymes and tongue-twisters at the moment.

The Best Way

So, I have used both ways you asked about: teaching my girls to read via phonics and then taking more of a natural learning approach compared to starting with a natural learning approach and teaching the boys to read via real life.

We should put many learning opportunities before our children;  put rich and noble ideas before them, encourage them to love reading and model that which we want them to emulate, then sit back and delight in the learning that will happen. This doesn’t guarantee that a child will read or love reading, but neither does drilling in phonics, dumbing down literature to nothing more than dull basal readers which contain no stimulating and capturing ideas.

Reading and the teaching of the skill is an art which needs our gentle and loving patience, guidance and nurturing. Teaching reading can build a relationship or cause frustration and embarrassment-tearing apart the relationship. What do I desire more? I don’t believe there is One Right Way to teach reading (much like parenting) although many disagree. Maybe Leonie would offer her thoughts…I’ll pop over to her blog and ask her if she’d be so kind as to share.

I don’t know if any of that has been helpful to you. Feel free to read, take any meat and spit out the bones.

All the best,