How can parents possibly teach their own children how to read? Reading is so complicated. There are phonics and sight words and grammar rules and about a million different theories and hundreds of programs to choose from. How can a parent, without years of experience and training, wade through all of the information to know where to even start?
If you are intimidated by this never-ending landscape of possibilities (and rightly so!), I have excellent news—none of it matters.
No really, all that stuff you can buy, and the systems and the programs—it's like different flavors of apples; you can eat all the different flavors but not one will be the overall best. Not only that, there are people who don't even *eat* apples. And guess what, they manage to stay well-nourished.
If you find yourself unable to decide on which program to get, it's OK. You can wait.
There are only two main reasons to read: for pleasure and to extract information. (Sometimes the two overlap, even.) There is also a third reason to pick up a book, primarily found in school; reading to learn to read.
But the fortunate thing for homeschooling parents, is that kids can learn to read within the context of the first two reasons; when they read for pleasure, or to extract information. Then, they learn to read as part of the process.
Kids do not need to "read in order to learn to read". They can, and millions of children around the world do. But it's not a necessary evil. Reading to learn to read is like climbing uphill over and over to learn to walk. It works, but one has a high likelihood of rolling down the hill, bonking one’s head. Reading for interest or information gathering is like learning to walk to keep up with one's siblings—it serves a compelling, highly motivating purpose. The result of learning to walk is the same, but the paths are different.
But, what if a kid wants to do phonics and all that, because they enjoy it? If a child enjoys a program, it's no longer "reading to learn to read". For some, working with a step-by-step program fulfills their need for information extraction reading, or pleasure reading. If that’s the case, it’s the process of reading or of doing a program that interests them. The element of doing something in order to learn to read is secondary when a child enjoys the activity.
Reading programs are not any better (or worse) than other kinds of reading material. Reading material is equal in the eyes of the brain. The brain wants input it can use, and if it gets this, the information will stick. Period. If the brain doesn't find the input important, it will take a lot more climbing uphill for it to remember, for it to even want to remember. When the material sticks, voilà, we have learning. The best part: we might not even notice because our brain is already on to the next thing once it’s finished getting what it needs.
Learning to read is not scary. Learning to read should be an absolute, hands-down blast of a time. Barring any physical reason that reading might be frustrating, the process of learning to read is a many-year journey that should be filled with joy, laughter and freedom. Learning to read through the process of finding enjoyable or functional material (even if that happens to be a "program") is a painless way for everyone to get excited about the process. If you keep your focus on function and interest, there is no reason that learning to read should be scary. You and your kids will be so busy thinking about other things, you won’t have time to micromanage their literary advancement. And when you don’t have to micromanage, the concept of learning to read is far less intimidating.
So next time you walk into a vendor hall or look through a catalog for a reading program, don't think, "What will work to get my child to read better?", think, "What will my child like and use? Which books will she be the most likely to sit and curl up in the corner with? Which books look fun, for her and me? Which books am I willing to put on a shelf for an unknown period of time until my child is interested?" Then, instead of being overwhelmed by the choices available, it will be fun to shop. It will be like a homeschool holiday. When the goal is right, it feels good to seek out that goal. It may be thrilling, it may make us sweat, but it will be the *good* kind of thrill, the *good* kind of sweat.
Now, get off this blog and go enjoy some story time with your kids —even if they think they are too old to get anything out of it. And whenever your brain comes around to patting itself on the back for doing such a learning-rich activity, tell it to pipe down so that you can enjoy the story.
Tammy Takahashi lives and learns with her three children (10, 7 and 4) and supportive husband in California. She is the author of Deschooling Gently: A Step by Step Guide to Fearless Homeschooling. She also serves as the editor of the California HomeSchooler magazine, a bi-monthly publication for the Homeschool Association of California. You can read more from her about education and homeschooling on her website. And you can email her at tammy.takahashi @ gmail(dot)com.