By Chris ~ Guest Author
I have been watching my five year old son learn to read.
My son lives in a family of autodidacts. Almost everything we know and do in this family arises from self-teaching. We unschool out kids and have been largely influenced by the work of John Holt, Joseph Chilton Pearce and John Taylor Gatto in this matter.
When we were deciding which educational path to pursue with our kids, we discovered Holt’s writings. But the choice to unschool is one thing…having the rubber hit the road is another, and the true test of our commitment would come around reading writing and arithmatic. If there is anxiety that is shared by parents who unschool or homeschool, it is on these fronts.
We very much use the principles of Open Space when creating the learning environment for our family. That includes “When it starts is the right time” which is not a principle widely applied to children’s learning. In fact much of the anxiety that infects the education system in the western world would probably be alleviated if more people made use of this principle.
The fact is that kids learn to do things at a wide variety of times, despite the myth that they should be developing along some pre-determined time line. My daughter for example, who is eight now, has an incredible auditory memory and an incredibly subtle sense of narrative structure and story. She has been listening to audio books for probably 5 years now, and I daresay that she has been exposed to more literature in her short life than most of us have. She has consumed literally hundreds of books, plays and novels, and she can recount plot details, pieces of dialogue, characters (including being able to predict what a character might do out side of the context of a story). In the process she has learned a lot about sociology and psychology not to mention geography, history and ethics.
But she came late to reading. In fact it has only really been this year that she has been reading more but she still gets more story out of her ears than her eyes.
My son on the other hand is the opposite. He hasn’t really cared much for audio books, but for the last year he has been intently handling Tintin books and he’s been read to, and just in the last few weeks, it appears that he can now read some pretty sophisticated stuff by himself. He hasn’t been taught to read. He has just sat with the materials, watched the practice and let it seep in. He wanted to know what Tintin and Captain Haddock were saying to one another, and now he knows.
Holt talked about these things. He talks in this interview about his philosophy to reading:
I think the teaching of reading is mostly what prevents reading. Different children learn different ways. I think reading aloud is fun, but I would never read aloud to a kid so that the kid would learn to read. You read aloud because it’s fun and companionable. You hold a child, sitting next to you or on your lap, reading this story that you’re having fun with, and if it isn’t a cozy, happy, warm, friendly, loving experience, then you shouldn’t do it. It isn’t going to do any good.
I think children are attracted toward the adult world. It’s nice to have children’s books, but far too many of them have too much in the way of pictures. When children see books, as they do in the family where the adults read, with pages and pages and pages of print, it becomes pretty clear that if you’re going to find out what’s in those books, you’re going to have to read from that print. I don’t think there’s any way to make reading interesting to children in a family in which it isn’t interesting to adults.
Holt is describing creating a learning environment where emergent learning can take place. My experience this year with my kids has shown me that there is nothing mechanical about learning to read. Instead, kids are best served if they are immersed in an environment where they can “couple with the field.” Simply handling books in an environment where all of us read was enough to get my boy reading. In Holt’s book “Learning All the Time” he tells the story of a school in the Netherlands where reading is taught by having kids sit with adults and simply read. When the kids get stumped by a word, they ask and the adult gives them the answer. What works is not some pre-packaged curriculum, some extrinsic rewards mechanism or compulsion and threats. It’s the creation of a supportive and caring environment where the kids can explore the skill for themselves and get the support they need when the need it.
So this is what my kids continue to teach me. Create a caring and supportive environment, live by the principle that whenever it starts is the right time, and watch as learning happens.
Chris Corrigan works with organizations seeking to improve their work, communities seeking to improve their future, people looking to improve their lives. His personal blog is Parking Lot.