Children learn to read in different ways, just as children are different and unique in every other way. One young man told me he learned to read by memorizing the shape or outline of words. He didn’t focus on the letters at all. Interesting!
My oldest son was in public school for six years. He didn’t learn to read in kindergarten, where they taught the “letter people”; as a result, he was not promoted and was put into a chapter one “special first” grade program. There they used a “direct instruction” program called Distar, the basis for the book some homeschoolers use called “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons”. He did learn to read that year, and direct instruction obviously worked better for him than whole language, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Learning-style wise, Ryan was a square peg in a round hole, and while he made decent grades most of the time, he was not thriving in the visual linguistic work-sheet oriented environment he found himself in. I did insist that he be pulled from his regular first grade classroom for a second year of direct instruction in reading. He did not need the vocabulary component, as he was an articulate speaker from the earliest age (6 months) but, of course, there were no accommodations made. If he needed direct instruction in reading, he would also sit through learning to speak complete sentences, despite the fact that he could speak complete sentences already! We had Ryan tested once we learned he would not be promoted, because he was obviously bright, articulate, and intelligent. We learned that Ryan was an auditory (ears) and kinesthetic (hands-on needing to touch, feel, and move) learner. We also learned that Ryan had vision difficulties; his eyes did not track together. Looking back, and knowing what I know now I believe that the vision therapy, large motor skills learned in a special gym class, and the private testing we had done, all benefited him along the way. A retired school teacher in our area had a volunteer program which she brought weekly to the public schools, based on the findings of Orton-Gillingham. We enrolled Ryan into this program. So before we knew about homeschooling, we were seeking out mentors and tutors to work with our son, because we knew intuitively that “one-size-fits-all” education doesn’t really fit anyone. Ryan was in 4th grade before we actually started homeschooling him.
Our second son, Aaron, attended preschool and two years of public school: kindergarten and first grade. He was bored with his classes and popular with his fellow students and a favorite of his teachers. I wasn’t particularly thrilled about that combination, either. When he learned that we were going to homeschool Ryan, he begged to come home, too. He didn’t want to ride the bus or be on the playground without his big brother to protect him! Aaron learned to read easily and quickly with the look-and-say program used by the public schools. Of course, he had two years of a very academic preschool, whose director had developed a “multiple intelligences” type of approach for her tots. Her experience with a son who had been labeled learning disabled caused her to learn about different learning styles before it was a commonly understood concept in teaching circles. So Aaron was lucky there. Aaron is also more of a visual learner, so may have done fine even without his preschool “jump-start”. Who knows? We learn more all the time about how kids learn, but it seems that the more we know, the more there is to learn (about learning)!
Our third son, Ervin, was eighteen months when we started home educating his brothers. He was always underfoot when we were reading together, or playing games, creating dioramas and other projects. Independent and self-motivated, at age four he picked up his brother’s discarded math workbook and checked it out. He couldn’t read the instructions so brought it to me to read to him, and showing me a small hand-held calculator he had scarfed off my desk, asked me to interpret the symbols in the math problems (plus, minus, equals). He taught himself the basic math concepts. When he asked me questions about other things in the world around him, I found books at the library or ordered them from our local bookstore. I read him books about everything under the sun, including space stations, static electricity, how pearls are made, and how oil becomes plastic, to name a few. Some days our reading was punctuated by elbow pokes and “Mom, wake up, please read!” Truly, some of the topics he was interested in bored me so much, and I was so sleep-deprived from caring for his baby sister, that I would doze off in mid-sentence. When Ervin was eight I took him to the eye doctor for a checkup because his brother Aaron had been holding his book so close to his nose I thought he might have vision problems. I figured I’d get them both checked at once, never figuring that Ervin had a problem. Aaron checked out 20/20 and Ervin was diagnosed with amblyopia and prescribed glasses for a year, then see whether his condition improves. It didn’t, and we were told he was legally blind in one eye and would always be. I began to research and make phone calls and was led to make an appointment with another eye specialist. This doctor said Ervin’s vision could be improved with vision therapy. We began therapy, and I say we, because we had more to do at home than he did at the weekly sessions at the doctor’s office. Homeschooling became mostly vision therapy and fitting in fun learning activities. Ervin had a hard time doing math problems on the page but after several weeks of vision therapy we noticed that he wasn’t missing problems and skipping all over the page. It was after vision therapy, at almost 10 years old that I caught him reading a book to himself on the top bunk in his room.
So our experience with Ervin led us to know that children can learn to read without reading programs. We did have a little audio tape program that we had him listen to. It taught the basic sounds. Ervin could parrot the sounds when he saw the letters but he couldn’t put them together to read the words. We also tried, “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons” but he quickly grew bored with the silly stories and the funny letters in this book. Mostly, we played games with words, and played “I Spy” using billboards and signs any time we were parked and waiting somewhere. The biggest “reading instruction” I did was to read out loud and to model reading. Both of his older brothers and father are avid readers, too, so there was no lack of modeling going on in our home. Though we tried the above-mentioned reading programs, we never stuck with them long enough for them to make much impression, because after Ryan’s experience in public school, I wasn’t convinced that a particular program was the answer. Although Ervin was the latest of our three boys to learn to read, they are all adults now and I can see no difference in their ability to read, understand, and digest the written word. They all read for pleasure and retain enough to amaze me when telling me about things they’ve read.
Finally, that baby sister came along, and I confess I was so relaxed about the whole reading thing that we just breezed along, reading to her, letting her listen to audio books, supplemented with occasional reading games, listening to the phonics tape just for fun, using the “Teach Your Child to Read” book now and then, and one day voila! She was reading. There was nothing dramatic about it. I really don’t remember how old she was, perhaps around eight, and she has been reading voraciously ever since.
I do not believe all children need to be formally instructed in reading, as in spending some tortuous time every single day doing boring little repetitious wordy exercises in a book or using flashcards. When it is drudgery, and a pain, and brings misery to all involved, it is better left alone. That time can much more profitably be spent curling up on the couch while Mom reads something fun or educational. In not believing that kids need formal instruction, I can go back to my own experience almost fifty years ago. I learned to read before I attended public school as a six-year old and the only thing my mother ever did was read to me. We didn’t have a lot of books, so she read the ones we had over and over. That must have been kind of boring for her, but I can tell you that I believe that is how both my brother and I learned to read. We basically memorized the words until the time came when we saw the words we knew them. The other components of our reading experience before school started were seeing my mother and father both reading. Mother read books and ladies’ magazines, Dad read the newspaper every single night. My parents did not have a television, and we have not had a television in our home, either.
Phonics is a tool for learning the sounds of letters. For some people this is important. Other folks, like myself and my brother, and Ervin, seem to thrive just by seeing the words and hearing them read at the same time. A combination of approaches might be a good thing to try, but I honestly believe that many kids would do fine if their parents put as much effort into carving out plenty of time to read aloud to their children, as they put into finding and using the “right” reading program. We dabbled in phonics and reading programs, but the only thing we were consistent in was reading out loud. My kids never asked me to quit reading out loud, but Ervin and his younger sister, Jacinta, both asked me more than once to quit teaching them using some phonics or other reading program.
I cannot see that anything dire happens to a child who reads late. It is impossible to tell which is which once kids learn to read. There may be a few kids who have extreme vision problems and need intervention (like Ervin) and a few who have a real learning disability like dyslexia that will also need special help, but in general, most homeschooled kids do just fine learning to read later, especially if the family is unschooling or using an eclectic approach that doesn’t focus on “who learns what when” so much as “learning all the time, just maybe in a different way.”
One of the benefits to later reading include less eye strain for kids whose eyes are not developed enough yet to handle sustained reading. Dr. Raymond Moore addresses some of these issues and benefits in his excellent book, “Better Late Than Early” which focuses not just on reading later, but on introducing academics later. I was very glad I found his books when I was researching homeschooling, because it gave me a good foundation when I needed one. Attending a couple of the seminars he and his wife gave also bolstered my confidence at times when people around me were getting down and dirty with negative comments about the way we were doing (or not doing) things. (When you choose your advisors, you choose your advice). I had to believe that the Moores and those who had been homeschooling for years knew more about what I should be doing than friends and my father. It is hard to be criticized and hard to continue when you really can’t be sure that you are taking the right path, but it felt right to let Ervin learn at his own pace, rather than deal with the self-esteem issues and anger and frustration we had dealt with his older brother Ryan during his years in the public schools. So we persevered and time proved us right.
The best environment to promote reading is one in which the parents and older siblings read, study, do research, and model reading as a pleasurable and positive thing to do. Learning for the love of learning, reading to find answers and for pleasure are great examples to live before children, if you want them to want to read.
Learning to read does not have to look like a series of steps; instead, it may look like a long slow slide without much progress being made and then sudden leaps and bounds! That’s just how it looks for some people. From the time I first “caught” my son Ervin reading until six weeks later, he went from being a non-reader or pre-reader to reading anything and everything that crossed his path. Encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines, manuals . . . it didn’t matter what it was, he would just pick it up and read it. Shock and awe! And no more negative comments. In fact, my father became a very vocal proponent of homeschooling after that, and several of our friends started homeschooling!
A freelance writer, Marsha serves as a homeschool resource for her local library and has written articles for Home Education Magazine and a column for Home Educator's Family Times. She has served on the planning committee for her local homeschool cooperative, taught creative writing, edited the newsletter, and been a member of the HUB (Homeschoolers United Building) advisory committee. Her book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Homeschooling, was published in February 2001, and she has spoken at homeschool conferences and curriculum fairs in Texas, California, and Michigan. She is presently working with HEM Books to update and republish her now out-of-print homeschooling book. She also holds down two part-time office management jobs, one outside the home and one for the family business.