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Learning to Read: How My Unnatural Reader Began Reading

– I have four children who have always been homeschooled. They learned to read in four very different ways, though there are some important similarities too (all four have me for a mother, after all). This is the second in a series of posts examining how each of my children learned to read. –

unschooling readingLock didn’t talk. Between his second and third birthdays, other than a tiny handful of very basic words, he added very few words to his vocabulary. Instead he learned to mimic all sorts of animal sounds, assigning them correctly to all of his little zoo. When he began making a funny sound something like “ayo,” after hearing it repeatedly I told my husband he was saying “elephant.” He pooh-poohed my insight, but guess what? The stuffed elephant Lock got for his second birthday, and which still sits on his bed, is still called Ayo.

He began gaining more words after his third birthday but still slowly. I used to joke that I could see the gears turning when he tried to express himself verbally: an elaborate thought would form in his head, go through several twists and turns and slowly make itself out in a much simplified two- or three-word format.

Despite the fact that he didn’t solidly grasp which was his left vs. right hand until he was at least ten years old, he showed an early and strong grasp of visual-spatial cues. I think he was three when he put together a wooden hands puzzle, the kind where each palm and finger is a separate piece. On ours the finger colors coordinate so both index fingers are red, both thumbs are blue, etc. As he put the puzzle together he began saying he needed a blue piece and looking all over for a blue piece; he didn’t want any of the other pieces I offered him. (He was sitting on it.) I didn’t understand what he was doing until I looked closer and realized he had one hand put together, and was assembling the second hand based on methodically matching the color scheme from the first hand.

When he learned to write his name, he wrote it in mirror letters for the longest time, and honestly couldn’t see the difference when I pointed it out to him. He didn’t even begin to understand the elaborate rhyming games Nova and I delighted in playing.

What Does This Have to Do With Reading?

Why do I tell you these stories, interesting only to a mother, at the beginning of a story on how Lock learned to read? Because all of the above behaviors are strong signs of potential dyslexia. These are some of the symptoms Lock showed (the entire list of possible symptoms is longer):

~ Difficulty putting thoughts into words; speaks in halting phrases; leaves sentences incomplete; stutters under stress; mispronounces long words, or transposes phrases, words, and syllables when speaking.
~ Trouble with writing or copying; pencil grip is unusual; handwriting varies or is illegible.
~ Clumsy, uncoordinated, difficulties with fine and/or gross motor skills and tasks.
~ Can be ambidextrous, and often confuses left/right, over/under.
~ Had unusually early or late developmental stages (such as talking).
~ Excellent long-term memory for experiences, locations, and faces.
~ Difficulty with rhyme and letter recognition.
~ Computing math shows dependence on finger counting and other tricks; knows answers, but can’t do it on paper.
~ “Word blindness” where child can be drilled on a word on one page and then won’t recognize it on the next page.
~ Reading or writing shows repetitions, additions, transpositions, omissions, substitutions, and reversals in letters, numbers and/or words.
~ Reads and rereads with little comprehension.
~ Spells phonetically and inconsistently.
~ Appears bright, highly intelligent, and articulate but unable to read, write, or spell at grade level.

Some of these symptoms persist for Lock at age fourteen – he still holds his pencil like a gorilla (and writes like one), his spelling is mostly by guess, and under stress he still has trouble expressing himself verbally – but the most critical symptoms, those that would prevent him from reading well or enjoying reading, are not a problem.

Just as it was clear that his older sister Nova would be an early and easy reader, it was clear that Lock would not be an early reader, or even an on-time reader (as if there is any such thing). I am perhaps most thankful for the early childhood emphasis of my elementary education degree in that it helped me to realize that my son was at risk for dyslexia, defined as a developmental reading disorder “that occurs when the brain does not properly recognize and process certain symbols.” (PubMed Health)

Early Intervention for Dyslexia

All the school experts say start early, persistent intervention to give the dyslexic a jump on his reading difficulties:

Though it is not a cure, stepping in early with targeted intervention could prevent reading problems from derailing a child’s education. (Dana Foundation)

The good news is that recent studies indicate that 90% of children at risk for reading problems can become at least average readers by the second grade if they are given intensive training in kindergarten and first grade. (Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities)

If his testing indicates that he is not quite ready to read, you have the choice of delaying kindergarten or allowing him to enter kindergarten and receive intensive, evidence-based prevention programs. Our recommendation is not to delay kindergarten; waiting another year will only delay needed help. (Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity)

Recent research shows that the reading delays of dyslexia are a merely a symptom of the way the child’s brain processes information. This brain process is not a delay or a problem to be solved (although preventing reading difficulties should be a paramount goal) but rather grants the person a different way of perceiving things that turns out to be very useful to society: dyslexics, as a whole, are some of the most creative thinkers, due to the way their brains process information.

As dyslexia is not a developmental lag but a different mode of brain organization, it cannot be prevented or cured and does not go away over time. (Dana Foundation)

Intervening on Intervention

Interestingly, despite the new understanding that the reading difficulties of dyslexia are a sign of a brain that processes information differently than most, conventional wisdom on preventing or treating dyslexia remains “more of the same.” Keep teaching reading the same way it is taught to other children, just more: start at least a year early. Practice reading every day. Work on letter recognition every day. Practice writing every day.

Learning to Read

So I took a deep breath and … left him alone.

I continued to read aloud to him and to Nova extensively (she is two years older than he). He occasionally would read aloud to me, haltingly and without comprehension. I would help him work out a word on one page, only to have him stare at the same word on the next page with no recognition whatsoever. So we would leave off having him read aloud, and I would read aloud the more.

I made sure, as best I could, that he loved stories. I read aloud every day. Dad read aloud to him most days. Nova even read aloud to him. Family members who dropped by read to him. We listened to Jim Weiss tell us stories in the car. We made up stories and played games with words. There was a permanent box of sturdy board books in the car. (Well, those had been there since Nova was a toddler.)

And gradually … nothing happened. Seven years old. Eight years old. The halting letter-by-letter sounding out. Not recognizing the same word on the next page. I reread for myself stories of children blossoming into their reading abilities at eight, nine, ten, even into their teen years. I reread Better Late Than Early and reminded myself that I was refraining from requiring from him something he was not developmentally ready to achieve. I read out loud some more and practiced my calm and cheery voice in case anyone asked the dreaded question: how’s his reading going?

No Reading Instruction

Learning to ReadThat fall kids his age were starting third grade, and he couldn’t read worth beans. He could puzzle out the sounds of each letter and sometimes make it into a comprehensible word, but at the end of a page of ten or fifteen words he would have no idea what he had read.

For all of his early elementary years, we had done no worksheets and no reading lessons. No charts or stickers for improvement. No handwriting practice or letter recognition exercises. No phonics instruction other than reading aloud and occasionally (once every month or three) encouraging him to read aloud with me: I would read a sentence, then he would read a sentence, letter by letter, slowly and haltingly, as I cued the letter sounds for him. We would stop very quickly.

Ninth Birthday

The summer before his ninth birthday was unusually busy. We traveled several times and had out-of-town visitors as well. We always take advantage of the many summer classes offered to keep schooled kids busy during their vacation, so I was driving them hither and yon. By this time our family had expanded to include a younger brother and sister (four and six years younger than Lock). It was a summer when we didn’t do a lot of sitting down and quietly reading.

So a month or two before his ninth birthday, when our summer schedules had slowed down, after months in which I hardly read aloud to him, much less asked him to read aloud to me, we sat down to read together.

For whatever reason, I picked up a book at a reading level slightly above anything I had asked him to read from before, a first chapter book: Mr. Putter and Tabby. He was certainly familiar with the story as Mr. Putter and his cat were popular read-alouds at our house; but he had never attempted to read aloud from one before.

After rolling his eyes at me for requesting he start our read-aloud, we opened the book and he began to read.

Mr. Putter and his fine cat, Tabby, lived in an old house …

And read.

… with an old porch and an old swing and lots of old things inside.

And read.

Mr. Putter and Tabby didn’t mind old things.

And read.

They were old too, so they felt right at home.

He read the entire first page aloud. Not smoothly or without stops, not perfectly.

Better than that.

He got through his bumps and bumbles. He read with meaning. He understood and comprehended and remembered.

homeschooling reading

Showing a proper pride in attaining readership.

His eyes met mine as he reached the end of the page, looking as astonished as I felt. We stared at each other wordlessly, then I watched his chest begin to swell out to almost painful proportions as he assimilated what he had just done: he had read independently.

His chin came up in a would-be nonchalant gesture and he tried to speak in an offhand voice as he said, glowingly, “I can read you another chapter later, if you want.”


I didn’t know he could read.

More remarkably, HE did not know that he could read. Something had literally gone *click* in his brain over the summer. Something had jelled. Some point of maturity had been reached.

He could not read. And then, with no instruction or practice … he could.

Learning to Talk, Learning to Read

Think about this: you talked to your baby. You talked, you talked, you talked. You didn’t define your words. You didn’t quiz her on the words she learned yesterday. You didn’t grade her or consult a checklist. Instead you encouraged her to join the conversation. You talked with meaning and expression. You showed your joy at her achievements when she mastered new or difficult words. You talked and made sense when you talked, and gradually she began to make sense of what she heard, because the human brain is uniquely wired to find meaning in language. In fact it is wired thus in many places, not just one, so that it can find meaning in every sort of language or grammar, whether it is perceived through the spoken language, hand signs, or writing.

Children, even children with reading disabilities, can learn to read in the same way they learned to talk. Reading is language. Barring physical difficulties with vision or hearing and issues such as mental retardation, humans can learn to read with the same ease – and with the same wide variety of “normal” ages – as they learn to talk.

Lock, The Reader

He didn’t turn into a fluent reader overnight. He still had to sound out his words and was more likely to read the first few letters and guess at the ending than try to sound it out phonetically. I just encouraged him to read, and I kept on reading aloud to him. (And yes, I corrected him when he guessed the end of the word wrong, and showed him how to read the letters that were actually there.) He remained an emerging reader for about a year; he didn’t love it or pick up books as his first choice of activity, but he could read, and he could enjoy it when he read.

Then he saw The Spiderwick Chronicles movie and when I told him it was a book, he was interested to read it. He read the entire series in a very short while. (They are very short books.) He told everyone he could get to listen that he was reading The Spiderwick Chronicles, a “real series.”

With one big achievement under his belt, he was raring to go. I was a little worried about him straining his abilities with his next choice but he was very insistent, so I let him go for it.

Less than eighteen months after he started reading, my ten-year-old son read all seven books of the Harry Potter series in under two months.

My boy who was sure reading was too hard, my son who could easily have been tutored into dyslexia by teaching him to read at the “normal” age of six when his brain couldn’t make sense of it … was a reader.

He still has the interesting brain functions that give him amazing creativity and allow him to know exactly where we are, almost anywhere I drive in our great big city. But he doesn’t have the reading disability that so often comes with it.

Lock loves to read. He is now fourteen and has read too many books to count, many of them above his “grade level” at the time. All of the Artemis Fowl series. All of the Percy Jackson series. Lots of big, thick series: Fablehaven, Gregor the Overlander, Hunger Games, Charlie Bone, Cirque du Freak, Ender’s Game. He doesn’t just read, he writes, and sometimes reads his stories aloud for friends.

Allowing Ability to Develop

I remember being in my child development class during my teacher training days. The teacher was telling us about his little son, who loved to be in their tree outside but couldn’t reach the low branch to climb up by himself. One day he heard his son shout, “Look at me, Dad! Look what I learned how to do!” He had reached the branch and was swinging from his arms.

The teacher smiled at us and assured us that he had congratulated his son and not pointed out to the boy that he had not learned how to grab the tree branch, he had instead matured in his development to a point where his natural ability to reach the branch was allowed to express.

If you have a child who is having difficulty reaching the tree branch of reading, please don’t try to force him to reach the branch before he is tall enough to do so. Just as children may reach their physical height anytime in a wide range of years, they may reach their “reading height” in a wide range of years too. Dyslexics need more time to mature, not more confusing instruction before their brains are able to sort out those types of abstract symbols. Their brains will naturally reach an age where decoding the symbols of written language becomes easy.

Learning to ReadReading doesn’t have to happen at age six. If you give him the desire to reach the branch, then when he is old enough, when his body and brain are grown enough, when his visual and auditory and cognitive senses are matured and working together well enough … then one day, you’ll hear, “Hey Mom! Look what I learned how to do!”

If you’re paying close enough attention, you might even hear the *click*.

This is the second in a four-part “Learning to Read” series telling how each of my children learned to read. You can see the first story here: How My Natural Reader Learned to Read.


More learning to read naturally stories from unschoolers.

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