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Learning to Read: How My Natural 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 first in a series of posts examining how each of my children learned to read. —

Nova is sixteen years old as of this writing. When she’s not drawing, she is either reading, or she is writing on any one of at least a half-dozen different fantasy stories she has going at any given moment. I am a reader myself, and I began collecting books for her early. Much to my husband’s bemusement, I began purchasing children’s books before the birth – I managed to hold off until I was at least five months along. (I remember the first one I had to buy: Animalia by Graeme Base. It was so beautiful, I couldn’t resist.)

learn to readI don’t specifically remember reading aloud to her while I was pregnant (though I think that is a good idea), but I did begin reading to her before she could sit up. She loved rhythmic stories such as Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb. If I have occasion to read it these days, I still read it in the same cadence she loved, keeping a steady beat with no pauses, even between the pages.

Books were her first, best toys. As a toddler, she used to sit on the floor in front of her bookshelf, put her forefinger on the top of the spine of a book, and pull firmly until it came off the shelf, repeating until she had all her friends on the floor with her. After she nearly put her eye out a time or two by flipping sharp corners directly toward her face, I transferred her books into baskets so she could make her messes with less threat of injury.

Starting to Read and Write

When she was old enough to hold the books and turn the pages herself, I would “read” to her while I was driving. We kept a basket of board books in the car, and I would recite each page (I had them all memorized by this point) and say “Ding!” when it was time for her to turn the page.

Sometime around eighteen months, when she was barely talking, she began saying a phrase I couldn’t figure out. She would walk around saying “ah goo, ah goo, ah goo” and I could tell it had meaning to her, but I couldn’t quite figure out what she meant by it. Then one day I saw her plop down with our well-read copy of Where the Wild Things Are, carefully turning each page, until she came to the page where “that very night in Max’s room a forest grew … and grew … and grew …” and as she turned each page she recited, “ah goo … ah goo … ah goo …” and I knew she was reading.

Reading

She would bring a book to anyone sitting still. This is my midwife, shortly after the birth of baby #2, being coerced into reading with Nova.

No, of course she was not decoding the phonics of the written words, but she was getting meaning from the book and understanding the story on her own, which is after all, at its heart, what reading is.

Around her third birthday, we had to send a birthday card to a family member. I handed her the card and a pen for her to “sign her name” … that is, make a scribble. She took the pen from me and carefully wrote each letter of her name. I had never shown her how to write her name or even talked with her much about the alphabet other than in the most general terms, and of course reading books such as Dr. Seuss’s ABC and Applebet, one of my all-time favorite alphabet books. I am not a proponent of programs to teach very young children to read, but it was clear to me that she was going to be one of those kids who just picks it up early and effortlessly.

Hitting a Speed Bump

Her headlong progress stalled out, however. I fully expected her to be reading independently somewhere between four and five – again, without me pushing, pressuring, or even teaching her to read, just because she was “that kind of kid.” But though she progressed almost magically on her own to the point of reading simple words or phrases, if I showed her a page with more than two or three words on it, she would physically turn her head away, stating, “It’s too hard.” Please understand, I wasn’t trying to get her to read books other than the simple picture books she loved, or even pushing her to read in any way; I was following her natural progression until she suddenly stopped for no reason I could discern.

I feel very blessed to have learned what I learned next, because it is not an avenue I would have pursued on my own, at least not so early. I was talking to a friend at church about some behavioral issues with Nova and she said, “You might want to consider vision therapy.” I had not heard of this but after she told me her child’s story, I had an appointment with her vision doctor quicker than you could say “Jack jumped over the candlestick.”

We already knew that she had vision problems. Around her second birthday, she began crossing her eyes. An exam with a regular eye doctor put her into glasses to correct her severe hyperopia (far-sightedness) and also mild astigmatism. When she wore her glasses (which she did at all times) her eyes didn’t cross, but as soon as they were off her eyes would cross again.

A Lazy Eye

Her exam revealed that she was not using her binocular vision; that is, her eyes did not work in sync, but one at a time. Look at a page of print and try to read it while alternating using your eyes: close first one eye then the other and repeat that in succession, and you’ll see why more than three words on a page was “too hard” for my daughter. Her glasses stayed, of course, as her vision was so poor, but our new eye doctor did remove the correction for astigmatism from her prescription. He said she did have astigmatism, but when she focused on something, her eyes corrected it on their own so she didn’t need the correction in her spectacles.

As I learned more about vision therapy and who needs it, I realized quite a few things about my daughter that had seemed like idiosyncrasies were, in fact, symptomatic of her vision problem. For instance, when I gave her stickers and paper, she would pile all the stickers almost on top of each other in a little square, leaving the rest of the paper completely empty: she hyperfocused on a small area that she could see easily, rather than looking at the entire paper. She ran almost sideways, looking over one shoulder. She had never crawled as a baby.

Eyes that work!

Vision therapy (which I will post about more soon) brought rapid changes in more than her reading ability, which blossomed within two or three months of beginning the therapy (though reading was not part of the therapy). She began to run in a straight line. In gym class (her fine motor skills were excellent but she lacked most of the graces having to do with large muscle skills, so I enrolled her in a fun, low-pressure gymnastics class around age four) she had always been bottom of the class, but the summer of her vision therapy, every coach in the class came up to me to mention her sudden and (to them) inexplicable improvement. She was in vision therapy for about nine months and came out of it reading fluently and running straight. She no longer crosses her eyes when her glasses are off … or at least, only when she wants to.

That’s All, She Read

And that’s really all I have to say about how Nova learned to read, because that’s all there is. I read to her extensively, I surrounded her with books, I taught her to love books. When she hit a snag in her development, I found the help she needed to get past it and get on with her reading. As soon as her vision was straightened out, she began reading without any further instruction or encouragement from me; she was already desperate to read and had the entire skill set necessary for it, she just needed working vision to implement it. She skipped over a lot of the early childhood literature, moving quickly on from the simple first chapter books to complicated books well above her grade level.

I will add this note of caution: read to your children, let them see you loving books, but don’t necessarily expect this type of response. This is Nova’s personality and how she responded to books. In the next chapter of this series, you’ll read about her mirror opposite in the learning-to-read department: her brother Lock, who received the same amount of “book stimulation” she did, but responded very differently.

FURTHER READING:
Some of my favorite children’s books.
Teach a Child to Read With Children’s Books by Mark Thogmartin: This is the only teaching reading book I recommend for homeschoolers. It takes the natural learning to read process as shown by my daughter and describes the process in a way many parents will find helpful, especially if they are not avid readers themselves. It also gives ways to encourage and enhance reading while keeping it meaningful and enjoyable.

You Learn to Teach by Teaching

Learn to be a TeacherA local radio station, KTAR, recently interviewed a friend and me about homeschooling. From a twenty-minute interview they put a couple of sound bites on drive-time radio the next morning (I didn’t hear it, but someone I know did!) and a brief article on their website. Thankfully, they didn’t try to make us or homeschooling in general look bad, which was pleasant! But I felt the author did pick out what could be considered my most inflammatory remarks and play them up, with the softening part played down, and I’d like to clarify. (Not to mention, they don’t really quote word-for-word; it’s more of a “gist of it” kind of quote.)

Carma Paden of Phoenix decided to home school her four children because she was turned off by what she calls the “institutional nature” of schools.

“There’s so little flexibility in schools, and so [little] ability to individualize education to the child,” Paden says. Paden has a four year degree in elementary education, and says first-year teachers are no better trained than the average parent on how to teach children. “Teachers that are just out of teaching college don’t know anything that you don’t know,” she says.

Paden believes that teachers coming right out of college may have learned how to manage a class of 30 kids, but they don’t start really learning how to teach until they work in the classroom as a student teacher.

She says that many people can learn how to teach their own kids by simply jumping in and doing it.

“You learn to teach by teaching,” says Paden. “That’s just as true with someone who has a four year degree as it is with a Mom.”

The reporter looked shocked when I said that teachers don’t know anything parents don’t know, and when he asked for clarification, I said something to the effect of, “Well, nothing that anyone with any four-year degree doesn’t know. What future teachers learn is classroom management and record keeping and so forth, but once that degree is in hand, they still have to learn to teach. You learn to teach by teaching, and parents can learn that just as easily as someone with a four-year teaching degree can.”

Who Can Teach?

This is not to denigrate teachers in any way, and please note that I am not comparing a first-time homeschooler to a twenty-year veteran teacher. Both of my parents are teachers, my sister is a teacher, and I chose teaching as my own potential profession. I am very aware that a majority of teachers love kids and are truly working their best to help them. As with any profession, there are some superlative examples, some quite dreadful examples, and a large middle population of people who are good to very good at their jobs.

No, my point is not that teachers can’t teach or don’t teach well; my point is not really anything to do with trained classroom teachers at all. My point is, anyone can learn to teach. The skills learned when acquiring a teaching degree are skills that are very specific to the classroom. My children and I do not live in a classroom, so those skills are unnecessary to me as a homeschooling mother. One learns to teach by teaching.

I’m happy to have my degree; there are parts of it that I find quite useful, not least the fact that that little voice that makes itself heard now and then inside the heads of most homeschooling mothers, the outraged little voice that says, “You’re not a trained teacher, what do you think you’re doing?” is not really something that I have to deal with for myself. Too, I find that sharing this knowledge with other homeschooling parents, especially those new to or just considering homeschooling, can open up a whole new way of looking at things for them and I am very pleased to be able to help them that way. If I had it to do over again, though, I wouldn’t choose education as my degree even knowing that I planned to homeschool. (In fact, there were several very specific factors in the last part of my college career that decided me quite firmly on homeschooling my own children, long before I had them. You can read that story here, if you’d like.)

You Learn to Teach by Teaching

I recently met another mom, one who has not chosen to homeschool. We were talking to a mutual friend and the subject of teacher training came up. I began with my usual spiel of what I had learned and not learned in teaching classes, and the new mom, the one who has her children in public school, started nodding along with me. Apparently she has a teaching degree too, and as if we had rehearsed it, she chorused with me at the end: You learn to teach by teaching!

So, my apologies to all the dedicated professional teachers out there. If for some reason I were unable to be at home with my children, I would be very glad of your services, in much the same way that if I had been unable to breastfeed my children, I would have been glad of formula. I’m glad it’s there, I know there are people who really need to use it, but I’m even more glad that I do not have to use public schools and can instead give my children the more personal, custom-tailored nurturing they can get at home.

I know someone will comment that there are a lot of things that a professional teacher could teach that I cannot, and I agree; that is true. On the other hand, there are many things I can teach my children that a professional teacher cannot. And, to be perfectly honest, there are even more things that my children can teach themselves than either of us could ever dream of, which is what they’re doing now.

So I’ll just leave all you veteran homeschoolers and new homeschoolers and thinking-about-homeschoolers out there – along with those who would never dream of homeschooling – with this thought:

There is no school equal to a decent home,
and no teacher equal to a virtuous parent.

~ Mohandas Gandhi

Hey, Gandhi said it, not me.

FURTHER READING:

Why I Chose Homeschool Before I Had Children

How Do They Learn?

Pain of Learning by Angelo Bronzine

The Pain of Learning” by Angelo Bronzine. Image in the public domain.

This image, “The Pain of Learning,” by Angelo Bronzine, is a pretty good representation of how a lot of folks think learning ought to look. So how do unschoolers learn?

He couldn’t have told you where he learned it. Or when. I doubt he would have said that he had learned it. It wasn’t a conscious thing. That’s what unschoolers mean when we say learning happens all the time. It doesn’t mean at the end of the day we can list and quantify and sort out everything that was learned, neatly into school subjects. It means it happens like breathing, you can’t stop it from happening. You can’t tell when it’s happening, because learning truly isn’t separate from living.

Read the rest of How Do They Learn? by Caren Knox.

10,000 Hours

When the Beatles were a fledgling band, they went to Hamburg, Germany, and spent several years playing more than 1,200 live shows in clubs and bars, accumulating over 10,000 hours of playing time. When they returned to England, they were a slick, professional band with a startling new sound no one had heard before. According to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve expertise in any specific field.

Many of us would like to perform as well as the Beatles did at something – but who has the time? We’ve got jobs to work, kids to raise, bills to pay; taking time to pursue a dream is often nothing but a pipe dream itself. How many adults who are now accountants would rather be artists? How many lawyers would rather be authors? For that matter, how many secretaries might rather be accountants or lawyers?

Homeschooling, however, offers the unique opportunity for children to become experts in a field – maybe even more than one – if they have the desire and drive to achieve it, before becoming bogged down in the details of everyday adult life. In particular, unschooling gives the child even more time and space in which to achieve mastery.

At about the age of nine, my now sixteen-year-old daughter began trying to draw seriously. Her perfectionism frustrated her attempts until I got an artist’s light box for her, and showed her how to use it to trace and save the good parts of a drawing with which she was dissatisfied. That tool was the spark needed to light the fire.

Drawing quickly began to consume her thoughts. In less than a year she was drawing every day. She has carried a drawing bag with her everywhere – and I do mean everywhere! – for years. She draws in charcoal, colored pencil, and ink, or using her graphics pad on the computer, or her fingertip on my iPad. Failing that, she sketches on her own skin with a ball point pen! She has an account on Facebook that she rarely accesses, but is on her Deviant Art account (think: Facebook for artists) every day, interacting with her friends and fellow artists, viewing and commenting on artwork and receiving comments on her own.

For at least the past six years she has drawn an average of five hours a day (and five hours is a conservative estimate, I assure you). Even this very low estimate yields well over the 10,000 hours needed to become an expert in her chosen field: illustration.

I think it shows, don’t you?

Moonlit Flight by Nova

And I can’t help but look at this and wonder: how would it have been possible if she had been in public school, or even in a school-at-home program that took all her hours and energy?

FURTHER READING:
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Movie Monday: Will Harvard Make You Happy?

I found this gem on Lee Stranahan’s Unschooling: The Movie website. Now THERE is a movie I can’t wait to see! Here is a snippet of Stranahan interviewing Seth Godin (a wildly successful author and entrepreneur),  on education. It’s brilliant, but the most astonishing quote comes near the end:

“One of the studies I’m fond of showed that people who got into Harvard and did not go ended up being as successful, by any measure – happiness or money – as people who got into Harvard and did go. And once you look at a piece of data like that, it’s really hard to figure out why they’re pretending that they’re onto something … because they’re not.” – Seth Godin

Keeping Up with the Bob Joneses, or “So What?”

Adam Sandler in Billy MadisonMany homeschoolers, often newbies but sadly often not, panic if their child is not exactly on the school’s schedule, is “behind.” Let’s leave the question of just what “behind” really means for another day and assume for the sake of argument that every child really does need exactly twelve years of schooling before starting college or adult life, and address the question on the face of it.

What if your child really is behind? What if you have a second-grade child who is exactly one year behind, but doing okay, or one year behind, but really struggling? Again assuming, for the sake of argument, that every child really needs exactly twelve years of schooling, if you teach your second grader at a first-grade level, or even … [pause here for your horrified gasp] … give her a year off and then start teaching her in third grade at a first-grade level, well …

SO WHAT?

Yes, really. So what? If every child needs exactly twelve years of schooling (a very big IF), then all that means is: your child will graduate from high school at age 19 instead of 18. Or maybe even 20 instead of 18.

What is so awful about that? My goodness, just think of all the kids in college who take far longer than four years to complete their degrees, finishing college at 26, 28, or later. Does that hurt them? (Let’s not even begin to talk about others, like my hubby The VP, who finished their doctoral degrees well into their 40s, with four children in tow!)

Well then why would it hurt your child to start college a year or two later? She’ll still be finishing college when about half of the rest of them on the “6 year degree plan” are finishing.

So what would it hurt? Especially if, by relaxing a bit, you can help your child to be not only knowledgable in “book learning” but in life learning, if she can learn that she is important first as a person and not as a grade in someone’s gradebook.

If your child is struggling with some elementary school concept, try relaxing. Try remembering that you are teaching a child, not a curriculum. Try remembering that raising her to be a caring, compassionate individual who has a strong sense of her own self-worth is more important than the number of answers she got right on a quiz. Try remembering that teaching her that you care about her more than her grades will give her the best start in life, and is the best way to motivate her to get good grades. Try remembering that, even if her “exactly twelve years of schooling” starts a year late, or even two years late, all that means is, you get the blessing of another year of her company before she starts her adult life.

It is not worth destroying her vision of herself as a strong and capable person who enjoys learning, just to keep up with the Bob Joneses.

And later, we’ll talk about those “exactly twelve years of schooling,” okay?

FURTHER READING:

Better Late Than Early: A New Approach to Your Child’s Education

by Raymond and Dorothy Moore

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