How do Unschoolers learn to Read?

Posted on Posted in Reading, Trusting Children, Unschooling, Unschooling Blog

Unschoolers aren’t made to sit down for reading lessons. They aren’t drilled on the alphabet or phonics or expected to remember words on a reading list. Yet they still learn to read!

Not all kids learn to read in the same way or at the same age. When my daughter was four, she picked up a library book she’d never seen before and read it to me.

Both of my boys, as happens sometimes when children are allowed to learn to read naturally, in their own time and rhythm, didn’t read until they were eleven years old.

How children learn to read without schooling is as hard to explain as how children learn to walk without lessons. They just do. It’s a natural thing for humans to learn to communicate with other humans in the way that they see them communicating.


While I can’t explain the inner functionings of the brain to explain exactly how it happens, I can tell you what I saw happening with one of my children as he learned to read. My kids aren’t smarter than most kids, being able to pick something up that most kids need lessons to learn. They aren’t exceptions to a rule. This is what it looks like when reading unfolds naturally. There are many, many more unschooling parents with different stories that all have the same end result.

About a year after Matt learned to read, I wrote this essay:

It is a leap of faith to trust natural learning when everyone around you thinks you’re nuts for not making your children sit down and do reading lessons. When they’re six, people say, “He’ll pick it up soon”, probably because they assume you spend time every day drilling phonics. When they’re seven, they start to raise eyebrows. At eight, they’re concerned. At nine? “That child should be reading!” At ten or eleven? People just don’t know what to say. Matt learned to read not long after his eleventh birthday. Most kids naturally learn to read before they’re twelve, but some do learn later than twelve, and I’m sure those parents get a lot of negative comments.

I don’t think most people mean to be disrespectful of unschoolers’ choices. I just think the idea that a child won’t learn unless he’s taught is so ingrained in our society that people can’t imagine any other way. So is the idea that learning is hard and kids avoid it unless they’re made to do it. After all, if children don’t need to be drilled in order to learn “the basics”, why do we send our kids to school? Why do we punish or reward them for report card grades? When they ask why they have to go to school, why do we tell them it’s because they won’t learn if they don’t go? Why indeed.

Matt amazed me daily with all the wonderful things he learned. He was an expert Lego builder and awesome video game player. He played hard. He made up his own games and asked me to write out the directions for them. He played with his dog. He turned the living room into a haunted house. Yet he got older and older with no sign of wanting to or being ready to read. Here he is at six, fully capable of building a Knex rollercoaster by himself, but 5 years away from being a reader.


I knew in my heart I should trust. I still listened to the voices of doubt from time to time. What if I am ruining my child and he never learns to read, and one day he’s an illiterate adult asking me, “Why did you do this to me? Why didn’t you make me learn to read?” But although I had the occasional panic, I never acted on the panic. I silenced it, listened to my heart, and trusted Matt’s natural learning process to unfold.

He went through a period of frustration. “I want to know how to read NOW”. So I offered to give him “reading lessons”. We would try the lessons, different times using different approaches, but after a few days, he told me that he just couldn’t take those lessons anymore, so we stopped. Looking back, I realize he was going through a “mental growth spurt” that was uncomfortable for him, and his “I want to know how to read NOW” was a voicing of the uncomfortableness of his growth spurt instead of a need for lessons. When a boy is anxious to grow his first beard, we don’t teach him hair growing strategies. We just tell him to be patient, puberty will come. I didn’t know what to do for him to ease his discomfort, so I just assured him that he would learn when he was ready, and that I understood that he’s frustrated and I would read anything to him that he needed.

His frustration caused me another brief period of doubt. He’s frustrated, and maybe he wouldn’t be if he had learned to read in the traditional way. But then I stopped and calmed myself. I HAD offered him the traditional reading lessons, he tried them, and he declined to continue them. He will learn to read when he’s ready. Trust, trust, trust.

Then he started complaining that there are words EVERYWHERE and that he HATES IT. “Why does this house have so many WORDS in it? They’re all over the place!” He bent over and picked up a sale paper that had fallen off the dining room table. “They’re even under the table!” He ran to his room and I heard him saying, “They’re up here, too!”

He said, “I don’t WANT to read them, but they’re always right there in front of me, and I just HAVE to try to figure them out.”

Not long before his 11th birthday, we were in the car and the kids were getting bored, so I suggested the alphabet game. You know, the one where you find a sign outside of the car that has a letter of the alphabet. You have to do one letter at a time, in alphabetical order, and you can’t skip ahead. Even though Q’s are very hard to find, you can’t count any Q’s you find until you’ve found a P.

We were looking for “F”, and he said, “Does slow have an F in it?”

I said, “Why?”

He said, “Because that sign back there said slow, and I was wondering if it had an F”.


Somehow he had recognized slow but not the letters in it. He was certainly not figuring out reading by any method I would have dreamed up to teach him. I was surprised that he was able to read the word slow. As far as I knew, he only knew a small selection of words. Lego. Star Wars. Save. Continue. (See the video game theme?) Mom. Dad.
Every once in a while, he would pick out one word on a page and read it. I would get excited and think, “Any day now!”


If I had to make predictions about the first sentence he would read, I wouldn’t have guessed it would be from a fortune cookie. But that’s how things go with natural learning. Our world is our museum, and when your “reading curriculum” is everything you come into contact with in the world, you just never know what will happen.
I had taken Luke to a Chinese restaurant, because he had watched something about sushi on the Disney Channel and wanted to try some. Matt hadn’t wanted to go with us, so I brought him home a fortune cookie. He opened it, looked at the paper, and read it. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. And he went on about his business as though he had not just done something exciting. Well, he might not have been excited, but I sure was!

So I thought, “NOW it will be any day and he will be like one of those miracle unschooled children who never read a book in their lives and one day picked up The Lord of the Rings and read it from beginning to end in one sitting (Yes, it does happen sometimes, but it’s not typical). I laid books that I thought might interest him all over the place, but never saw him pick them up. Although he had loved when I read the Harry Potter and His Dark Materials series to him, he often declined to join Luke and me when I read other books out loud. “I’m just not a big book person,” he would say.

I turned the dial on my panic to off and trusted.

We went to the fair, and he said, “Why do all the drink stands say, “Iced cold drinks”? I never knew they said that! Why would they have to say that? Doesn’t everyone assume that the drinks they buy will be cold?” The fair was a different experience for him that year. And unlike the frustration he felt several months before at the words on the sale paper on our dining room floor, he was now interested.

I never pressured him. I never did the “Can you tell me what this says?” type quizzing. When he asked me what something said, I never said, “Why don’t you try to figure it out yourself?” I knew he wanted to figure it out for himself, and that pushing him would only frustrate him.

Sometimes I’d see him looking at a video game guide, studying it for a long period of time, not coming to ask me to read it to him like he always used to. Then one day, he came to me holding a guide book, and once again, asked, “Will you read this to me? I just don’t feel like reading these paragraphs. They’re too long.”
And so I did.

Finally, my son read his first book. Not Charles Dickens or Shakespeare, but not Dick and Jane either. He skipped Dick and Jane and moved right to Little Book of Knock Knock Jokes. It contains words like pencil, mountain, cantaloupe, and orangutan. I don’t know how the boys and I got into telling knock knock jokes, but after I had read lots of jokes from lots of websites and spent lots of time listening to little boys giggling over made-up jokes, I thought to check the bookshelves for a cute little book that my aunt had mailed the kids, that had been on our shelves for over a year waiting to be loved. I said, “You might like this book. It’s all knock knock jokes.” I left it sitting out. The next afternoon, he was reading it.

Now, maybe I should count the video game guide books as his first books, but he never read them out loud to me. I never knew for sure how much he was reading at a time, how well he was reading them, or how much he was understanding. But I knew he was reading the knock knock jokes because he read the ones that he liked to me and rejected the ones he didn’t. I know he comprehended because he laughed at the jokes. I know he was reading well, because he read them out loud.

We got Animal Crossing for Wii for Christmas, and I overheard him reading parts of it to Luke. When I thought of all those times I sat and read Animal Crossing on gamecube to Matt, patiently trusting that he would one day do it on his own, trying to not to let myself panic that he wasn’t doing it for himself, to see him now reading the more modern version of the game to his brother made me smile.

Why is it so hard for humans to trust? Why do we need to come up with detailed plans, and try to control and measure every step?

I was fascinated to watch Matt’s reading unfold. There were times when I would have loved to look inside his mind to see what he was thinking about, to prove to myself that he was learning. But part of the learning process is meant to be private. It is a sacred thing to grow into our own person. I can’t see all the things that went on inside Matt’s head as he learned to read any more than I will see the hormones that will one day help his beard grow. But I can trust and watch, in awe and wonder.

Luke is where Matt was a few years ago. He knows a handful of words. I wonder what his first sentence will be. His first book! It is easier to trust this time, because Matt helped me learn how. But even after I just experienced watching this process unfold with his brother, I still have to remember to silence those doubts that pop up from time to time and remind myself to enjoy watching the amazing mental growth of my little boy.

Matt is now 18, and reads just fine. You would never have known that he didn’t start reading until he was 11.

The process might not look exactly the same for every unschooled child. But there are a few things that are and aren’t (almost always) present.

There are:
-Lots of words, everywhere. Newspapers with sales papers in them, video games and their guide books, television, laptops, board games, signs at food stands, road signs, a wide variety of books, even fortune cookies with words in them
-Other people who are reading, both independently for themselves and reading to them as much as they want to be read to
-Lots of interesting real-world experiences
-Lots of time to immerse themselves in things that fascinate them
-Lots of conversation
-Adults who invest a lot of time in their children, who genuinely enjoy being with them and spending time with them
But not:
-A set age when kids are expected to read
-Drilling and forced practice or or pressure or rewards for reading more.
-A progression of academic skills you’re expected to learn in order to not be behind what your classmates are doing.

3 thoughts on “How do Unschoolers learn to Read?

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. I found it very reassuring full of examples where I naturally have trusted myself and my kids’ progress (ex walking). I also appreciated the “There Are:” section. I think it’s useful to distinguish the difference between someone that is unschooled in a supportive, enriched environment and someone that is left to learn on their own in the opposite circumstances.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Your son’s journey is almost exactly the journey I am on with my son, Sam. He also has speech delays. He was born with 22q 11.2. Sam, who is 8 now, learns in a way that is completely his own. I too home school after an unsuccessful period in mainstream schooling. My home schooling style has moved away from traditional classroom structure to a more project, interest focused learning style. It’s flexible and fun. Sam will read things on his own and amaze us, but try to force it and he will back away and freeze. I’m learning to just let it go, he learns things when he is ready. Your story gives me hope and let’s me know my heart is right too.

  3. Thank you for sharing. I am working on my deeper feelings surrounding reading. And of course they are all surrounding the judgement and doubt I know will come my way from others. I want to do my best to ensure they don’t impact my kids reading relationships and that I can respect their natural development as much as possible.

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