Sunday, January 9, 2011

Learning to Read without School

When I tell people that school was of no value to me, the response I generally receive is, “Aww...come on. You must have learned something there that you liked. I mean, look, you’re successful, you write well, you’re articulate and you have so many varied interests. You wouldn’t be those things without school.” To which I explain, yes, I would. School didn’t push me forward. It held me back. The things I’m good at today, I became good at outside of school. “Well, you learned to read,” they say. “Without school, you wouldn’t have known how to read and write.” To which I explain, I didn’t learn to read at school. I learned to read at home. I started reading at a young age. I was about 3 years old. I liked performing and acting and wanted to read words of stories so I could put on a show. I was also very curious and knew words had the answers. Most importantly my family had books all around and read to me until I read to myself. I also had a room full of books and would be left to read for hours. 

But it seems as a society we have it so ingrained in our heads that it is at school where we first learn to read and then read to learn. I didn’t even realize why it was so important to teach children reading at an early age until I read, research professor Peter Gray’s explanation in Psychology Today.

For children in standard schools, it is very important to learn to read on schedule, by the timetable dictated by the school. If you fall behind you will be unable to keep up with the rest of the curriculum and may be labeled as a "failure," or as someone who should repeat a grade, or as a person with some sort of mental handicap. In standard schools learning to read is the key to all of the rest of learning. First you "learn to read" and then you "read to learn." Without knowing how to read you can't learn much of the rest of the curriculum, because so much of it is presented through the written word. There is even evidence that failure to learn to read on schedule predicts subsequent naughtiness in standard schools. One longitudinal study, conducted in Finland, found that poor reading in preschool and kindergarten predicted poor reading later on in elementary school and also predicted subsequent "externalizing problem behavior," which basically means acting out.

The thing that struck me was how true it was that schools are often places where we read about things rather than places where we do things. If we had a chance to do more things, schools would certainly be less boring and it is through doing things that we learn independently and begin building our interests and talents. Once we have interests and talents at some point, reading becomes important.

Gray goes on to explain that with unschooled children, they may learn to read at any time, with no apparent negative consequences. He invited unschooled adults and parents to share their stories of how children learned to read. Of these, two learned at age 4, seven learned at age 5 or 6, six learned at age 7 or 8, five learned at age 9 or 10, and one learned at age 11.

I read this and wondered, if all these unschooled kids learned to read on their own though, why is it that here in New York City we have all these students who by high school still read so poorly even with all this schooling. Gray gives us seven principle of learning to read without schooling and one thing becomes evident. A barrier to learning to read or write is when it is pushed upon children extrinsically, especially when it relates to things you could care less about. He shares this story from the mother of an unschooled child. “I was doing more harm than good to my son, because I was making him hate reading. I immediately ceased formal instruction in reading, and just went back to reading to him whenever he wanted me to." She went on to note that, roughly two years later, her son "entirely surreptitiously" began to look at books on his own and eventually to read, apparently hiding his interest and practice so as not to feel pressured. When children are given opportunities to do things and find their interests, talents, and passions, in every case reading flowed naturally. 

Now how ironic is that?! The answer to the illiteracy problem could just be that we’re doing too much forced teaching of reading and not giving children enough opportunities to discover and do what they love. I’m sure there are a whole lot of people ready to dismiss this as poppycock, but to me the best research is with the real live people who share there stories. Gray collects more than a dozen such stories and I’ve shared a couple dozen profiles of these unschoolers and they speak for themselves. Below are Gray’s principles for learning to read without school.

Seven Principles of Learning to Read Without Schooling
1. For non-schooled children there is no critical period or best age for learning to read.
2. Motivated children can go from apparent non-reading to fluent reading very quickly.
3. Attempts to push reading can backfire.
4. Children learn to read when reading becomes, to them, a means to some valued end or ends.
5. Reading, like many other skills, is learned socially through shared participation.
6. Some children become interested in writing before reading, and they learn to read as they learn to write.
7. There is no predictable "course" through which children learn to read.

Gray provides terrific insights and examples with each principle. For the whole story you can visit this link.


  1. Lisa, have you read John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down? If you haven't, do it right away, he has very similar insights. I find a lot of teachers are "familiar" with DUD, but haven't actually READ IT, and yet have a negative opinion of the book.

    I cannot escape the ironic tragedy of teachers who assign books they (or someone else) like, but won't read out of their own "boxes".

    Keep it up, you are on to something. Loved the Passion based learning post too!

  2. @jcorippo - so funny you should ask that. I have been listening to his videos today at as a part of my study into this whole thing. I will take a look to see if I can get an eBook of his work.

    I see unschooling, freeschooling, and passion based learning as models that go hand in hand.

  3. I enjoyed school. I enjoyed learning in school (though I did plenty of learning outside of school, too). I got plenty of praise for doing well in school. But the general feeling I have looking back at my pre-college schooling is that people spent so much time telling me that I could do anything I wanted to that they never got around to helping me figure out what I wanted to do! In college and grad-school, I figured out what I wanted to study, but then got not-enough support in figuring out how to do it. Having read Carol Dweck's Mindset, I think it was an example of the talent mindset run amok: if I was talented enough to make it, I must not need scaffolding...

  4. I like this post. I started kindergarten at 4 and still couldn't read by the end of first grade. I knew there was something I couldn't do and it bothered me, but my teacher was very patient (mid 1950's). I entered second grade and was reading fluently and at a 4th grade level by the end of the year! In today's schools I would have been poked and prodded intellectually and labeled a failure. In fact, I just wasn't developmentally ready. I now have a Ph.D., so I guess I turned out OK.

  5. @Peg, great story. I soooo agree with Sir Ken Robinson when he asks, "Why do we group kids by date of manufacture???" It makes no sense. I love the Sudbury model of age mixing...and it just comes with the territory for unschoolers.

  6. Im now 30 years old and I look back and wished I had dropped out of school at the earliest possible time. Unless your intending on becoming a Medical doctor or lawyer, I think schooling is not neccessary and will probably do more damage than good. I have a friend who went to University and studied economics for a number of years, and he could only land a job in a call centre after his studies, and he has now gone on to become a landscape gardener. I learnt to read and write mainly through reading book's I enjoyed outside of school, most of my time in school I was just wasting time. I despised most books and lessons in school, and my ability to read and write came from reading large Stephen King thriller books from age 11, and before getting to Stephen King books I was reading fun childrens cartoon books.

    By age 12 I could read any kind of book and understand it. However throughout High School from age 13, I just wasted time during school hours and barely got through, I just found school boring and stupid, and I looked forward to going home and reading the books I wanted to read.

    School is just a brainwashing centre to force the establishments idea's on the youth. When I have children I am either going to raise them to deliberately rebel in school against the teachers in an intelectual fashion, or I will home school them myself. If my kids go to school and get "F's" for refusing to just parrot a teachers ideas from one source, for the sake of standing up for the idea's they have discovered in another source, I will be a proud parent. If I have kid's who get "A's" for just parroting what a teacher believes, I believe I have failed as a parent to raise a child to think for himself.

  7. Great article. I've never agreed with the school establishment myself based on my own experience. So when I had children I decided to home school them. My two eldest are almost 2 years apart, but when I started teaching the eldest my second child just joined in. Now I teach them together in all subjects. Their age doesn't state what level they should be at.

    As for my third, by the time he was 5 I also had a 2 year old and a newborn so the schooling schedule was a bit mishap. He hadn't learnt to read by the time he was 6, at which point I decided to take a year out of teaching and just do activities, etc with them. When I came back to a schooling them he was 7 and could read fluently! Without any formal teaching.

    Most of what kids learn at schools is useless.It has no sigificance in their lives, which is probably why so many children rebel at school. Finding out what a child is interested in and teaching them through that is alot more useful to them.