Deborah Cunefare, four children now reading

Writing first appeared on a discussion list July 2002.

There are people on this email list who've been writing and reading online at the same places I have long enough to have read some of this the first time I wrote about it, when it was happening, unlike now when it's mostly history and reflection.

My first child learned to read just after he started school. We played games, answered questions, read together. I left love notes on his pillow and tucked encouraging quips into his pockets. He copied his favorite book on the typewriter, and learned to use whiteout. He went to school and he learned to read and we gave them the credit for teaching him.

My first unschooled child learned to read while I was researching how to teach her to read. We played a lot of games - bought games, homemade games, made up on the spot verbal games. I read aloud for hours while she looked at the pages. She asked questions and I answered. I pointed out interesting signs. She pointed out interesting signs. Her dad recorded tapes of him reading her favorite bedtime books so she could listen to them while he was away at sea. I wrote love notes to her and she wrote back. She copied her favorite book on the computer (Commodore 64!). She labeled the house with my help. She learned to read easily and we gave her the credit.

My third unschooled child learned to read in much the same way his older sister had. I read aloud for hours, but he didn't look at the pages very much because he was usually rolling around on the floor. We played games, but not as intensely as I had with his older sister. He asked questions and I answered. He loved to help me make the shopping list, going through the weekly ads looking for the best deals. He played phonics games on our new Macintosh computer. He liked getting love notes but wasn't much interested in writing his own back until much later. He spent months compulsively reading aloud EVERY SINGLE sign we passed in our travels. He learned to read easily and we gave him the credit.

My fourth unschooled child learned to read unlike any of her siblings. In spite of the fact that she intensely wanted to learn to read very young, and the fact that we have a family culture that values games and word play, where phonics awareness sometimes seems to permeate the very air, she had a very hard time learning to read. She couldn't "get" phonics. She was well over eight years old before she understood rhyming. She had an awesome vocabulary and precise pronunciation of the words in that vocabulary - and she was utterly unable to break those words down into their constituent sounds. The games that her siblings so enjoyed, frustrated her beyond measure. She tried and tried and tried and still she couldn't get it. It was truly horrible for a while when she was about five or six. Her twin, who she'd been competing with since they'd been conceived, was learning to read without her! She would insist on trying to read something, insist that I tell her when she made a mistake and then collapse into a screaming heap of frustration when I corrected her, or cry in great gasping sobs when I didn't correct her because she knew she wasn't getting it. She'd pull out one of our homemade reading games and beg everyone in the house to play with her, running away in tears after a few minutes because she was unable to "get it." After many many weeks of torture I finally took the drastic step of HIDING all the phonics and reading materials in the house. I hid the games and the magnetic letters, the easy reader books and the BOB books, our homemade letter strips and the tiles and every single book she could even begin to imagine she might be able to read. I stopped reading with her twin when she was around and I put the computer games out of her reach. (Then I went online and whined about it all. )

I then set about gently persuading her that she simply wasn't ready yet to learn to read, that she WOULD be ready someday and while we couldn't know when that would be that it wouldn't be forever, and that since she had skills and talents that her reading brother didn't have maybe they could share with each other instead of competing. It wasn't an easy sell. And let me tell you, if sheer will power could have done it she'd have read earlier than any of my children because she is one stubbornly persistent child and by gum she desired it more strongly than any of them. I researched and considered and worried and then decided that if she wasn't progressing at nine I'd start looking for outside help for her. I worried because almost all the stories I'd heard about late readers were about kids who hadn't WANTED to read until they got older, who learned to read when they decided they were ready. I hadn't ever read about a kid who was trying to read and not succeeding who later learned to read without "special education". And I'd never heard of a kid coming through "special education" who liked to read.

So she wasn't reading at six and seven and eight and nine. She drew increasingly fantastic scenes and labeled them with words she solicited from us, sometimes written in perfect mirror imaging from right to left. (Nope, she's not the leftie. ) She sometimes sat for an hour or more looking through books, pretending to read. Not looking at pictures or recalling previously read text, just playacting for herself that she was a grown up reader - her favorite book to "read" for over a year was a pocket Bible, densely packed minuscule text printed on tissue thin vellum. She "wrote" long stories and kept a diary, all in long scribbles without so much as a single real letter on the page. She went to the library once a week and brought home stacks of books about whatever topic she was currently fascinated by, usually some animal species. She looked through every book by herself over and over and sometimes let me read them to her. She told people she loved reading, and none of us pointed out that she wasn't reading. I tried not to worry that she just couldn't remember sounds. Every few months she asked for Lessons, and we'd work together on sound combinations a little bit (mostly playing games) several times a day for a week or so until the frustration grew again and she'd agree to wait some more. Always I watched (and worried a lot) to make sure I wasn't ignoring some real problem, that it truly was just a matter of time till her brain grew enough connections to allow her to learn to read. Meanwhile she could read Mom, Dad, Sarah, Love, and very little else. She couldn't even read STOP signs!

At nine and a half she very suddenly started to "get it". She was reading. She was playing the games and usually getting it all right the first time. She started reading fiction. The first book she read completely on her own was agonizingly slow, half an hour or more per 3rd grade level page. She didn't care. She was SO happy to be finally reading. I couldn't believe that anyone could take that long to read so little and not be totally losing the sense of the story, but darned if she wasn't able to narrate the book in detail after finishing it. At ten she is this week reading a book published for adults (Raptor Red) with full comprehension, slowly, but her speed is picking up. Harry Potter is still elusive - he's come down off the shelf several times now for a try out and been put back each time with a sigh.

She had more intensive and focused phonics instruction than any of my other children, and none of it was any use to her till her brain was ready for it.

Had she been in school she'd have been remediated and tested and special grouped for the last three years. It's unlikely she'd have been able to keep thinking of herself as a reader long enough for her brain to catch up to her desire. She would probably have learned to read about the same time, possibly even later, but she wouldn't have cared about it anymore. She'd have been convinced of her stupidity long before that.

Deborah in IL
(July 27, 2002, UnschoolingDiscussion list)

Other reading stories are here.