Some Children in Unschooling Families
Who Read Early Without Instruction:


When one of my older sons was 7, we realised that he was reading after watching a video together — he read out some of the credits to us. My dh and I looked at each other, surpriesed —we didn't know he could read like that - yet! :-)--Leonie

J went to kindergarten (pre-school in NZ, 3x 2hr afternoons a week) for a term when I was pregnant with his little sister- I was to have 9 months bedrest for risk of miscarriage (lol). He had just turned 3- I went with him, and on the third day the head teacher told me I was slowing him down by not teaching him to read!

I told dh that I didn't have a clue how to teach someone to read, and we both agreed that learning that young would be setting him up to be bored at school, and maybe even bullied.

When he was nearly 3.75 years, we went to a playgroup together, and he got out of the car and started cracking up at the car next to us. It was a v-dub with the number plate "MADBUG". He sounded out the letters, and I had no idea he even knew which letter was which. He did this with many words in the next few days, and I was amazed. He started to read little books, but had to sound out every single word. I thought he needed help, so got a book from the library, and sat him down for his first lesson...he didn't want a bar of it. I tried the next day too, but he hated it. I gave up, but he didn't pick up another book for many months :0(

When he was just 4, I said to him one day, "How would you spell 'computer'?", he said, "Mum- you're trying to teach me, and you know it doesn't work."

And he was right- he caught on far earlier than me :0)

He was able to read anything at all when he was 5. His little sister knew all the letters and their basic sounds by 17 months- I thought, given her brother's development, she would be reading before she was 2! She was able to sound out little words when she was 2, but now at 6, hasn't really moved beyond that. She is convinced she can't read, and when we point out that she just did read this or that, she gets cross, and even more insistent that she can't. (Obviously best that we don't say a word).

I have had moments of doubt when I really worried about why she wasn't reading, and mostly why she seemed so determined that she "can't", but now I am loving watching her grow. I realised that in comparing her to others, and thinking she should be doing this or that, I'm not loving who she is *right now*. Once she decides she would like to read, she will.

—Shell de (Mrsdebus)

When my friend's son was around 10, she told him that she had a really sore throat and that any more reading that night would have to be done by him. (As far as she knew, he wasn't yet reading.) He picked up the (hard) book and started reading. When she looked at him in shock and asked him when he had learned to read he said, "I only just figured out that I could." --Tia

Did I mention our friend who could read Harry Potter before she learned the names of all of the letters? As a matter of fact, I'm still not sure she knows all of the names.

Rosie was reading Shakespeare - we were all involved in a Shakespeare company production - BEFORE she knew all the letter names and sounds. She could read the script - she could read it with great expression - having learned it by reading along with the actors, in rehearsal after rehearsal.

She had not "just memorized" the play, either. Having figured out how to read the words in that script (probably from a combination of just "word-recognition" and "sounding out" - she was able to read other stuff, too.


My three youngest have always been unschooled. They are 8, 7 and 2. For a while when the middle ones were almost 5 and 6, they started doing this program I had leftover from my oldest. It was phonics stuff. They enjoyed it and did it maybe 2-3 times a week. They also loved workbook stuff. Like finding ending or beginning sounds to pictures on the sheets. They were going along so well and seemed to enjoy it so much that I thought they would be reading very soon. This all lasted for about a month and a half. The phonics program was the first to go. That lasted about two weeks. They slowed down a bit on the worksheets and finally stopped those altogether. They had been doing them maybe twice a week. When they finished what they had, they said they didn't want to do anymore. At this same time, I was hearing about other unschoolers who had very late readers by school standards. I also had a friend who's son wasn't reading yet at 12 and wasn't concerned at all. The more I heard, the more I figured to be ready not to freak if our kids did the same. I was actually okay with it and asked my husband how he would feel if the kids weren't reading at the age of 12. He said as long as they could read at 18, he would be okay with it. I knew we'd be fine.

Ever since then, the kids haven't done one worksheet or book or program. My son and daughter just both turned 8 and 7 and both are reading. My son reads a bit faster than my daughter but both do well enough to read like a Boxcar kids book and even the info books they have let alone all the golden books and such they read to the baby. I still read to both of them anyway. They love for me to read the Boxcar books to them just because it's more fun to have me read. And I always do. I can't say I taught them to read at all. Somewhere along the line they picked it up themselves. I saw it start with their Pokemon cards and it went from there. Next was the video games on the playstation and road signs. I was very ready for them to not be reading. Made sure no relatives made them feel bad about it either. We were very relaxed around here with them reading or not reading. They have no idea about when kids "should" be reading either. My kids really don't get school at all and don't understand what is expected of them. They have no friends that go to school. So I think some kids will get it earlier and some will get it later. Same as if they were in school but then again the schools don't really give them that chance. My kids are actually reading sooner than I expected.

I kind of think about it like potty training. (I hate that term) You can start a baby early and you can get them to do it. You can coax them a bit and have them either do it or fight back and not do it all. You can leave them alone and they either do it when they "should" or do it a lot later. 3 of my kids have been in the later category so maybe that's why I don't sweat other stuff they "should" know.

Mary B
[email protected]

I just looked over and Trevor has taken a break from his experimenting to show Sierra some letter sounds on the GeoSafari. This kind of stuff would never happen if the trust wasn't there FIRST.

She's reading at five years old, and she KNOWS she taught herself. She says "you showed me stuff Mom, but I learned it all by myself". What confidence, what balance, what self-knowledge these autodidacts possess!! It's been the most magical journey ever. They've taught me so much....

Ren Allen
March 9, 2003

Sixteen is fine to learn to read, and so is three.

My son read his first "Hello Reader" type book a month shy of his fifth birthday, and was into chapter books within 6 months. I saw the same kind of progression that unschoolers talk about, just earlier.

Kids who aren't taught to read seem to start to read when they want to, and when they're ready just take off. No waiting for the teacher to teach them those hard words. Tim's technique was to just skip anything he couldn't figure out fast enough for his tastes. Eventually he recognized writen sounds fast enough that he could identify a word because he knew it aurally, and didn't skip so many words. He's six now, and hasn't met anything he can't read, although he only survived three pages of one of his father's beloved theology tomes before declaring it "offensively boring"!

To me, the point wasn't when he read, but that he wasn't forced to learn to read. He learned happily, by himself. We were in the process of moving overseas. I was far too frazzled to do any teaching.

Now I see that Tim reads much the way I do. Most days, he reads signs, the funnies, some other parts of the newspaper, maybe a magazine article, and that's about it. Occasionally he reads a book. Swallows it whole, more like. Never let the sun go down on your book is our motto! But he doesn't "Drop Everything And Read" for 20 minutes, twice a day, as the schools promote. If you're not in the mood to read, why read?

My friend's three year old son learned to read when his five year old sister did; he just never bothered to mention that he was listening to her reading lessons. My friend used some phonics books with lists of words and such, and a computer program or two, and to teach her older child to read. But her younger son would later pick up the word lists and recite them himself. By 3 1/2 he could read. While it didn't go over very well with big sister, I think that my friend has a clearer image of what unschooling looks like from that experience. Her son learned on his own because he was ready. If he weren't ready, he would have surely ignored the phonics and gone back to his beloved trains.

Anyway, yes, eight or ten may be the average age for reading fluency, but average includes the extremes. Sixteen is fine to learn to read, and so is three.


Contributions to this page are welcome! If you have a child who learned to read "early," without formal instruction, and would like to share the tale for the edification of unschooling parents, write to [email protected]

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