Unschooling Reading and Writing

I was having a conversation with another unschooling mother about teaching our children to read.  She asked me how my oldest son learned all of his letters.

At the time I drew a blank.  How did he know all his letters?  I certainly never “taught” them to him in the conventional sense.  We never sat down to do workbooks, trace letters over and over, or practiced reading on those boring learning to read books.

So I answered her the best I could at the time and said, “I don’t know, I guess he just absorbed it.”

But now that I have reflected on this I realize that is not exactly true and I thought I would take a moment to explain how exactly we unschool reading and writing.

Our journey starts literally in the first few days of our boys life, before I even knew what unschooling was or that I would ever be a homeschooling mother.  Every night at bedtime we read to our children.  No, they could not understand what we were reading but we felt it was important to introduce them to reading from the beginning. Reading stories became part of our bedtime ritual and continues to be to this day.

We always have lots of books in our house.  Mostly they come from the library but some of them come from our local thrift store (at 5 to 25 cents per book) and get redonated once the kids have finished with them.  From an early age both my boys would pick up the books and pretend to read by themselves.  Sometimes I can hear them making up or retelling the stories and sometimes they will just flip through the books looking at pictures.

We usually go to our library at least once a week.  Choosing books is something the whole family takes part in and I do my best to never say no to any book the boys have picked (sometimes this is hard for me!)  When we read books before bed the boys get to choose from the pile of library books and are free to stop the story half way through if they are not finding it interesting.

They picked up learning the sound of the alphabet simply because it is one of the bedtime songs that we sing.  After they knew the words for the letters they started to put the words to the symbols.  Mostly this was done by them just asking me “Mommy, what letter is this?”

The first time I saw Lan begin to manipulate words was in the bath.  We have those foam letters that stick on the bathtub wall when wet.  The boys had played with these foam letters a hundred times before…putting them up to make gibberish words and then asking me what they spelled.  I would sound out the word for them and they would laugh at the nonsensicalness of it.  Then one night Lan put up the letters F O X and said “That spells fox!”

Lan’s writing began with his name (Kayden has not started to write yet) and has slowly evolved from those three letters.  When he wants to add text to a picture he has drawn he will ask me how to spell the words.  At first I would write the words down for him on a a separate piece of paper and he would copy it onto his, but now he pretty much knows all his letters and just needs help on how to spell them.

If I need a grocery list made I will sometimes ask for Lan’s help.  Sometimes he says yes and sometimes he says no.  I don’t force the issue if he is not into it.  He also enjoys writing lists of animals that we see if we are going for a drive and both boys have a notebook and pen in the car.  Sometimes Lan will actually write down the animal names with my help and sometimes he will pretend to write by scribbling “words”.  Although of course I would rather him actually writing the real words instead of scribbling, I don’t push it and make sure to be just as outwardly enthusiastic over the scribbles because the whole point is to kindle a love of writing, not put pressure on him.

And of course one of the most important things I do to encourage my children to read is to read myself for the joy of it.  I always have a pile of books on my bedside table and the boys see that I truly enjoy reading.  Since kids grow up wanting to emulate those closest to them I do my best to set a good example for them.  And it helps that as I grow older I discover how much I have to learn, find new and ever evolving interests, and have a passion for bettering myself and my parenting style (I am a work in progress!)

And there you have it. That is how our family has unschooled reading and writing so far.

What do you think about the unschooling approach?  Have you had success unschooling reading and writing?

New to Unschooling?

Here is a list of books that have helped me to build my educational philosophy:

Home Grown by Ben Hewwit

Free At Last by Michael Greenberg

Big Book of Unschooling by Sandra Dodd

The Unschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith

Radical Unschooling by Dayna Martin

Unschool Yourself by Jason Xie

How Children Learn by John Holt

How Children Fail by John Holt

Learning All the Time by John Holt

Teach Your Own by John Holt

The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn

This post contains affiliate links which helps me to pay for the hosting of this blog! 🙂

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  1. Rebeca says:

    I helped Peregrine learn his letter sounds and showed him how to put them together. He could do this from the time he was about 4 1/2 or so. We read Dr. Seuss’s ABC book a LOT! (And tons of other books, books far above his “age level”. It was probably two years before reading really “clicked” for him, and I felt fine with that, knowing he had the tools to do it when he was ready. So I can’t say I necessarily took an unschooling approach, but I was relaxed about it, knowing he’d get it when he was ready, and didn’t use any reading programs or anything. He did play around on the Starfall website and learned some of the phonics rules there. He’s nine now, and an excellent reader. Poppy is 6 1/2 and can sound out words but isn’t very interested in reading, so that’s fine for now. I know when she’s ready it will happen.
    On my wall I have a list of ways to simplify homeschooling and one of them is- don’t complicate things; to teach reading…. read, to teach writing… write, etc.

    1. worldschooled says:

      That is a great way to homeschool Rebeca, don’t rush things, don’t push it, simplify. I think whatever approach you choose to take as a homeschooling parent those are the keys to success.

  2. Tracy says:

    I think you’ve undertaken the perfect approach with younger kids. We’ve followed a very similar approach with Noah and Hayley while they were learning the basics. My struggle is now that Noah is almost 7 it’s really hard not to compare where I know he would be if he was at school back home in Australia and work out how to motivate him – he’s just not that interested. I’m sure it will come with time though. Sooner or later he will decide he wants to learn and it will all fall into place. He has his letters and phonics, he’s gotten very good at sounding out words and can very read simple stories. Over the next few months of travel we’ll be using Reading Eggs, an online phonics/reading program that has some great ebooks that we can read together. He’s keen to keep a small journal of the favourite things he’s done travelling that week (draw a picture and write what it is underneath – we’ll start with one or two words and build up to sentences) but we’ll see if that happens!!!

    1. worldschooled says:

      Yeah, that whole comparing thing is tough. But really who is to say that a child should be doing such and such at seven years old? When you think of all the things you guys are experiencing your kids are light years ahead of so many others in so many areas. So don’t sweat it, you guys are doing a FANTASTIC job of raising AMAZING children!

      And if he can already read simple stories then he is on his way!

    2. metoo says:

      My son was struggling too. I don’t homeschool though, because I’m single (by choice, adoptive mom) and work. Thankfully I have a very high salary and low expenses due to buying home in my childhood, low income neighborhood, so did the next best thing to unschooling for my situation…shelling out for Waldorf School. He’s happy and loves it there. Until now I paid my mom to care for him but she died last year so I enrolled him in first grade at Waldorf. Anyway, his big brother, from a different adoption years ago is 16 and loves scouting so my youngest has been eager to join Cub Scouts for years now. From the first reading the Tiger leader has done an activity requiring reading and spelling! As in ‘okay, you read the first paragraph’….every other kid can read most of the paragraph and my son can read NONE of it…like not even very basic things like ‘I am’. He reads the word I as the short vowel I sound. Nobody laughs or anything but I sit next to him, read it first and he parrots me. Last meeting he said to me a few hours later at bedtime ‘that was really embarrassing i wish I could read’. So now I am looking for a reading program.

  3. Nadine Hudson says:

    Dear Amy and family

    It’s great that your older son is so interested in writing and reading. When I was little, I was the same. I taught myself to read and write (even without unschooling and without my parents going to all the extend you are going to) and wrote my first stories at five. When a natural interest is there, it doesn’t need much stimulation.

    However, with our sons we had a similar approach as you. We read to them, we encouraged them, I read and write lots myself, we had foam letters and abc songs and so on… and do you know what? They (especially our younger son) were not at all interested in letters, in reading or in writing. And even though, with a lot of schooling, they have now learned the letters and so on, they are still not very interested. You cerainly don’t catch them writing anything down voluntarerly. They much rather just play, play, play and play.

    It shows me that no matter how much we stimulate children and no matter what we think they should and shouldn’t do, each one of us has his/her own path, speed and strengths and that’s fine. And of course, we all change as well. My children might end up to be famous writers and your children might end up famous mathematics. Who knows?

    Having now introduced our homeschooled children into public school I have had a lot of thoughts on learning and I am very happy for our boys to be so happy in school. Slowly they are getting more excited to do “school” things because all the children around them do them too. Tasks that were really difficult at home all of a sudden proof very easy. Peer motivation was missing in our “home-school”. Having been able to experience different kinds of schooling is a real priviledge and I am very grateful for it.

    Keep enjoying! All the best

    1. worldschooled says:

      Certainly we are all different and will have different strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. I certainly don’t have it all figured out yet and really can only comment on what my experiences with my own children have been. I don’t know how it will be in the future but I have to trust that if I foster an environment of learning for them that they will learn on their own time. Sometimes it is very hard to find that trust!
      I am so glad your boys are enjoying their time in school. From what you have said before, your public schools in Switzerland are very good. I think they are at a very good age as well to return, I am sure they already have formed so much self-confidence and integrity from being home schooled around the world.

      1. Nadine Hudson says:

        Dear Amy, don’t lose that trust! You are doing just great! Your children will have some amazing memories and will feel very certain that their parents love and care for them. I send you lots and lots of trust and faith so you never have to run out of it again. Okay!

  4. Eryn says:

    Pretty sure I am that mom that asked you how Lan learned to read 🙂 Great reflections here, and some excellent suggestions!

    1. worldschooled says:

      You sure are Eryn! You really got me thinking about what exactly we do to help the boys read. Thanks for asking the questions!

  5. Chaya Shepard says:

    I think it’s awesome that you wrote about this.

    My question is this: have you thought about how you’re going to keep lots of books around when you’re traveling?

    Petra is really into words and reading for her age (she’s 2). When we were visiting family in the US for a few months she amassed a good size library. But when we left again, we only took six books with us and she’s gotten bored of those pretty quick. I don’t often feel like she’s missing out because of traveling, but this is one thing I haven’t figured out how to give her.

    It’s not as easy to find libraries abroad, especially with English language books. And it’s not like you come across a lot of little kids books in hostel book exchanges. We have a Kindle, and she has a couple books on there, but it’s not as engaging for a little one as having it right in your hand. Same for computer. Maybe as she gets older this will be a better option.

    1. worldschooled says:

      Quite frankly we are not going to be able to have a lot of books with us when we are traveling. We will use an e-reader and we have talked to our local library about being able to borrow e-books from them while on the road. They assure us that we will be able to take books out from them from wherever we are as long as we keep a local address (which we will as my parents live here too). So we will have the library at our disposal.

      As for picking up “real” books I am sure they will be few and far between. Books like the Harry Potter series will be appropriate for their age soon and I am sure that finding those will be a piece of cake.

      I think it will also be very important for us to foster a love of journaling once we are on the road and I hope that both the boys will get excited about recording their journeys.

      It certainly won’t be as easy to find the books and resources that we have here but hopefully with a little ingenuity we will figure out a good way for us to keep that learning alive.

  6. Sue L Canfield says:

    All 7 of our children learned to read before starting school. We sent most of the older ones to public school. Whether parents send their children to public school, homeschool, or unschool, teaching them a love of reading at a young age is very important, in my opinion.

    We always read to our children from the time they were babies. We used pointed to the words and had them follow along as they got older. Fiona had a great little computer we’d lay her in front of at one year old and all she had to do was bang on the keyboard for letters to appear and hear their sounds. It was a great Fisher-Price online game for infants. It didn’t matter what key they hit, the next letter would appear and make its sound.

    We all read, all the time. Fiona is often up past us still reading. Then she comes in excitedly to tell us what she’s learned. One day she finished reading The Wizard of Oz – yes in one day! She’s read Anne of Green Gables. She’s 7.

    We’ve been traveling the last 1-1/2 in our van, no RV. And yes, we have at least 3 huge backpacks full of books. We visit every library we can. People are always giving her books and we give some to libraries so we can fit the new ones in.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. worldschooled says:

      That is awesome Sue! I think it will be so exciting when my children start to read by themselves, it will open up a whole new world for them!

  7. Kelly @ The Homeschool Co-op says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I love hearing about how other people introduce reading with their children. As a public librarian, I have always imagined this will be the way it will go with my kids (my oldest is almost 4), and I’m so glad to hear how wonderfully, organically reading can happen. It is so often what I tell parents I talk to – start with reading to them, follow their interests, don’t pressure them… And a nice reminder not to panic about “teaching.”

    1. worldschooled says:

      You are welcome Kelly, glad you found it helpful!

  8. Jason | BodesWell says:

    Insightful post! Great to hear a first-hand account.

    We’ve been struggling a bit teaching our 6 year old how to write consistently. He’s a great reader and essentially self-taught (with hep from us, of course) but he HATES to write anything. He can actually TYPE on his laptop pretty well, but dislikes picking up a pencil.

    Our attitude is that he won’t be 21 and not be able to write hi name (we hope!), so just let it evolve as it does.

    1. worldschooled says:

      That is my attitude for a lot of things. I have to take a step back and ask myself what I am afraid of. Will they be adults and not know how do these things? Highly unlikely. It will all come with time.

  9. Nadine Hudson says:

    Dear Amy
    Regarding the comment on getting books abroad. In China, in the big cities on the East Coast you can get pretty much anything, but it’s not cheap. Thailand has some great book shops in the main cities and again, you can get nearly anything there. Malaysia has some great book shops too, and they have some nice English school and activity books too. In the traveller centers you will always find people/guest houses/shops selling second hand books, but you won’t find too many children books there. You could always order some online and have them sent to a poste restante address at a G.P.O. somewhere (General Post Office).
    E-books etc are surely good too, but we never liked it when we spent too much time in front of electrical “gadgets”. We often bought our children comics and picture books in other countries, regardless of the language and they were very happy just looking at pictures. I especially liked the Scooby Doo book in Arabic that we found in Syria…
    Good luck!

  10. Tina says:

    We live on a sailboat in the Bahamas and homeschool. Right mow we sail around the Bahamas and hope to travel further from home eventually. We are still enjoying our own country. We don’t have tons of space on our boat and I have found that the answer, though expensive, is an iPad. It is much better than a kindle and the kids read so much on theirs! A lot of classics are free, they keep a log of their activities, they have flashcards, google earth, maps, everything! Check out my blog :). I would like to unschool but am having trouble convincing Dad.


    1. worldschooled says:

      Thanks for stopping by Tina, I’ll check out your blog for sure!

  11. Lily says:

    Hi, thanks for giving the detail you have about how your children learnt to read. It’s always good to hear of *how* parents facilitate their children’s learning through everyday life.

    I’m aware that sometimes people think unschooling is wholly child led and requires that parents take a completely hands off approach – it helps to hear of how you partner your children in their interests, and that doing so is a normal (even necessary) part of unschooling. Of course, supporting their learning sure requires you to let go of any attachment to a specific result for it to be of value to the child!

    I wrote a blog post a while back about how my daughter largely self taught herself http://www.autonomouseducation.com/2011_03_01_archive.html

    Now she is reading so well she has moved on to building up her spelling knowledge – even as I type this she asks for help spelling ‘today’ – I reply “It starts with ‘t’ then ‘o’ …?” and she smiles and replies “d? a? y?”

    Ah, how good it is when they do that!

    1. worldschooled says:

      Thanks for the link Lily. A lot of people misinterpret unschooling as letting your kids run wild but that is not it at all (at least not for us!) We take a hands on approach to their learning but we do it by taking their cues. The other morning we learned about the French Revolution because Lan found a few pages on it in a book we had and wanted to know more. It was my job to help him to learn about it and put things into words and concepts that he could understand.

  12. Annie Andre says:

    POwer to you. I did the homeschooling/ unschooling last year when we were living semi-nomadically on the east coast. It was not too bad with my then 3 year old, but it was the most painful thing i have ever did with my 2 teenage sons. I think i did some damage to my relationship with my older son.
    Having said that, i think it’s wonderful what you are doing and i think it’s wise to start them out young with the unschooling.

  13. Kate greenway says:

    Love this thank you so much!

    Would you mind sharing the phonetic bedtime song you song with your children?

  1. Benefits of Homeschooling | New Life On The Road says:

    […] “We started looking into homeschooling when our oldest child was Kindergarten age.  That was when we came across the term of unschooling and the philosophy of child led learning really resonated with us.  Still, unschooling our children was a hard decision for us to make.  For all of our lives we were taught that school is the only way to learn, that children learn in a classroom with a teacher, and that without a curriculum our children would “fall behind”. We decided to try unschooling for Kindergarten. We thought the worst that could happen would be that our oldest son would have an extra year at home and we couldn’t screw him up too bad!  It was in that first year that our educational paradigms really began to shift.  I began noticing all of the learning that was happening in our house and I was absolutely astounded at the insatiable curiosity my son showed. Now I am a true believer in the unschooling philosophy and I really don’t see us putting our children into the school system (unless of course they want to!)  My children learn about whatever they want to learn about and I do my best to facilitate that learning. I now realize that curriculums are completely arbitrary.  We are all different, we all learn differently, we all have different interests.  Some children are ready to read at four years old while others are ready at ten, and that is OK! We don’t need to force the learning, we only need to provide a rich learning environment and the learning will happen organically!” – Amy has more about Unschooling/homeschooling! […]

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