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Learning to read

Updated: Dec 15, 2022

Our sons, who are now 12 and 11, both learned to read about three years ago, when they were nine and eight respectively. When they were younger, I'd tried for a while to help them with their reading, assuming that with some gentle encouragement they would learn, but they'd pushed me away every time. I didn't really understand their lack of interest. They were smart and had lots of books, so why weren't they itching to read?

Luckily, I came across a wonderful book called How children learn at home. It was compiled of interviews with the parents of homeschoolers and unschoolers in the UK, and the conclusion was that, when left to their own devices, they all learned to read eventually. Some when they were four, and some not until they were 12. Sometimes, the late readers became avid readers and sometimes the early ones did. There were no hard rules to it. This book struck a chord with me and gave me the confidence that it was okay to just let go and trust the children to go at their own pace.

Still, there were moments of anxiety. These were usually brought on by other people asking me how the children were going to read. I had no idea! I just knew that they would. We had read to them all their lives and the house was filled with books. I assumed they would read when they were ready and wanted to.

It's interesting that despite not reading, they were both capable of acquiring and retaining vast amounts of information. I don't remember any moment in their early lives when something was out of their reach because they couldn't read. So far as enjoying stories, we were still happy to read to them in the evenings, and any information they needed, they just seemed to work out somehow.

I think the real motivation to read came when they began to play Minecraft. For a while, they managed without reading, recognising the different materials and objects by their shapes and colours. But soon their skills improved and they needed to do more complex things, which inevitably involved reading and writing. They would call me or their dad to read words here and there, but that was a bit frustrating as they'd have to wait for us to get there. D had enough and decided it was time to learn to read, so we did Reading Eggs together online for ten minutes a day or so. E didn't want any help but just got quietly on with it. On one occasion he came to check how to pronounce 'ch', but I think that was the extent of our input. None of us can remember the next part clearly. Fast forward a few months and they were both reading fluently. They appeared to have gone from being non-readers to readers with little in-between except, in the case of D, a few weeks of Reading Eggs.

Now, they read when they need or want to, whether for research, gaming, or just to relax. It's a natural part of their lives, just as it is of ours. I'm thankful I realised early on that it didn't need to be forced. The children had the time and space to master this skill by themselves and in their own time, and I'm sure the experience gave them a lot of faith in their own abilities.

C's journey is a bit different but equally fascinating to watch. Since she was five or so, she has had a few words that she likes to write. She's an animal lover so these are words that she finds meaningful, such as cat, dog and horse. These are also the things she draws most, and she likes to name them on her pictures. Until recently, I think she would write these words by remembering the shapes they made, not because she understood the individual letters. However, these first words have been essential to her as a base from which to begin working things out.

Being the youngest by a few years, and living in a family where everyone now reads, she certainly feels an internal pressure to read. A few weeks ago, she got upset because she was the only person in the family that can't read. I asked if she wanted me to help her. Her answer was that no, although she wants to be able to read, she doesn't want to go through learning to read. I think that's a wise thing to acknowledge. We've all been there. I want to do lots of things well, but that doesn't mean I necessarily want to go through the conscious process of learning them right now. The fact that she imagines this is a hard thing to do makes me think that if, instead of two big brothers who can read, she had two little brothers that couldn't, she would feel proud of the words she has and in no rush to speed up the process. Older siblings are a powerful force.

Fortunately, just as she was beginning to get frustrated she has realised that perhaps it isn't as hard as she thought. This is thanks, once again, to Minecraft. Recently, she started playing with her brothers and, because she needs to keep up with them, the number of words she can read and write has grown rapidly, along with her confidence. She asks questions about the different letters and their sounds while she writes. If I'm sitting across the room from her she'll often draw them in the air with her finger and I can sense them coming alive in her mind. Yesterday she asked me to spell a word and when I came to the letter 'u' she looked mystified so I drew it in the air. "Ah", she said, "you mean the smile', and found it easily on the keyboard. She keeps a little notepad now with all the words she needs for Minecraft, and when a new word comes up, she asks me to write it down for her so she can copy it. She's beginning to experiment with it all by putting different letters together to name her Minecraft animals.

Every now and again, I see her looking intently at a word (on a cereal packet, a sign post, leaflet - writing is everywhere), and working out what it might say. What's important to her is knowing the word so she can actually understand the meaning. These words are so much more interesting than anything she could ever find in an exercise book. These words are explaining real life. If she can understand what the sign post means, or what the leaflet is about, she will have cracked just a little bit more of the way the world works. This is real and exciting to her, just as playing Minecraft with her brothers is real and exciting.

Our experience with reading has been a powerful demonstration to us of how learning unfolds in our children. It doesn't happen in a tidy, organised way, and it can't be rushed, controlled, quantified or directed. All we can do is create the right space in which the children can go confidently at their own pace and, as always, lead by our own example.

I was inspired to write this post by a moment that happened yesterday morning. After a long period of reading little fiction, I'd decided to get back to some of the classics. So, I got up early and was having a coffee and reading my book, when D came down with a book in his hand. He rarely reads fiction but wanted to read this particular book because one of his favourite video games is based on it and he finds the idea fascinating. I got him a warm drink and we sat there quietly reading, me with Jane Eyre and D with The Witchers. The sun was rising and the room was bathed in golden light. It was one of those moments that you just can't plan, and it reminded me that when you let go and allow things to take their own path, that's when the magic can happen.

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