Probably, you remember being taught to read. Methods vary: children are taught reading by phonics, by memorization of sight words, by Montessori techniques. But pretty much all of us are painstakingly led down the path to literacy by teachers, parents, librarians, and any other adult involved in our early development.
In a new blog at Psychology Today, Peter Gray argues that kids can’t really be taught to read. They learn when they’re ready, in the way that works for them.
Gray is an unabashed advocate of unschooling, a method pioneered by Sudbury Valley School in the 1960s and since adopted by several other private schools and hordes of homeschoolers.
The argument is simple: that kids who are not pushed into structured learning environments will naturally pick up the skills they need to do the things they want to do in the world. In this vision of how children learn, learning to read is like learning to walk. No one teaches a baby how to walk. We all know they’ll pick it up on their own when they’re good and ready.
But is reading as instinctual as walking? Gray interviewed students from Sudbury Valley and other unschooling environments to find out how they learned to read without being taught. From their responses he drew seven key principles for unschooled reading:
- For unschooled children, there is no critical period for learning to read.
- Motivated children can go from apparent non-reading to reading fluently very quickly.
- Attempts to push reading can backfire.
- Children learn to read when reading becomes, to them, a means to some valued end.
- Reading, like many other skills, is learned socially through shared participation.
- Some children become interested in writing before reading, and learn to read as they learn to write.
- There is no predictable course through which children learn to read.
I live in the Boston area, and know a lot of kids who’ve been through Sudbury Valley. They all know how to read, and no one taught them how to do it. These things are true.
But I don’t think one can make a simple leap from that fact to assuming that all kids will intuitively pick up reading skills when they want them. Successful unschoolers tend to come from affluent, educated backgrounds, and to live in literacy rich environments. I’ve visited Sudbury Valley, and the school has floor to ceiling bookcases packed with good books in several rooms, plus their dedicated library space.
Lot’s of kids don’t have those simple background advantages. Even amongst those that do, learning styles and capacity vary so much that unschooling can’t work for everyone. A mild learning disability can set a child up for frustration and failure, for example, and some kids just seem to need more structure.
I was an intuitive, self-taught reader at a very young age. My five-year-old constantly surprises me by being dead average in the reading department. She doesn’t seem particularly curious about it, isn’t particularly good at it, but is cheerfully going where she’s led down the path to reading.
Being “taught” to read in 1st grade was a dull waste of my time. I’d sneak chapter books from the library under my desk while the teacher was trying to get the class to recite simple “-at” words together. For my daughter, a little reading instruction seems to be just the thing.
Photo: San Jose Library
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