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Can Kids Be Taught To Read?

By Sierra Black |

3823034917_d9c838b103_mProbably, 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:

  1. For unschooled children, there is no critical period for learning to read.
  2. Motivated children can go from apparent non-reading to reading fluently very quickly.
  3. Attempts to push reading can backfire.
  4. Children learn to read when reading becomes, to them, a means to some valued end.
  5. Reading, like many other skills, is learned socially through shared participation.
  6. Some children become interested in writing before reading, and learn to read as they learn to write.
  7. 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

More by Sierra Black:

Mean Girls on the Playground

Honey, Don’t Bother the Gray Lady. She’s Busy Angering Mommy Bloggers

Should You Have Kids?

Working Parents Exhausted

Sleep Training Success Depends on Parents’ Attitudes

More on Babble

About Sierra Black

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Sierra Black

Sierra Black lives, writes and raises her kids in the Boston area. She loves irreverence, hates housework and wants to be a writer and mom when she grows up. Read bio and latest posts → Read Sierra's latest posts →

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16 thoughts on “Can Kids Be Taught To Read?

  1. Larissa says:

    I think the idea that kids can just soak up reading is a nice one for most kids. However, reading IS a very artificial thing for us to be doing w/our brains, evolutionarily speaking. As such, there are some subtle and not-so-subtle ways kids development can vary from the typical. For those kids, early intervention is shown to make a big difference in their long term success. Allowing kids to just soak it in can delay recognition of learning disabilities like dyslexia and visual processing disorders. My daughter has been an atypical developer and her signs to the world of her struggles were very small, but as it turns out, quite substantial. She’s only 8.5 and we’ve got a good shot at interventions making a difference in her learning curve. A shot she wouldn’t have had if we had waited long enough to let her soak in reading to realize that ther reticence wasn’t developmental, it was pathological.

  2. Eric says:

    I think only knowledge can be ‘taught.’ A skill must be developed. You can read a book or listen to a lecture on philosophy and learn the concepts. All the reading and listening in the world won’t teach you to weld. There’s a lot teachers can do to help foster the development of skills like reading or welding, but ultimately its down to the student’s capacity and desire.

  3. andrea says:

    Comments
    i taught myself to read sometime before i started nursery school at age 4. my son was totally uninterested in reading at age 4. now at 7.5 he is teaching himself to read. (and doing quiet well) he has strongly resisted any efforts on our part to teach him to read. finally we figured we would leave him alone and let him find his own way. i believe any attempts to force him to read before this would have left him with a very negative attitude towards reading. and BTW, he’s been “writing” since he was 4.

  4. BlackOrchid says:

    I think you’re absolutely right, Eric.

  5. Lauren says:

    I think a mixture of the two approaches is probably the best bet. Forcing kids to read certain books as “lessons” kills reading for kids. Though, as a librarian I object to the characterization of the support I give to young readers as painstaking (or painful). I see my job as keeping reading fun. I always try to give kids books they might like. If it’s too easy or too hard, fine! Comic books? Sure! Everyone I work with feels the same. If you give kids enough time, and things they WANT to read, they’ll figure it out. Adults should be around to give guidance and spot trouble, not cram the same book down every kid’s throat.

  6. Ronica says:

    Lots, not lot’s. :)

  7. PlumbLucky says:

    I think Eric is dead-on too.

    Interesting thing that perked me, since the article mentions “wall to wall bookcases”…I read a statistic in one of my Parents(or -ing) mags about reading, books, etc…and that the average middle class child owns 18 books at any given point in their early years, while in “poor neighborhoods” (note: they didn’t give any criteria for what “poor” meant, nor middle class), there was one book for approximately 300 children. That stunned me – I can’t imagine not having books growing up, and I can’t imagine my son without his beloved books either (he sits and “reads” with us several times a day plus we read two or three stories before bed).

  8. ladygoat says:

    I know some kids who learned to read early because of videogames – they got tired of asking adults what it said on the screen.

  9. Andrea says:

    Just a quick point- the development of writing (or at least, play-writing) BEFORE reading is pretty universal and well understood by mainstream child development experts.

  10. Caren says:

    It’s true that unschooling can’t work for every family – but our experiences and the experiences of Sudbury Valley and other free schools is that *most* things termed disabilities never show up when a child is given the space to learn in their own way, in their own time. *Along with* a supportive environment, engaged parents, etc. A neglected child with no books is of course a different matter. I know my son would have developed dyslexia if he had been made to feel that he *had* to learn to read by age 6 or 7, and had been pressured to do so. As it is, he reads very well at 11 – had he been schooled, he would have been labeled “dyslexic”, and would still be struggling. I am grateful for Peter’s research, as it’s showing what unschoolers have known for years – given space, time, freedom and support, kids DO learn what they need to learn, without being forced. And, most “learning disorders” are only failures to fit into the school system, and the relatively strict timetables that are inherent in that system. Your daughter *would* learn to read, on her own, without being taught. Maybe not by six, or seven, but she would learn.
    Unschooling was around before Sudbury Valley or Summerhill; the internet is popularizing it and providing a place to share our stories, but we’ve been around for years and years. Most unschooling families I know are *not* affluent; we make sacrifices in order to be with our kids and support their interests.

  11. Sierra Black says:

    I’m surprised that the average middle class child owns 18 books at any given time. I think we have probably 500 children’s books in my 3-kid household. People just keep giving them to us, and my mom saved a lot from my childhood, and we go to a library book sale once a year.

  12. PlumbLucky says:

    @SB – that makes me feel slightly more normal, as our son has a very large bookcase full. I wasn’t sure if we simply “overindulged” in books for him (just about every relative sent a book for him as a shower gift too, back before he was known to be a he). Then again, I am sure that there are probably “middle class” households that don’t have a single child’s book (because I know a family like this for crying out loud!).

  13. [...] Can Kids Be Taught To Read – Strollerderby – 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. [...]

  14. GimliGirl says:

    “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. ”

    This was me, but my son seems very average. He’s 3 and mostly only interested in looking at the pictures and making up stories about what he’s seeing right now. Every child is different but I do think that forcing a child to try and learn to read before they’re ready or understand WHY they’re learning can def. backfire.

  15. Sierra Black says:

    @GimliGirl – what surprises me most about my daughter is that she seems to be both totally uninterested in learning to read on her own and thrilled to be taught. Give her a reading homework assignment and she’ll dash it off with 100% accuracy in minutes, then hang it with pride on the fridge. Give her a book and she’ll color in the margins for hours, apparently oblivious to the existence of words on the pages.

  16. ChiLaura says:

    “Then again, I am sure that there are probably “middle class” households that don’t have a single child’s book (because I know a family like this for crying out loud!).” @ PlumbLucky: Wow, I can almost don’t believe you! That’s so nuts, especially when one thinks of the middle-class always trying to move up, right? Thru education? I don’t know what my kids or I would do all day without books. Reading to them is how I keep 3.5 y/o and 2 y/o busy while I nurse the baby. They also spend a “long time” (10+ minutes at a time? It’s all relative) “reading” books by themselves during playtime and at nap. I can only imagine that no- or low-book homes have lots o’ TV time.

    Anyway, both my husband and I are big readers. Our 3.5 y/o son is just starting to pick up some reading skills. He’s Type-A, though, and emotionally, um, volatile sometimes, and he can get very frustrated if he doesn’t get something correct right away. I struggle with knowing what to tell him and how to encourage him. I don’t want to tell him that he’s doing something right when he’s not I also don’t want him to hear “You’re wrong” all the time. With him, I do find myself hoping that he’ll pick it up by himself for the most part, just because I don’t want him to get discouraged and feel that he “can’t do it.” I mean, he IS only 3.5, so I’m not stressed about his reading abilities, but I do find myself almost expecting him to have a natural knack for it, since both the Hubs and I do. Related, though, is that I do wonder if I’m going to have to “push” him to read: With both peeing and pooing on the toilet, we had to push and/or strongly motivate him before he did either. Maybe reading is not related to toilet-training, but I do wonder how much outside encouragement he will need in some of these things that take work and at which he can “fail.” Anyone have any insight for me?

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