Unschooling & Learning to Read

Unschooling & Learning to Read Podcast Transcript

How do Unschoolers learn to read without a curriculum?
This question pops up often.

Sometimes it's because parents have young children and they can't imagine how their child would learn without the step-by-step process of lesson plans. Other times, the question emerges when a child seems to be getting a little older and still isn't gravitating toward reading. Or at least they don't seem to have much interest in it.

This week, let's talk about how this works. We'll come back and talk about the concept of "Late Readers" another time. There's a lot of great information in the Unschooling Guide - Learning to Read about this, if you're needing the information sooner. Let me just tell you - that Guide is sooo full of awesome resources. If you were going to dig around the internet to find it all, it would take you a while. And if you’re new, you’d miss a lot. But I’ve done all the legwork for you! So, don’t miss that, if you have some questions about reading.

The first thing I want to do, though, is share a quote from John Holt. Really, I should share this quote on EVERY podcast, just to bring it back to the front of all of our minds. It comes from his book, What Do I Do Monday? Here’s what he says:

"Let me sum up what I have been saying about learning.

I believe that we learn best when we, not others, are deciding what we are going to try to learn, and when, and how, and for what reasons or purposes;
when we, not others, are in the end, choosing the people, materials, and experiences from which and with which we will be learning;when we, not others, are judging how easily or quickly or well we are learning, and when we have learned enough;
and above all when we feel the wholeness and openness of the world around us, and our own freedom and power and competence in it."

Then he turns toward us as parents and asks:

"What then can we do about it?
How can we create or help create these conditions for learning?"

Wow. Right? So powerful. 

Ok… now specifically to the reading issue.

If you ask unschoolers in online forums or at park days about your child who is either not showing many signs of being interested in reading - or maybe showing NO signs - you’ll hear, “don’t worry about it!” and “they’ll figure it out!”

While they're right, two things are wrong with those responses:

  1. It doesn’t help a worried parent.
  2. There really ARE some things you can do (and some specific things to avoid doing!)

I give a lot of practical suggestions in the Unschooling Guide: Learning to Read
but I want us to focus on our own beliefs and thoughts about it first.

Parents want to do what's best for their child. At least the parents I work with do!  Unfortunately, many of us don't have a lot of good information on how to help kids with reading. We've been conditioned to believe that "good parents" force their child to learn sounds or memorize words whether or not the child is interested. We think of the school approach as the tried-and-true way to go about this

Unfortunately, as many parents have learned, this can backfire. You can make the "Learn to Read" environment so distasteful that the child wants to avoid it at all costs.

Or worse, believes something is wrong with them because they can’t do what their parent is asking them to do.

In the same way that we can't rush learning to walk or to potty train - we can't rush a brain to learn to read.

You're already on the right path - trying to learn whatever you can so you can support your child. It takes a little time to undo some of the stories we may have in our heads about learning to read and we may need to spend a little time educating ourselves. We have a tendency to move toward what's familiar or what society pushes toward us.

And in the case of learning to read, we may need to reframe some things. Sometimes this can be hard when we get criticism or raised eyebrows from others - especially when we're still learning about it all ourselves and/or our child isn't reading yet.

Remember, as I’m making suggestions or you read various ideas, it’s not unusual to hesitate or to see where that idea isn’t true. But that’s fear jumping in to keep you safe. It wants us to resist any new ideas and tells us that "your child's future is at stake!!!" When these kinds of dramatics happen in our heads, remind yourself that that's just fear trying to run the show and keep you in your lane.

Sometimes it helps to do a little self-talk,
"I get it. It's scary. But I'm going to set aside my fear right now.

Ready to find out more?

This Guide WILL Help You!

If you're worried about how your child is going to learn how to read without curriculum,
this full color 25-page mini-magazine is what you're looking for.

  • Learn about how to create a literate environment within your home.
  • Conquer your own fears about how unschooling can work with reading
  • Read the most cutting edge research about how kids actually learn how to read
  • Discover SO MANY practical tips to make learning how to read a smooth process for your child

Inspiration     |    Tips    |   Guidance

Let’s talk a little about the research.

Research shows that pushing kids to read earlier is NOT the best approach. Not only can it backfire like I talked about earlier - but studies show that the kids don’t maintain that advantage or trajectory. Within a couple of years, the difference between early readers and later readers disappears completely. So, all that effort - and tears or power-struggling - for what?

Research shows that kids - they mention up to 8, but I’d say there’s no reason to stop there - learn best through play. We all do really. That’s why there’s such a push to gamify everything! Including at the workplace. So playing with letters, rhyming, looking at street signs or cereal boxes, searching for the letter that starts THEIR name, or M for Mommy - where else do we see that? These are ways to play with the building blocks of literacy.
Think about your child’s learning style… rhyming and sing-song activities are fun for auditory learners.
Searching for letters or looking at printed words might be fun for Visual learners.
Tactile learners may like tracing in the sand or drawing with chalk on concrete.
Kinesthetic learners may want to hop around our climb the stairs shouting the letters of their name.
While we may have to get creative, tapping into the learning style of the child is always important. Not to turn it into some quasi-lesson, but to simply engage with them and play with words, letters, and sounds in a way that's meaningful for them. Much the same as playing with anything else that’s fun!

Research from John Holt actually pointed toward Reading INSTRUCTION having the biggest negative impact on a child learning to read. When you think about trying to teach someone something they either can’t learn (because of their brain development isn't there and they're being asked to do it too soon) or they’re not interested (what sticks when you’re not interested) and all the drama and negativity that happens when we keep pushing… yeah. This makes sense that it isn’t going to be as helpful as we had hoped.

Another interesting research finding is about developing vocabulary. The more we talk with our kids, the more their vocabulary improves. Significantly. Not a weekly vocab list, but general real life conversations that are relevant to what’s happening in their day or inspired by their curiosity.

So skip the lesson plans - let interest dictate your steps. Don’t get wrapped up in what the neighbor kids are doing or what Aunt Jenny thinks your kids should do. YOUR kids know their brains. They’ll read when it makes sense to them - and then there will be no stopping them!

Model reading in your home. Keep it enjoyable and fun.

Recognize that stories come in a variety of formats. Audible stories are fun for some kids. It helps kids learn about story and character development, plot lines - all the things that kids learn a little later as readers. If your child isn’t reading yet, they may still enjoy stories delivered this way. Same goes for stories they watch on YouTube - these count too. Magazine subscriptions graphic novels - these are all fun ways to play with reading and see it’s value. Words pop up in a variety of places - we just have to notice them! Billboards, street signs, game chats, subtitles, cereal boxes, instructions - all over the place. You don’t need a curriculum to bring words into your child’s life!

Get a Library card. This is pretty exciting for younger kids. It’s often their first official card of their own. Even those not reading yet can find picture books or books that they’d like you to read to them. Be sure to put the return date on your calendar and give yourself an alert a day or so ahead of time. Or pre-set a date or two each month to plan to be your Library Day. What works with your schedule?

Remember that “Reading to Learn” isn’t the only option. We can learn even without having reading skills yet! Kids (and adults!) watch videos, have hands on experience, listen to experts on a topic (or even just someone a little further along than us!)


We have all sorts of meanings attached to the idea of learning to read. Some of it is helpful and a lot of it isn't. Hopefully, this helps you look at your ideas to see what could use a little reframing.

Reach out if you have questions, we have a variety of ways to connect!

I'm so happy to share so many resources I've collected over the years.
I hope your Unschooling Adventures are full of joy! And we’ll talk again next week!

4 thoughts on “Unschooling & Learning to Read

  1. Teresa Wilcox says:

    At a park day I was talking to another mom about how I taught my daughter to read. My daughter, who was 6 years old at the time, overheard and piped up that I didn’t teach her to read. I asked her how she learned to read to which she promptly and proudly replied that she had taught herself! After she moved out of earshot, I explained to the mom that I had tried to make learning to read so fun and casual that she didn’t even realize what we were doing. The months we spent playing together so she could teach herself to read were so much fun because I decided that I wasn’t going to let my fears and insecurities about what she needed to learn at what time stress either one of us out.

    I’m glad there are so many ways for children to learn and so many ways for us to help them.

    • Sue Patterson says:

      Love that, Teresa! Isn’t it interesting how kids want to own their own learning process? Fascinating, really. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Cheryl delaplante says:

    Hi, I’m an unschooling mother of a dyslexic child. This post contains serious misinformation. Dyslexic kids do not learn to read through play and and a home filled with books. The 1 in 5 kids who struggle to learn to read need structured literacy to learn to read.
    PLEASE visit the website of the International Dyslexia Association and read about how important it is that every child be screened for dyslexia red flags by 5 years of age.
    Another good source if information is Decoding Dyslexia.

    • Sue Patterson says:

      Hi Cheryl, I disagree.
      While some kids DO benefit from some of the tools that say, Orton Gillingham offer, many many children get the diagnosis of Dyslexia, and they were simply not learning at the same pace as other kids. Or the materials being used created additional obstacles and anxieties for the child with regard to reading. When parents panic, wanting to label it as a condition, instead of riding it out a little bit to allow maturity to do its thing – that’s not in the child’s best interest.

      I’m not sure where you get the 1 in 5 struggling to read kids, but my experience has been that the “struggle” is because the brain simply isn’t ready yet. Just like everyone doesn’t potty train or walk at the same time – kids don’t all learn to read at the same time either!

      While the IDA may have a lot of materials supporting these claims, I’d like to also share that their studies were done on school children. And our children are not living lives that are even remotely similar to those in the research studies. Unless you’re trying to duplicate a school experience from 8a-3p – which, obviously, Unschooling Mom2Mom would not recommend.

      I waited to talk with you here until I finished an interview with Marianne Sunderland, who writes at Homeschooling with Dyslexia https://homeschoolingwithdyslexia.com/ and has an entire community that is exploring this topic in more depth. I wanted to see if she thought unschooling could be an option for some of the kids previously identified as dyslexic. I’ll invite her to come here to comment, but the answer sounds like “yes” to me!
      There’s also a FB group called: Unschooling Every Family: Embracing Neurodivergent and Disabled Learners https://www.facebook.com/groups/UnschoolingSpecialNeeds. Both help parents navigate unschooling, reading, and dyslexia. It’s not as cut and dry and you’re making it sound.

      I’m happy to have your references here in the comments for those who want to explore more on their own. But always remembering that research can be biased – it’s us to dig a little to see what the bias is. And our children DO help us see what’s next, or how we can help them. For those reading along thinking they have to teach their child to read the way the International Dyslexia Association insists – and your child is not happy – look into other options.

      I do wish you and your family all the best, Cheryl!

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