I Can Read, You Know!
By Pam Laricchia
read, you know!” my nine-year-old daughter retorted lightly to her older
brother last summer. I don’t even remember what he had said to her, but
her reply stood out. It was a turning point for her, to declare that she
I had taken my three kids out of
school just over a year before that incident. Or, more rightly, they had
jumped at the chance to leave when it was offered to them! At the time,
my daughter was in grade two and one of her teacher’s favorite students.
She did well and seemed to enjoy going to school, although she was in one
of the lower reading groups. I was therefore surprised, albeit happily,
that she was on cloud nine for the next three days contemplating the
fact she did not have to return to school when March Break was over.
Although she had read the early
readers they sent home from school without much complaint, she did not
want to pick up a book once home. She could often be heard to declare “I
can’t read” and nothing I said would convince her otherwise. I told her
that if she was interested in reading a book herself, she could just ask
me any words she came across that she didn’t know yet and I’d tell her.
No thanks, was her reply.
So I completely let it go; no
pressure or expectations. At the same time I made a point of reading
books to her and her brothers just about every day. Her older brother
had been given the first Harry Potter book, so we started there.
Everyone enjoyed the story immensely and we soon worked our way through
all four books numerous times, eagerly anticipated the release of book
five, and then powered through it together in three days. If a movie we
watched was based on a book, I might mention it. If someone asked a
question that needed to be looked up in a book, I just did it. Books
were just another part of our lives; I didn’t make a big deal out of it.
And whenever she asked, I read for her. Or her older brother would,
usually when they were playing video games. I mentioned to her in
passing that I was still coming across new words, that nobody knows them
all… and it probably helped for her to see me stumble trying to
pronounce new words and names in the Harry Potter books.
Once in a while she would read a
word or two, here and there. Occasionally I pointed this out to her, but
still she insisted she couldn’t read. It seemed her definition of “being
able to read” was being able to read the Harry Potter books fluently.
Or, more generally I think, being able to read and understand “real”
books – those at the level of her vocabulary, understanding and interest
– not the early readers where the story often suffers severely at the
hands of limited vocabulary in the name of being “able to read”. Sound
reasoning, I think now. What’s the rush?
Our first year of unschooled
learning passed this way. I could see snatches though. As always with
natural learning, the moments came unexpectedly and then moved on. It’s
when you put them all together over a period of time that you can start
to see the picture coming alive on the canvas. On drives she started
commenting on signs. Interesting. And reading stuff from TV commercials.
And then, seemingly out of the
blue this past summer, her comment to her brother: “I can read, you
know!” It may not seem like much, but I felt like she had turned a
corner. Even though she had not yet picked up a book, even though she
still openly declared she “hated books”, in her mind it was no longer
about her “being a reader;” it was about her being interested in
I had been reading the Harry
Potter books to the kids over and over for the past year and we finally
got them on CD in mid-summer. The boys had had their fill but she would
cozy up in her room and listen to them regularly. Sometimes I would
bring her food or tea and she’d smile and say thanks and continue
September came and after
listening to all five a number of times she started writing down things
that were interesting to her: Umbridge’s speech, the prophecy, the
Sphinx’s riddle, listing the names of the centaurs, clues she found that
matched up with other books, etc. I noticed her notebook filling up and
one night while I was out I picked her up a new one I thought she’d
like. She really appreciated that and she used it for her “good copies”
– she said sometimes she’s writing so fast it’s hard to read.
This writing led to her looking
things up in the books, since at times she couldn’t quite figure out the
words from the CDs. She took all five books up to her room and placed
them beside the CD player so she had quick access. Not long after that
she mentioned that she was sometimes following along in the book while
listening. I thought that was cool.
Then one afternoon a few days
later she came down from her room to show me that she had read the first
two chapters of Philosopher’s Stone! And said she was very
surprised that the words aren’t nearly as hard as she remembered (I
imagine from looking at the books when I first started reading them).
And she pointed out that many of the words in the HP books are harder to
read since they are made-up words that she doesn’t see elsewhere.
Cool! The next morning she spent
in bed reading and made it to chapter four. She was very pleased with
herself. For the next few days she read in bed every morning and at
various times during the day and night. One night she brought her
heating blanket in the backyard to the swing, ran the extension cord,
brought out her pillows and a flashlight and settled in to read ...
until it started to rain! She was so excited; she brought the book
everywhere and was constantly saying, “I want to read” and finding a
quiet place. And I quietly found a moment here and there to sneak away
and find where she was holed up to catch a glimpse of her engrossed in a
Throughout October she was still
going full steam ahead on her reading and writing – she was immersing
herself in words. It hadn’t taken her long to finish reading
Philosopher’s Stone and she soon started Chamber of Secrets
but after a few chapters said it was pretty boring because she knew it
all. She said at least while she’s listening to the audio books she gets
to do other things.
And boy, does she do other
things! Hmmm, let’s see if I can list some of them: sewing costumes for
her stuffed animals; sewing pillows for sale; creating wire jewelry
using beads she’s found around the house and designing and creating her
own clasps; repairing couch pillows, pajamas, and Christmas stockings.
Then she moved on to more writing. She marked all her favorite places in
the books and wrote out many of the signs, letters, songs, etc. that she
could find in the storyline. Sometimes she wrote them by hand, sometimes
she typed them. Some are hung on her door, others placed in vignettes
around her room, and still others stored safely for use as props at the
Live & Learn unschooling conference talent show. More playing with
In November, she pulled out our
Magical Worlds of Harry Potter book and for the next few days
she read that regularly. She was gently stepping beyond the Harry Potter
books themselves to one that would likely have the same vocabulary she
was already comfortable with, and feeding her passion at the same time.
Now and then she read some
passages aloud to me and at other times she would explain what she had
read. Then a couple of weeks later she was reading all her email from
her conference friends. Up until that point she had always asked me to
read them to her. Then she took a Nancy Drew book from our library at
home and started reading it. She was now definitely getting more
comfortable with her reading and expanding beyond her initial Harry
I find it so interesting to
follow her path to reading, which began in school with early readers.
But she rejected those books once she came home to learn. She made no
attempt at reading on her own over the next year and a half, but did
lots of listening to the Harry Potter series and a few other books I
Then a breakthrough when she
declared that she could read, shifting the focus from being a reader to
being interested in reading. Finding a passionate interest, within the
course of a month, she whizzed through the stages of writing things out
as she listened to the audio books, looking things up in the books,
following along in the books, and then reading one of the books
independently. I’m so grateful that life learning allowed her to find
her own path to reading.
A couple of weeks ago we were
chatting in the kitchen and she asked about a book of names we have and
then exclaimed in mock horror, “Arghh! I’m turning into a bookworm!”
Pam Laricchia and her husband had been
unschooling their three kids (then ages 11, 9,
and 6) for two years when this article was published in Life Learning
Magazine in 2004. She loves seeing her kids living with such intention
and believes that choosing the best path for themselves from the rich
palate of life gives them so many opportunities to learn about
themselves: “It's not always easy, but it is incredible.” She is also
the author of a number of books about unschooling and the producer of a
podcast which features interviews with other unschoolers. Find out more
at her website
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