By M.H. Furgason
can learn to read as naturally as they learn how to walk and to talk.
I don’t know how my three
older children learned to read. I didn’t teach them in any traditional
sense nor did I bother to look closely enough at the process to see
exactly what was happening as they were learning. As someone who trusts
in a children’s ability to learn, I just know that at three different
ages they began to read.
Now my fourth and youngest child is learning to
read and, curious about the process this time, I decided to watch her as
she learns. As I do, I can see that she is also progressing without
anyone “teaching” her. When I began noticing how she was learning to
read, I didn’t have a grasp of or a word for the whole process. I toyed
with different terms and phrases such as “discovering reading” but none
of these seemed to capture the essence of what was happening.
I finally found the word I was looking for quite by
accident. I was looking for quotes that demonstrated how children
acquire their spoken language and found a study that described the
interaction involved with acquiring language. The process was exactly
like the process I was observing in my daughter as she began to read.
She was “acquiring” reading. And why not? Learning to read is simply
mastering written language.
We don’t need to “teach” our babies to talk. Human
beings, barring any great disability, are “hard wired” for language.
Grammar isn’t taught by understanding rules and memorizing exceptions.
Verbs do not have to be conjugated in any tense. If we were to try to
teach our children to speak their primary language in this way, language
acquisition would undoubtedly be stunted. Language, including rules of
grammar and the meaning of words, is assimilated as children interact
with other people who are using spoken language.
Watching my children has led me to believe that
reading, just like speaking, is an innate ability of human beings.
Reading begins when a level of mental and physical development is
reached that allows the assimilation of written language, as long
children are exposed to a literate environment. Instruction in reading
may at times hinder this natural process, making reading seem difficult.
Children learn to read despite, rather than because of, instruction.
Although children cannot learn to read if they are
isolated from reading, they do learn to read from interaction with
others. Educators already know that reading to a child will help
guarantee reading success. They attribute this to the example that the
parent is setting. But this reading time, even before the child starts
“learning” to read, lays the foundation for the interaction necessary
for reading acquisition.
So how does a child acquire reading through
interaction? There are many ways and one of the many problems with
“teaching” reading is that some of these ways get pushed to the side or
are discouraged. Allowing children access to adults who will read to
them, answer their questions and support them in their endeavors will
cover all the bases of reading acquisition.
These are some of the processes that I have noticed
as I’ve observed my daughter:
Asking what a word says. This is not unlike the
“look-see” method that has fallen out of favor, though it is less
formal. It does, however, have its merits. Every parent has been asked
by their child what a word says. If, by listening to whole sentences,
children can grasp the rules of grammar, then there are also ways to
start to grasp the rules of reading by being told what a word says. I
have never made my children sound out words when they asked what a word
was. I’ve just told them. Many times, they have repeated a word slowly
after being told, following the letters as they say the word. This
actually seems a very pleasurable activity for them and goes against the
conventional beliefs that the word is read and then the child sounds it
out on their own.
Asking what sound a letter makes. This is informal
phonics and also has a place in reading acquisition. No one can deny
that the letters correspond with sounds and that those sounds are the
clues to the meaning of what is written. It is when we only concentrate
on letters that we don’t allow children to learn the exceptions
naturally. Children seem more interested in words than letters when they
begin exploring written language. This is just the opposite of how
reading through phonics is taught but it makes more sense. Words have
meaning; letters do not. As children search out meaning they are going
to look for the method that brings that meaning into focus.
Reading what is already known. Children often read
through a book that they’ve memorized because someone else has read it
to them over and over. I watched as my children read through their
scripts for the many plays they were in and, even though the words were
memorized, they read slowly, sounding out the words and absorbing the
rules of reading. Sometimes they would ask for help with a word that
they weren’t sure of, even though the entire passage was already
Real-life reading. Much of the way we use writing
in real life is not in book form – shopping lists, quick notes to tell
someone we love them, signs, the entertaining comics in the newspaper or
phone messages. All of these examples have meaning, though, and are not
just lists of words. Our society is a literate one and a child who is
allowed a full-time place in the real world will be surrounded by
positive and useful reading experiences. Unfortunately, the school
classroom can be one of the most literarily sterile environments there
Writing. Children have a strong urge to
communicate. They love to write their names and their friends’ names, as
well other words that have meaning to them. By giving them plenty of
writing tools, we help them explore written language all on their own.
Through this process, the whole reason behind written language
eventually becomes obvious.
Treating reading mistakes positively. It is helpful
for reading acquisition if adults accept the mistakes that young
children make in speech. For example when a child says, “There’s a
tree-knocker outside,” we will either let is pass (“Oh, yes there is!”)
because the important part of this communication is the excitement of a
bird and the name doesn’t matter, or we will use the word properly (“Oh,
yes! A woodpecker.”) to set a good example without correcting the
child’s speech. Likewise, when my children read to me, the mistakes
weren’t as important as the words that they read correctly. Frequently,
as they progressed through the sentence or story, their mistakes became
apparent to them and they corrected them themselves.
I have noticed that when children are allowed to
learn to read, the age at which it happens varies widely. I was reading
at the age of four, even though I had not received any formal
instruction. My children have all become readers at ages varying from
six to 11 years old. Just as babies begin to walk and talk at different
ages, children will learn to read at different times. To declare that
children must read by the age of six or eight, will only frustrate
children and teachers, as well as create more problems which add to the
myth that learning to read is a difficult process.
M.H. Furgason is a life-long unschooler
despite 13 years of government education. She is the founder of Houston
Unschoolers Group. She lives in Houston, Texas with her four children
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