One hundred years ago, children didn’t begin formal academic instruction until they were at least eight years old. Today, though, the prevailing thought seems to be, “Why wait? The earlier, the better.” Kindergarten programs have replaced blocks, pretend play, and art projects in favor of rigorous academics. Children are expected to start reading by the end of kindergarten. If they’re not reading by first grade, they’re often put in remedial groups or even tested for learning disabilities.
If reading about this raises your anxiety level a few notches, imagine what it must be feel like to be a child who doesn’t learn to read right away. Early feelings of inferiority and anxiety over reading can cripple a child’s confidence and lead to a lifelong dread of reading.
Additionally, a child who doesn’t read by third grade is often in serious trouble in a traditional school setting. By this age, children are expected to read fluently, and teachers don’t have time to spend giving reading instruction. Since most learning takes place via reading, a child who doesn’t read often falls behind in all subjects.
Fortunately, homeschooling parents can take a more reasonable approach when a child is slow to read. Early homeschooling advocates Dr. Raymond and Mrs. Mary Moore, co-authors of Better Late than Early, reviewed numerous studies and came to the conclusion that reading is a developmental task just like walking or learning to talk. Just as we wouldn’t force a one-year-old to walk before she was ready, we can’t force a child’s natural timetable for reading.
Rebecca Grado, MFT, sums it up this way, “There are many individual differences in the way children learn. For example, some children may learn to read later than others, but may catch up quickly as they mature. In a typical classroom, it is apparent to the late bloomer that they are not keeping up, and this can not only affect their self-esteem, it can also inhibit them from wanting to participate in activities. Reading problems can lead to anger, frustration, and loss of confidence, and may negatively all affect other areas of academics. Homeschooling alleviates the pressure on the child, and allows the parents to work with their child’s individual needs.”
Still, homeschooling parents may have their doubts. After all, most homeschooling parents feel the weight of their child’s education on their shoulders and take this responsibility very seriously. “What if the research is wrong?” a niggling voice of doubt whispers. “What if my child is the one child who really does need intervention?”
Hearing about the experiences of other families can go a long way toward relieving fears. Gene and Martha Posca, for example, homeschooled all five of their children. Most of their children learned to read quickly, but their daughter, Deborah, seemed to need more time. Instead of pushing phonics programs and worksheets, Martha tried to instill a desire to read in Deborah. She read to her frequently. Older siblings inspired Deborah with their enthusiasm for favorite books. When Deborah began reading, she voraciously devoured books and also developed a love for writing. She and her brother have since published a novel together and give presentations at libraries on the joy of reading and writing.
When longtime homeschooler Linda McCabe discovered that neither of her boys were particularly interested in reading at an early age, she also focused on exposing them to the pleasures of reading in lieu of a formal reading program. She read to them several times a day, choosing a variety of reading materials to spark their interest. Around age nine, both boys began reading everything they could get their hands on. As young adults, they continue to enjoy reading and have graduated from college with honors.
So what’s a concerned parent to do? Below are some tips gleaned from veteran homeschoolers. These tips can be applied to teaching all children to read, but they’re especially valuable for supporting the late reader.
- Make literacy a natural part of your daily routine. Play silly word games or read Mother Goose rhymes. Offer magnetic alphabet letters. Go to the library frequently and stock your home with good books as well. Read to your children often and let them see you reading for a variety of purposes.
- Watch your child for signs of readiness. Most kids show an interest in reading before they actually start reading. Your child may ask you what words or signs say. She may point out letters or words in the environment. In addition, kids often show an interest in writing before they start to read. Let your child write stories, grocery lists, e-mails to grandma, or invitations to a party. All these activities reinforce the idea that reading (and writing) is a powerful and pleasurable activity because it allows us to communicate our ideas and learn from others.
- Rebuild confidence. If you’ve recently taken your late reader out of public school, he may be suffering from reading anxiety. Set aside any formal attempts to teach reading and focus on other interests instead for a while. In the meantime, read together as much as you can to restore his pleasure in it.
- Design meaningful reading and writing tasks. One of the problems with most formal reading programs is that they emphasize skills over meaning. Children are bored by repetitive drills and flash cards and wonder why reading is so much work. Instead, use reading as a vehicle for learning. If your child’s obsessed with snakes, get books on snakes. Read the books together. Then graph facts about snakes. Let your child tell you what she learned about snakes and write down her responses. Keep her responses in a book that she can refer back to later.
- Play games. Kids do need to learn basic skills like phonics and basic math facts, but there’s no rule that says they have to learn these skills by drills and worksheets. Try games like Scrabble Jr., Boggle Jr., or Upwords to teach kids spelling and phonics. Follow your child’s lead though. If your child seems disinterested, put the game away and try again in a few months.
Most importantly, trust your child, trust yourself and trust the process. After all, reading is more than just sounding out letters on the page. Reading, when nurtured and supported, leads to a lifelong love of learning.