How I Learned to Read: Four Unschooled Kids, Four Stories


Photo credit: Ben O’Bryan

One of the first concerns of those new to the idea of unschooling is one of a basic skill: Reading. How they will learn to read without lessons?  Without phonics?  Without spelling tests and quizzes?  How will they learn to read if you don’t teach them?  

Well, some of the beauty of unschooling is that the journey of learning to read (and virtually every other skill) is going to be an individual one for each and every child, although the principles remain the same for each.

For my four kids, this is how they learned… with no stress, no pressure, in their own time, in their own way:

Spencer – who’s 18 at the time of this writing, and currently mostly reads for information. Everything from engine repair to running a server on Minecraft to keeping up with the latest national news.

Spencer was our earliest reader, which was reassuring to these brand-new unschooling parents.  He was 4 or 5 when he really started reading, and his biggest impetus by far was good old Dr Seuss.  We’d started one of those book-of-the-month clubs when he was a baby, so he got a new Seuss book every month, and his little library grew quickly.  Every day from the time he was tiny, he’d a pick a book (or 2 or 7), and we’d snuggle up on the couch and read to him.  He loved to be read to, and oh how he adored Dr Seuss!  One of the great things about Seuss for emerging readers is that his books are filled with simple, fun words, and tons of repetition.  It wasn’t long before he was reading along with us.   After Seuss came one of my own personal favorites:  Beverly Cleary. Ramona, Beezus, and Henry Huggins were like treasured friends in our house, and their books were read often… both by us reading to Spencer, and him eventually reading all by himself.  He loved stories of all kinds when he was little, and would often write his own (usually based on his favorite TV show at the time, Dukes of Hazzard :))

On a more practical level, he learned to read because he wanted to.  Because he saw his dad and I reading. Because he saw words and letters on street signs and t-shirts and cereal boxes. He asked questions and we answered.   We played with those refrigerator letter magnets.   We wrote our names in chalk and with our fingers in the sand.   We played matching games and kids’ card games.   We looked at license plates and street signs when we traveled.

We provided lots of opportunities to explore words and letters, we read to him when he wanted, we helped when he needed it…. and he learned to read.

Paxton – who’s 14 at the time of this writing, and loves a good novel.  He’s currently in the middle of reading his first Stephen King book, Cujo

Paxton was around 6 when he started to read well, and he took a completely different path than Spencer.  He was – and if you know him, this will come with absolutely zero shock – our little computer boy.  We read to him of course, and did all the same sorts of things we did with Spencer, but the thing he loved most was that computer. He was able to use the mouse to navigate simple games by the time he was 18 months old, and it was one of his favorite things to do.  It only makes sense then, that most of his early reading experiences came from his computer games.   He loved the Reader Rabbit series, and eventually moved on to the Tycoon and Sims games.

One notable difference between Spencer and Paxton is that Spencer has always been a sharer, and Paxton tends to hold things closer to his chest.  So when he was an emerging reader, Spencer was comfortable asking lots of questions, reading aloud with no embarrassment at the normal mistakes, and just generally involved us in his learning process.   Paxton kept it all a bit more private.  So we weren’t always sure exactly where he was at in terms of reading.   He wanted to learn how to do it on his own, and didn’t feel much like sharing until he felt he had it just right.  And learn he did.   The first few times we heard him read out loud it was without a single missed word (while still being slow and careful).  The fun thing about that kind of learner is that even though they’re learning all along, it appears to happen overnight. Suddenly, one day, he was reading, and a whole new world had opened up.

We provided lots of opportunities to explore words and letters, we read to him when he wanted, we helped when he needed it…. and he learned to read.

Everett – who’s 10.5 at the time of this writing, and enjoys reading fun, adventurous, and light-hearted books. The last book I saw him read was called, “I Can Pee on This,” a hilarious (and frighteningly accurate) collection of letters written from the perspective of cats to their owners.

Everett was around nine when he started reading well (although, like Paxton, he didn’t really want to share until he was super confident in his abilities, so it’s likely that it happened before then)  One of the nice things about unschooling, and homeschooling in general, is that they are able to learn in their own time and keep their confidence intact.  There is no being told you’re “behind”, no special classes, no extra pushing.  Just time, and learning.  He was in cub scouts for several years – the only place where his lack of reading might have been an issue – and his den leader was wonderfully respectful, never putting him on the spot, or causing him embarrassment in any way.

I didn’t doubt for a second that Everett would learn to read when he was ready, and not a minute sooner.  He just focused on other skills first.  That kid was BUSY.  The most physically active of the three boys, he played baseball, played basketball, took gymnastics, started karate (he’s currently working on his purple belt), tried fencing, dabbled in some musical instruments, learned a whole bunch of magic tricks, and just generally enjoyed trying new, exciting things.

As he got older, I was super careful to make sure that our language stayed positive and accurate.  If he would say for instance, “I can’t read,” I would remind him that he could – because I could see that he was starting to read simple things – but that he was just still learning and getting better.

As far as learning style, he was squarely in the middle of Spencer and Paxton, in terms of being equally motivated by the computer and by words on paper.  He did love the computer.  He liked to be read to more than Paxton had, but less than Spencer.  He liked word games and letters and fun active things that engaged both mind and body.  I think the thing that ultimately gave him the biggest motivation when it came to reading was his desire to chat with his friends when he played cooperative games online.  That was when I really saw the switch flip, and – just like Paxton – he was suddenly reading well, seemingly overnight.

We provided lots of opportunities to explore words and letters, we read to him when he wanted, we helped when he needed it…. and he learned to read.

Tegan – who’s newly 7 at the time of this writing, and enjoys reading anything she can get her little hands on.

Watching Tegan learn to read was FUN.  Watching all the kids learn to read was fun, but there is just something so heightened and bittersweet about those milestones with the last child.

Like Spencer, she really enjoyed being read to from the time she was tiny.  Her favorites were those Usborne touchy-feely books, and other board books with bright colors and fun pictures, especially animals.  I remember she had one ABC book with animals in it that she especially loved, and she would squeal with excitement every time she got to the page with the lion on it. Another favorite area of early letter exploration was her dad’s t-shirts, especially the shirts with sports teams on them.  She loved to sit on his lap and point to the letters one by one as he named them.  I’m pretty sure she knew the letters in the word, “Cardinals” before her own name.  🙂  She enjoyed letters in general from a young age, and loved looking for “T for Tegan” everywhere we went.

Her big explosion in reading and language started about six months ago, prompted largely by her desire to chat, Skype, and email with her friends online.  Tegan is all about the socialization. I set her up with her own email account on Tocomail – a great service if you’re looking for a starter email account for your young ones – and helped her with sending emails and pictures to her friends and family.  It opened up a whole new exciting world for her.  These days, she barely even asks for my help anymore.  Yesterday, my husband forwarded me this message she sent him, all on her own:

Hi Daddy im feeling bedder i had candy today how is it at work

Heart. Melted.  I’m not the slightest bit concerned about the lack of punctuation, or the misspelled word.  It’ll all come with time.  Just like her brothers, she’s reading and writing and so enjoying using words to communicate. It’s a beautiful and exciting thing.

We provided lots of opportunities to explore words and letters, we read to her when she wanted, we helped when she needed it…. and she learned to read.


Four different kids, four different stories, but with one big similarity that is ultimately the one simple answer to the question, “But how will they learn to read?”:

When they’re immersed and involved and allowed to explore a world that’s rich with language and words and letters…… they just learn.

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Filed under reading, unschooling

6 Responses to How I Learned to Read: Four Unschooled Kids, Four Stories

  1. Rachael

    This is great! I just pulled my boys out of public school about 1 year ago this month (then 11, 7, & 6 with a 9 month old too). My youngest in school was 6 at the time, and so “behind his peers” and completely embarrassed about it. His teachers were always putting him on the spot in class. So once we started hanging out at home, I found out he too LOVED Dr Seuss books, and being read to. He did not even try to read on his own for a couple of months because it was drilled into his skull that “you are behind” or “you can’t do it” from his so-called “teacher”. It took time, but now he is reading just fine. He is 7 1/2, still loves Dr Seuss, and he is not embarrassed to read out loud anymore. Even though I am still working on getting my head wrapped around this unschooling thing…seeing that kind of progression and how happy they all are to learn is something I never thought was possible. I’m SO happy I came across you blog. It is definitely a pick-me-up when I’m stressed about “school” and it’s helping me figure this out! Thanks =)

  2. If anyone would like to read more stories like this, I’ve written similarly about my three kids, now 13, 11, and 8. They learned to read around ages 4, 9, and 6, respectively, unschooling all the way. Here’s the story of my youngest, which links to the other two.

  3. Lynn

    I have similar stories about my 23, 21 and 14 year old boys. They all learned to read on their own with no instruction from me. Math skills have been similar in that I never forced my children to learn their multiplication tables (and they didn’t choose to), and the oldest is getting his PHD in math. We need to spread the word that there is a different way!

  4. Pingback: Our unique learning paths | nella inspired

  5. This is so encouraging to read! While we are more relaxed homeschoolers rather than complete unschoolers, I have many days where I cross over into unschooling. My daughter too loves Dr. Seuss!

  6. Sara

    i have three boys and a baby girl, too, and I just about could have written this article. My girl is only three-and-a-half, but is already reading small words by sounding them out and can recognize and write her name and all the letters. My oldest boy (11) was read to the most and figured out how to read on his own about age 7. My middle boy wasn’t read to as much because he WOULD NOT SIT STILL and is more of a reluctant reader… I thought. He’s 9 and hasn’t done a lot of reading for fun and likes picture books mainly, but when I ask him to read anything he can do it. My youngest boy is six-and-a-half and says he can’t read. He can read individual words, but sentences intimidate him. He has the tiniest handwriting ever. He learned to write first and is the better for it.

    They all love WordWorld and the LeapFrog Word Whammer and Super Why. They all have learned on their own at their own pace. It’s my favorite part of unschooling.