Last week I explored some of the fundamental differences between unschooling and school. But even if it sounds interesting and makes some logical sense, it can be hard to loosen your grip on the notion that the basic skills still need to be taught: “Once my child can read and write, then I’ll be comfortable letting them follow their interests.”
It’s true that reading and writing are useful skills to develop—they are opposite sides of the written communication coin. Yet precisely because of that, children living in the world will bump up against them frequently. They will encounter real life reasons to learn them, which is both more motivating than just a parent or teacher telling them they should, and more effective for real learning because as they learn they’ll be actively using those developing skills to reach their own goals.
This kind of learning process differs from lesson-driven learning in a couple of key ways. First, there is no external timetable or schedule. And second, the definition of the skills is broader, just as the world is broader than the classroom.
This week, let’s dig into reading.
At school, teachers need students to learn to read as early as possible because it is an efficient way for one teacher to communicate with a classroom full of students. The educational system is designed around written communication—teachers use textbooks and worksheets to share information with students and test papers to assess progress—so it’s no surprise that it values early readers. It’s even more challenging for young kids because they don’t yet have much of a need for reading beyond school; their passion is active play. Yet children that don’t learn to read on the school’s timetable are sorted and labelled and judged inferior.
With unschooling, early reading is not necessary because we have the time to communicate with our children in ways in which they are already skilled. We can talk with them, we can interpret their body language and emotions—we don’t need to rely on reading. Our communication is rich.
At school, the process of learning to read is swept up in reciting the alphabet, phonics worksheets, and sounding out words. Young children are bestowed the label “reader” when they can make their way through early readers. And that’s just the beginning: they need to live up to it. They feel the pressure to continue to develop at the same pace as the curriculum or risk losing their badge of honour.
With unschooling, children are surrounded by the literate environment of the real world. They come to see the real value that reading has: dialog and directions in their video games; signs at the store to find their favourite food; stats on their game cards; websites about things they like; books and magazines filled with interesting information and stories. Yet that value isn’t held over their heads as some perverse motivation to learn faster: “Sound it out yourself!” Unschooling parents happily read things for their children until they are ready to take the task over for themselves. And learning is easier, and more effective, without that external pressure. Here’s an interesting observation I’ve made over the years: unschooling kids are more likely to call themselves readers once they are comfortably reading adult-level books. That’s what reading looks like in the real world.
As I mentioned earlier, the educational system is designed around written communication so being able to read is paramount to achieving success in that environment. Not being able to read puts students at a disadvantage in *every* subject. But without that constraint, unschoolers take in information just as effectively in so many other ways! You might find them watching videos (like documentaries, specialty channels, enthusiasts’ videos), engaged in hands-on discovery (like science centres, museums, zoos) or playing around on their own with just about anything (like computers, video game design software, musical instruments, cameras, exploring outside). In fact for many people reading is not the preferred, nor the most effective, way to learn new things. With unschooling, learning is not compromised for later readers the way it is in school.
The same logic follows for fiction: outside of the classroom there are many ways to enjoy stories beyond reading books. The world is full of stories being told through different mediums: TV shows, movies, comic books, board games, video games, plays, storytellers, audiobooks. I fondly remember many enjoyable hours reading aloud to my kids. Enjoying stories does not hinge on the ability to read.
There is a wide range of ages at which children are able to pull together the many pieces of the reading puzzle. Trying to superimpose lessons on the process implies not only that learning must be done on someone else’s timetable, but that the child’s interest and questions and personal connections are somehow not the “right” order in which to gather the pieces of the learning-to-read puzzle.
But don’t infer that not teaching lessons means that unschooling parents are hands off. On the contrary, we are very involved in the process. It’s just that instead of following a curriculum that walks students through one particular learning path to reading, we actively live life with our children. Words are everywhere. We read to them, we answer their questions about words—with direct answers, not impromptu mini-lessons. They may enjoy word-based games, or having the subtitles on while watching movies and TV, or following along in a print book while listening to an audiobook. Everyone’s brain is wired differently so the things that spark connections will be different. If they aren’t reading it’s likely because their brains are not yet ready for it. Guilt and pressure won’t make their brains make these connections and develop any faster. Fully exploring the world through their eyes will.
Outside the classroom there are so many other ways to discover and learn about the world beyond reading. And in the meantime, later readers won’t feel like they’re flawed—they’ll pick up reading on their own timetable and just add that particular way of enjoying stories and gathering information to their already abundant repertoire.