girl reading books with stacks of books beside her

Inside: Learning to read is a natural process, IF you are patient enough to wait until your child truly wants, and is ready, to learn. We’ll discuss why learning to read in schools is often NOT a natural process, how my kids learned to read naturally and how to support the natural process of learning to read in your relaxed homeschool.

Six years ago I sent my daughter to a homeschool university model school – two days at school, three at home – for a year.

Why? Because I was afraid of teaching my daughter to read.

She was almost five and begging me to learn to read. Like a little puppy, she would ask me to teach her every day, all day.

But I had three kids five and under, and I was tired.

Plus, I had NO idea how to teach a child to read at that point, and I was too exhausted to try to figure it out.

I thought learning to read was this complicated thing reserved only for professional teachers who know exactly how to teach reading “the right way”.

Little did I know how easy it would have been, and how natural a process learning to read actually is…if you’re willing to let it be that way.

But you don’t hear that message from professional educators. In fact, you heard the opposite message – that learning to read is NOT a natural process.

We’ll talk more about why learning to read in schools is often anything but natural, and why it doesn’t have to be that way.

Why Learning to Read in Schools is NOT a Natural Process

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What reinforced this idea in my mind was that in my pre-stay-at-home-mom days, I worked for a preschool/elementary school as an administrative coordinator.

I distinctly remember teachers and staff evaluating the pre-K classes to determine whether or not they were ready to move to kindergarten.

Now maybe my memory is getting fuzzy, but from my understanding, the key determining factor for whether or not a student could move forward was reading readiness. Because kindergarten is now when a child starts learning how to read, whether she’s ready to or not (it used to be first grade).

It was extremely stressful all around because when certain “reading readiness signs” weren’t there – letter recognition, letter-sound knowledge, etc. – the staff had to inform the parents that their child couldn’t move on to kindergarten.

And when you’re paying $20,000 a year for pre-K? I’m sure that is NOT the news you want to hear.

Talk about pressure!

Pressure on kids to be ready to read before their time. Pressure on parents to somehow MAKE their kids ready to read. Pressure on teachers to wave their magic teacher wand and somehow make kids learn a skill that is painfully slow and hard to learn when you’re just.not.ready.

It makes sense, the pressure school systems place on kids to learn how to read at an early age.

The ability to read is essential to making the school system work as we know it. In order to make a classrom setting work – one teacher on 25 students – reading is a non-negotiable because schools rely heavily on worksheets and tests to disseminate information.

If you can’t read on your own, progressing beyond kindergarten is nearly impossible, unless of course you can secure accommodations like an aide who reads things to you. And those accommodations are almost always given to children who are given a learning disability label of some kind.

(Plus, there is something to be said for keeping learning to read this complex process that only teachers and schools can teach. When only certain people hold information, they have the power. Just something to think about.)

I am in no way downplaying learning disabilities or dyslexia, but I often wonder if we let learning to read happen naturally without pressure, would we have as many students placed in this category?

We’ll probably never know if this is true because even in homeschool settings, homeschoolers can put similar pressures on kids to learn to read before they’re ready. Because: “You’re in first grade, so I must start reading lessons now.”

And I imagine doing reading lessons with a child who isn’t ready is just as painful in a homeschool setting as in a classroom setting.

(Interestingly, Boston College Professor Peter Gray explores the idea in this post – how dyslexic kids learn to read when removed from school.)

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is a better way, a way that doesn’t risk making reading hard or excruciating or a chore.

A way that gives kids space to learn to read when they are truly ready to do so.

Because when kids are ready to learn how to read? It can be as painless and natural as learning to walk or talk.

Related: 11 More Books Every Homeschool Mom Should Read

How Do I Know Learning To Read IS a Natural Process – When Educators Say Otherwise?

If you Google, “learning to read is a natural process,” you come up with the opposite idea. All of the articles are explaining why learning to read isn’t a natural process.

But the people writing those articles most likely have only observed learning to read in a school setting. There are not many studies done outside of schools.

They also assume phonics and extensive phonemic awareness is essential. (In my personal experience, it isn’t always.)

I’ve read countless stories about how unschoolers learn how to read and why they learn. The age range of those kids is anywhere from 4 to 11.

Eleven! (I’m not sure I would be comfortable waiting this long, but to each her own.)

For them it was an extremely natural process.

And how could it not be? In our world today, reading is as essential as walking and talking. You need it to survive and thrive.

Beyond the stories I’ve heard, I have now officially taught (well, sort of taught – I’ll explain soon) two kids to read. But not the way schools do it.

And even though I didn’t officially teach my oldest to read in the beginning stages, she only had half a year(ish) in a school setting – 2 days a week, sometimes not even that because she struggled to attend towards the end of the year.

After kindergarten? I didn’t do a bit of additional formal reading instruction beyond helping her sound out words when she asked and reading aloud to her on a daily basis.

She was a fluent reader by age 8 or 9 – growing in vocabulary and word knowledge daily, yes, but fluent. I’m not sure exactly sure when she hit that benchmark because it happened naturally over time.

So how did she get to that point?

  • She listened to audiobooks.
  • She read physical books.
  • She listened to me read picture books and chapter books.
  • She read to and for her siblings for years.

I didn’t do anything special except immerse her in a language-rich environment.

With her brothers, I got to be there for them as they reached the readiness point (one around age 7.5, the other at age 6). I used what I’m pretty sure is the most basic reading curriculum on the planet.

After 6-7 months of reading with me for 5-10 minutes a day, 3-4 days a week, they had it. Off and running.

Of course I was around for additional support when they encountered words they didn’t know.

But other than that, they simply improved on their own with practice and being in a home where reading was used all day every day.

How Do You Define a “Natural Process”?

I would define a natural process as a skill that is relatively easy to pick up, something our brain is already prepared from birth to do.

Learning a language is a natural process, something kids do without needing to be taught per say, other than interacting with other language users and walking people on a regular basis. The drive to communicate with other people is innate.

Learning to walk is even more natural of a process, one that kids don’t really need our help with, as much as we like to think we as parents are necessary to the process. I’m not even sure they need us as examples, but possibly they would never be motivated to walk on their own if left alone (obviously no experiment would ever study this)?

Much like learning language, learning to read only requires having support from someone who knows how, being read to regularly and constantly being immersed in a language-rich environment.

When children are around readers every day, they see a true NEED for reading, plain and simple. Reading and writing is a major way that we communicate with each other today, and when kids believe they need a skill, they will eventually seek to acquire it in their own time and in their own way.

Learning to Read Is Simply Associating Sounds with Symbols. That’s It.

Learning to read is similar to recognizing shapes and symbols. If kids can recognize a stop sign means the sound “stop” or a Lucky Charms cereal box means the sounds “Lucy Charms” without knowing how to read, the leap to reading isn’t that huge.

Memorizing lines on a page arranged in specific ways isn’t that different.

Sure, the stop sign and the cereal box have colors, but it’s not a huge leap to see a “B” as a picture they learn to associate with the sound “Bee”, and eventually the groups of letters like “at” make the sound with a short “A” and a “T” as “at”.

What about memorizing whole words? Whole language learning I’m pretty sure is now a BIG no-no in schools (they keep flip-flopping though, so five years from now maybe it will be back “in”?), replaced by phonics as the superior method.

Well one of my kids was HORRIBLE at phonics. He hated it and resisted learning phonics altogether.

He taught himself to read using writing and eventually, memorizing entire words (a.k.a. whole language).

Is phonics a more efficient way to learn how to read? Probably. Especially when it comes to kids being able to sound out and learn new words on their own, without support.

But does memorizing whole words and building an extensive library of words in your mind get the job done, albeit slower? Yes.

How My Kids Learned to Read – Naturally (With and Without Phonics)

I’ve touched on it already, but I’ll give you the full story of how my kids learned to read, two with phonics, one with next to no phonics instruction.

Learning to Read With Phonics

Two of my kids so far have been receptive to some basic phonics instruction. By basic, I mean short and long vowel sounds, sounds of letters and some common and very basic blends.

One child learned in school with a set curriculum. The other, I used reading books which have very basic phonics with sight words listed for each story, and he seemed receptive to phonics instruction.

As in, when I said that these two letters together made a certain sound, he repeated it and applied that knowledge to new words. He seemed to retain basic phonics principles and use them to sounds out new words.

My daughter was the same way. She picked up reading fairly quickly through phonics instruction at her school.

I’ve already stated that phonics can be valuable mainly because you can sound out words on your own more easily, and possibly achieve fluency more quickly.

Beyond that, I honestly don’t see the point in beating my kids over the head with phonics, especially with English. Phonics rules get broken all.the.time. To the point where there almost seems to be more exceptions than not.

I just don’t see the point of learning a bajillion phonics rules when my kids could master a few basics and be learning through reading real stories, things they want to read, instead.

Learning to Read Without Phonics

My second child, now he was an interesting case study.

Beyond me reading picture books to him every day and other words in daily life, he would watch Word World every day for a year or more. And every day he would copy down all of the featured words in the episode.

He had pages and pages of words.

Occasionally, he would pull all of the pages back out and read through the words with some reminders from me or his older sister with what they said.

He was teaching himself to read through writing. He was memorizing whole words.

A year and a half later, when I finally sat down with him to work through the exact same reading curriculum I used with his phonics-learning brother, he strongly resisted phonics.

I would point them out and say typical things like, “‘A’ says ‘æ’.” But that information seemed to go right over his head. Instead, he seemed to memorize entire words, and once he knew a word, he knew it.

Even to this day, he pretty much ignores phonics.

How he progresses in his reading after we finished more official reading instruction, I’m not quite sure. He reads books, watches TV with subtitles and plays video games where he needs to know what the screen says to play the game (or to play it well, anyway).

And after teaching that child to read, I officially accepted that the “experts” can say whatever they want about phonics versus whole language. Every child is different – work with YOUR child, not the imaginary one the experts talk about.

But If Learning to Read Is a Natural Process, Why Does It Seem So Difficult for My Child (and me)?

If this is you, first of all, I’m so sorry if you are currently carrying the stress of a child’s reading struggles. I’m sure it does NOT feel great at all.

Because learning how to read is such an essential skill, when our kids don’t master it when we think they should, we tend to freak out…a lot. I’ve been there, at least with the freaking out part.

Here’s my take on it. You can take it or leave it.

My only experience so far with learning to read being difficult was the one time I attempted to teach my son to read before he was truly ready to learn.

He was in “first grade”, around the age of 6, and he had expressed interest in learning how to read. He was a bit tired of his sister needing to read everything to him, especially video games.

So I broke out the books, and we got started. And it went well…for first the first few days.

After the novelty wore off, his interest waned, and our daily reading times were like pulling teeth. I would offer in the morning, and he kept putting it off all day.

I told him it didn’t really seem like he wanted to learn to read. He agreed.

So we came to a mutual understanding to wait and try again when he felt like he was ready.

More than a year later, he came to me again, saying he was ready now. And like magic, it only took a month or two of reading together for him to take off running.

We worked our way through the three books in this super basic reading curriculum, and then he read aloud the Dog Man series to me.

After that, he progressed on his own.

So if reading seems difficult (and your child doesn’t already have a dyslexia diagnosis), I would ask just one thing: Does my child truly want to learn how to read?

Wanting to learn how to read can look like your child:

  • Asking to learn how to read (or you offering to teach the skill, and your child accepting).
  • Running over when you offer to do reading lessons, OR
  • Bringing you the reading books.
  • Working diligently and consistently to pick up the skill.

I’m not sure that “readiness” matters as much as desire to learn. If your child wants to learn, but all the “official” reading readiness skills aren’t quite there yet, it may be a more difficult process than with an older child who already has some of the basics in place.

If my child was struggling, I would assess – and discuss, to some degree, depending on age – and evaluate that underlying desire. If there desire isn’t there, for me, there isn’t a point in persevering through reading lessons.

On another note, if the desire IS there, and reading lessons are extremely painful, as in it takes an extremely long time to get through them without much progress, you may want to consider having your child evaluated for dyslexia or another learning disability.

Dyslexia is definitely a real struggle, if overdiagnosed. There seems to be a resistance to evaluation for learning disabilities in the relaxed homechooling/unschooling community.

I understand where they’re coming from, but I believe that every situation is different. You can’t give a blanket, “Do this, or don’t do this that covers every possible scenario.”

Personally, I wouldn’t consider this option until age 8 or 9, give or take, but you need to trust YOUR mom gut for YOUR unique child.

If your child truly wants to learn how to read and the pieces aren’t falling into place, having an outside evaluation can give you more direction and peace.

Just keep in mind that most evaluators are operating with the mindset that kids “should” learn to read by such and such age.

What Can You Do To Support Reading as a Natural Process?

There are several things you can do, but before I jump into those, I need to preface these suggestions by saying that this article assumes that you are homeschooling and raising your child outside of school.

So if you are reading this and your child is in school, you almost certainly do not have the luxury of waiting for learning to read to happen naturally. If that’s what you want, I strongly urge you to consider homeschooling.

Homeschooling gives you the freedom to wait, to use audiobooks and you reading aloud to your child while you wait for them to be ready to learn how to read.

1. Read aloud to your kids daily. Forever and ever, amen.

I can’t emphasize this enough. If you aren’t doing it, start doing it.

And don’t stop when they grow out of picture books. You can do this even if you don’t homeschool.

The Read Aloud Family has great practical suggestions that can help you get started.

Usually with picture books, at some point children will ask you to follow the words with your fingers. That’s when you know they are starting to associate the words you’re saying with individual groups of symbols on the page.

2. Create a language-rich environment.

Beyond reading to your kids, fill your home with words.

  • Books
  • Word Art
  • Signs
  • Closed Captions
  • Poetry Magnets

The more words, the better.

And let your kids see YOU reading.

If you are using your phone to read books, make sure to say that that’s what you’re doing. Because kids don’t always know you are using your phone in that way, I prefer to read using a kindle or physical books.

3. Consider relaxing screentime limits (or going unlimited altogether).

This one is pretty controversial, I know. And I keep promising a full blown post on why we made became a no-screen limits family last year – once it’s done I’ll link it here!

But I will say that two of my kids were strongly motivated to learn how to read by video games. They wanted to be able to play the games on their own, without the help of me or an older sibling (mostly the older sibling – video games aren’t my thing).

You can also put closed captions on shows.

It’s just one more way to create a language-rich environment.

4. Periodically offer reading instruction when you see signs of interest.

When I see sparks of interest, and I think readiness is there, I offer reading lessons. Take it, or leave it.

If as we start the process, they don’t seem as ready as I thought, as in they aren’t making connections AT ALL, I let it go. and stop initiating on a daily basis.

Then I wait. I offer again when they seem ready OR they come to me asking to learn.

5. Be patient, and trust the process.

This is the hardest part. It’s much easier said than done.

Until they express interest, keep reading, keep exposing them to language, keep trusting.

Oh, and deschool yourself. Work on your homeschool mom mindset using these homeschool quotes.

Work to get out all the thoughts that told you kids need adults to pretty much shove learning down their throat or they won’t learn (total lie, by the way). It’s a lifelong process.

Learning to Read Will Happen. This is Your Invitation to Be Patient.

There’s more than one way to do this whole reading thing. And as the homeschool parent, the beauty of homeschooling is that you get to choose.

Will you choose patience? Will you push past the fears that if your child doesn’t express interest (or turns down your offer of reading instruction) by a certain age, that it will be o.k.?

Will you trust that they will want to learn how to read eventually? Just like they wanted to learn how to walk and talk and use the toilet? Well, maybe you didn’t wait for the whole wanting part with that last one, and that’s o.k.

You are more than welcome to push learning to read earlier. Some children are far more compliant than others and accept that it’s just something they “have to do”.

Many children learn how to read that way, and they do just fine. Your child, your call.

But I would invite you to consider patience and trust. I’ve personally found it to be a much easier, far more natural process that’s led to three children so far who love to read.

You don’t need to take my word for it though – I’m just one mom who has three readers so far. You can find more stories about a “wait for desire” approach in these unschooling books.

Don’t have time for multiple books? Start with this post on reading and unschooling by one of my favorite unschooling bloggers and I’m sure you can follow a rabbit trail of other resources from there.

I truly believe that children will genuinely want to learn how to read at some point, when given the chance to develop that desire, free from the pressure to do so.

How did your child learn how to read? Did it seem like a natural process to you? Share in the comments!

Read Next: Unschooling Language Arts – A Guide to the Elementary Years

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing these tips and thoughts. I used to teach 1st grade and loved teaching kiddos how to read, now am homeschooling my own kids and am about to venture into the season where I teach my daughter how to read. I love that it can be so much more of a fun experience now, rather than a requirement, as the schools have to do (rightfully so due to the nature). It’ll be interesting to see how this experience seems so much more natural!

    1. Author

      You’re welcome Mollie! I’ll be curious to see what you find as you dive into the reading process.

  2. This has been our experience as well. My eldest started reading before his 5th birthday, so when my second child wasn’t reading by 6, then 7, we started getting nervous. She wanted to learn, so I did some reading lessons, but she was just getting frustrated. I took a deep breath and decided to take the summer off – we did our usual daily reading aloud, but with no prompting her to read the words she “should” know, no asking her to “read together.” I was very strict with myself not to do any pushing or quizzing whatsoever. By the fall (she was now 7.5), it was like night and day. She started wanting to read again, and we could see that it just clicked! At 8 she is reading fluently, and learning new words every day. Now her younger sister at 6 is starting to point out words she knows and trying to read along. They’re all different!! And because we never set an expectation that kids *must* learn to read by a certain age, big sister doesnt feel self-conscious that little sister is learning to read along with her, any more than they have felt with walking, talking, swinging, or swimming. They can see that everyone learns different things differently!

    1. Author

      So true Heather – every child is different! I love that kids can learn how to read without the pressure.

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