Learning to read

This feels like the biggest home educating milestone, doesn’t it? Still, 27 years into our home educating adventure, I’m not sure how the process happens.. but with a span of 6 children we have seen a variety of approaches and outcomes. I made the Montessori sandpaper letters for Darragh… but he was a year old and they were packed away in one of our many moves (14 in his first 8 years!) by the time they might have interested him. My mother had a copy of Glen Doman’s “Teach Your Baby to Read” but I was trying to be less parent- led about the process. He wasn’t a fan of flash cards.

He LOVED the Teenage Mutant Hero (Ninja) Turtles. So he was 4 years old and we we were walking back from Bushy Park in Dublin and he said “there’s Raphael’s letter” when he saw an “R” on a manhole cover on the road. Hmmm… maybe there’s some truth in this theory that children learn according to their interests,  my 23 year old self mused. We collected various props along our travels… magnetic letters being a favourite. All upper case because “PDBQ” are very different as capitals but “pdbq” are all the same shape, just oriented differently.

We read books. We listened to stories on tape: early 90s folks! (before CDs were much than a twinkle in some-one’s eye). The whole reading thing came together for Darragh before he turned 9, which didn’t seem late or early to me by then; it just WAS. The next 2 boys, Oisín and Emmet, read a Level 1 Ladybird (“3 Little Pigs” and “Little Red Hen”) around the age of 6 1/2 and were reading fluently and for pleasure 2 years later. There was a stage when Darragh stopped reading for his own enjoyment, it seemed to me. (Co-incidentally or maybe not? he went to school aged 12 years and 10 months.) He would read to his younger brothers, though. I tried all sorts. I bought “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. No interest.  I took out a year’s subscription to an astronomy magazine. The last few month’s envelopes lay unopened. I bought football magazines. Then when he was 14, he was given a copy of “The Lord of the Rings” and he’s been an avid reader ever since. He had finished his early school experiment by then, and came out after completing first year of secondary school. Tolkien remains a family favourite and the younger 5 all like Harry Potter.

“Letterland” was all the rage when Oisín and Emmet were beginning to read and we bought one book each but they were nearly £5 in old money, at least twice as expensive as other books and it felt a bit gimmicky to me.

Elva went from reading a Ladybird Level 1 to an Enid Blyton “Secret 7” 4 months before she turned 9, and by that birthday she had read the 7 Harry Potter books. She generally has at least 4 books on the go and will take at least 2 books on any journey, even if it’s to the post office or some quick errand.

Eamonn is 6 and sometimes demands “teach me to read!” when an older sibling tells him he needs to learn so he can take part in whatever board game they’re playing. He’s writing his own book and learning some words, but the “switch” isn’t quite there… when those squiggles all make sense.

A lovely souvenir we have for each child is a book of pictures and photographs with a line dictated by the child e.g.

“Here is Oisín’s family”.

“This is a giraffe”.

“We saw monkeys at the zoo”.

I made them from photo albums with photos, pictures form magazines and index cards with the words the child said.

I love that books and stories and words and ideas are important to everyone in the family and that most of the children see themselves as authors who are writing their own tales (with a heavy emphasis on mediaeval sagas:swords and horses feature alot!)


6 thoughts on “Learning to read

  1. Love reading your blog, Monica. Reading is such an interesting journey to watch unfold. My mum says I learned to read when I was 3. I loved reading, despite the public school system nearly eliminating the love of learning from me altogether. My two sons, ages 7 and 9 are both voracious readers. They both began reading young, but the love of it really took off once we took them out of public school. I bought them Shel Silversteins “A Light in the Attic” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends” books at the beginning of our HS journey and they couldn’t put them down. Now my eldest is into everything Shakespeare. My youngest adore Horrible Histories. I love to see them so happy when they read.


      • Cant remember a time when I did not have my head in a book,from a young age would literally devour them,all 3 of my girls also devour books the but the two boys not into books so much.My two oldest grandchildren also love books.


      • Thanks for your comment Liz. Great to see you here. Aren’t books such great company? Yes; the “how to encourage reading for boys” seems to be a long running conundrum. X


  2. Lovely post Monica. I taught Siobhan & Diane, aged 3.5 years and 2.5 years – honestly – was I mad or what? using Ladybird books, in about 20 minutes one-to-one, about 4 days a week, for 3-4 months. After that, i never taught them reading again. I just put books their way – nice books about things that they were interested in.
    Tom & Ben learned by asking their Dad, in bed in the mornings – Spell Mum, Spell Dad, spell Tom, Spell Ben etc. Jude & didi learned because they were such fierce rivals – if one know something, the other had to know it too.
    Peter didn’t really learn till he was living in New York, aged 17, and needed to read orders for work. But he reads books now, and doesn’t seem to be hampered. by then, i was thinking about how reading opens many doors and opportunities, but it also closes others. Eyes that are trained to read, imho opinion, then see the real world in a different way; something is lost. so I didn’t want to take that away from Peter; and eventually he read anyway.
    I don’t agree with the absolute declarations of the educational establishment – they must learn x by age y, or they never will. Everyone is different. The educational establishment, by its very existence, and the effects of its processing of entire populations over several generations, is creating “norms” that are not necessarily true or universal.


    • Thanks Carmel. I remember your Peter doing the “Jane and Peter” books, I think? It’s very reassuring to have had such a span of experiences… reassuring for new unschoolers, I mean. To have a broad range of ages of learning to read in one family shows how individual it can be xxx


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