Learning to Read While Unschooling

A couple weeks ago my newly-turned 6 year old decided to learn how to read. 

Now, this didn’t come completely out of the blue. She’s been making some noise about wanting to learn how to read for several months, but every other time I had sat down with her to work on letter sounds it had quickly become clear that she wasn’t quite ready. 

This time was different. 

This time she approached me with a plan. 

First, she folded up a piece of paper and asked me to write the alphabet — with both “big” and “little” letters — for her. I obliged and went back to doing whatever I had been doing. About ten minutes later, she came back with several folded pieces of paper and informed me that she needed help stapling them together so that it could be her reading book.

We got the reading book all stapled and she asked me to spell out the title “*6 Year Old’s Name* Reading Book” so she could write it on the front. She’s known how to read and write her name for a while so all those letters were fine, but she didn’t know what most of the others even looked like. I discovered at this point why she had wanted the alphabet written out: every unknown letter I told her to write, she would look up by singing the alphabet song and pointing at each letter in the alphabet until she came to the correct one. 

At this point I was beginning to pay a bit more attention. 

Now, generally speaking, when my children have difficulties with something and get frustrated, we take a break. I don’t push them to continue, although I do encourage them a great deal. Every single time, it’s been about six months before they’re ready to try again and at that point they often find the previously difficult skill to be ridiculously easy. 

At this point it had only been a couple of months since her last serious reading attempt and it had been very frustrating for her. I put it down, fully anticipating that we wouldn’t see a marked improvement in her reading readiness for around six months, so when she first approached me this time, I began the process without being attached to any significant outcomes. 

But here she was! Proactively creating her own method for learning how to read and write on her own terms.

Then she informed me that she was ready to read “those books on [my] iPad.” The “those books” she referred to are the New Alphabetti books from ProgressivePhonics.com. I had been very impressed with them a couple months previously when we had first looked at them together. She had been less impressed, but now was insistent that she was going to read and that she wanted to read those books. Now.

Okay, then! We sat down with the iPad as soon as I got the 2 year old occupied with his building blocks. 

I immediately noticed a difference in my 6 year old’s readiness. 

Instead of needing constant help and reminders the way she had a couple months ago, she was remembering the letter sounds on her own. When we came to a new word that she hadn’t learned before, she sounded it out and then painstakingly wrote it down in her “reading notebook” before we continued. 

At the end of the book, she insisted on reading the next one right away! 

My 6 year old simply created her own reading program — including copywork — on her own terms and based on what she needed in order to learn how to read. 

When she finished the second book, we mutually decided that we should wait until the next day to begin the third. At that point she informed me that her goal is to participate in National Novel Writing Month this November with her two older sisters and me. 

I couldn’t be any prouder. 

Between my oldest two children, I already have a computer programmer, a gymnast, a musician, a ballerina, and two authors. I cannot wait to find out what interests this third child decides to pursue! I only hope that we’re able to continue supporting them all in whatever ways they need us to as they grow and find more interests or refine the ones they already have. 

Homeschooling, Responsibility, and Educational “Gaps”

An excellent post, “What If,” showed up in my Facebook news feed today. It’s about the “what if” questions that “interest led” homeschoolers typically get asked and it reminded me of a discussion I had many years ago – almost a decade now, actually – when my oldest was a baby.

I happened to tell a woman at the local La Leche League meeting that we were planning to homeschool because I had been homeschooled myself and had loved it. In response she told me that she didn’t think she would be able to handle shouldering ALL the responsibility for her children’s education and that she would be too worried about ensuring that there weren’t any “gaps” in their education since she, being only one person, couldn’t possibly know everything that her children might potentially need to know.

She asked me how I thought I could handle that immense amount of pressure.

I thought for a few moments before responding because these weren’t issues I had considered before. In the spirit of the other article and before giving you my responses, I’ll put her statements into the “what if” format.

*What if you fail to teach them everything they need to learn? <- which is also assuming that all the educational responsibility is on the homeschooling parent.

I told her that, first of all, my children’s education wouldn’t all be on me…. because homeschoolers, in my experience, are often encouraged to go out and find mentors or classes in the community to help them pursue their specific interests if the parents cannot teach them adequately or to a more advanced level in that area.

In my own homeschooling life, by middle school I was primarily interested in music and music education so I took piano lessons and was allowed to attend band classes at the local public middle and high schools. By high school, I was well on my way to learning multiple band instruments. By my sophomore year I was attending five separate band classes as well as assisting the high school band director in multiple ways – sorting sheet music, cataloging the music library, tutoring other students, and generally trying to be helpful.

All of that extra music focus was in addition to the usual school subjects that I continued doing through high school. Attending the music classes was also my own idea to start with, helped along by the ample encouragement I received from my parents. I had attended a piano teacher training course and was teaching my own young piano students by the time I was 16 years old.

My parents, on their own, could not have helped me advance as far in instrumental music and music education as I eventually advanced, and yet I managed to advance that far by finding an adult mentor (my band director, whom I still see fairly often on Facebook) and well over a hundred peer mentors and mentees (fellow band geeks, unite!) as well as eventually choosing to major in Music Education at an excellent college.

In my children’s lives right now, finding mentors/classes involves them attending ballet classes and roller skating lessons – which are interests that are also beyond the scope of most public/private schools. We’ve been involved in co-ops in the past for subjects as diverse as art and science. As they find more and different interests that I don’t know enough about to assist them in learning, we will help and/or encourage them to find classes or mentors for those interests as well. Naturally, their musical interests have been well covered by my own knowledge and experiences so far 🙂

*What if your children have significant gaps in their educations because you yourself can’t possibly know everything they need to know?

In response to that part, I simply asked that person I was talking to if she thought her (public school) education had been without gaps and she seemed to suddenly understand. Oh, NO education is without gaps. Right. In fact, she told me that the gaps in her education were part of the reason she was concerned about having the responsibility for her children’s potential educational gaps, which is completely understandable.

We talked a bit more about how there really isn’t any way of ensuring that there won’t be educational “gaps” because even if someone is taught everything in the world in the most effective way possible, they aren’t going to be able to remember every single thing. There will still be gaps no matter how rigorous the curriculum is or how well-trained the teacher is.

I explained so many years ago that the most important thing to me then, as well as now, is that I help to set my children up for a life full of learning. I will do everything in my power to help them learn the basics so that they have a good foundation. I will facilitate and encourage them in everything they want or need to learn. Ultimately, though, I will consider their early learning to be a success if they retain and build upon their innate love for learning and knowledge of how to learn because then they will be able to fill in those inevitable “gaps” as they want or need to do.

My parents, especially my father, modeled a love of learning to me throughout my life that has carried me through numerous interests and jobs. They cultivated my love of learning and I cannot think of a single day when I haven’t learned something new and enjoyed the process. I have easily been able to fill my educational gaps every time it has become clear that there was a gap that needed to be filled. That ability has been priceless to me.

That is what I want for my children.

Disclaimer: I do not speak for all homeschoolers, only for myself. There are many different reasons out there for homeschooling and many other types of homeschoolers that may or may not fit within the scope of this post.

“Better than Co-op”

So, it would appear that my children prefer being unschooled in a kind of Charlotte Mason-y way to belonging to a co-op. Even a fun co-op with their friends. They had been pretty upset about not being able to be in co-op this year and I was worried about how they’d do once the school year started more officially for other children, but my fears were apparently unfounded.

We were at the park last week, learning about leaves, when one of my daughters piped up, “This is better than co-op!” I said, “Really?” Apparently co-op had been “too much like school.” Upon further questioning more things just tumbled out of all three girls, things like, “We only got five minutes of break to play.” and “They didn’t let you teach enough and we loved it when you taught music!” (unexpected ego boost there!) and finally: “We didn’t get to choose what we learned. The teachers got to choose and that’s not fair!”

Oh. Well. They have a good point there. After all, I have always encouraged my children to find what they’re interested in and then I help facilitate that learning by making sure they have the resources available to learn about whatever it is. I read to them, we watch documentaries, they read, explore, create, and play-act things out.

When there are things that I believe are important enough for them to really need to learn, it’s part of my job to make that topic interesting and exciting to my children. I love to read so transferring that love to them hasn’t been very difficult. We found a math curriculum that I love, so again, they love it (I’ve questioned them several times about it). I found a history curriculum that I enjoy reading to them, so they enjoy hearing it (in moderation – not every day).

To my mind, if it’s worth learning, it’s worth being excited about. People don’t tend to retain information that isn’t relevant or exciting or interesting to them in some way. It’s often more of a challenge to help a child find a passion for a topic than to simply feed them information they aren’t interested in, but it’s infinitely more rewarding in the long run because they are much more likely to actually retain the information.

We’ve been so much more relaxed this year without having to worry about getting to co-op on time and trying to teach something that the other parents don’t seem to appreciate (or care to help their children appreciate). It’s been much nicer since my children have been able to take turns choosing the topics of interest that we’re currently studying and if a topic ends up *not* being interesting for whatever reason, we can just switch topics as easily as not.

We’re just over a quarter of the way through the school year and I’m greatly looking forward to whatever the next three quarters bring us!

Currently we are studying: Vincent VanGogh, John Philip Sousa, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Leaves in addition to Life of Fred math, Story of the World history (in moderation), cooking, painting, computer programming, and whatever else we fancy to learn more about.

A Lovely Aspect of Homeschooling

One of the absolute best aspects of homeschooling for me, personally, is discovering new interests right alongside my children.

We’re trying something new this year. Last year we were part of a local Charlotte Mason co-op, which won’t work this year due to scheduling conflicts, and we learned about different composers and their music, artists and their art, poets and their poetry, and we did nature study outside using nature notebooks to record findings.

Those subjects of study may seem peripheral to most people and even to the public school system, from what I can tell, but I believe that they form a foundation for an appreciation of the finer things of life, as well as for a greater understanding of the world and culture we live in, and I can’t imagine ignoring these subjects, despite the fact that the co-op isn’t going to work for us right now.

We were able to base nearly all of our minor subjects on the lives of musicians, artists, and poets last year. Geography, social studies, some musical math, a bit of science, and even some history have all been brought alive by the music, art, and poetry of various countries, time periods, and individuals. I can turn on classical music and my children can tell me what instruments are being used, what type of music it likely is, and sometimes which composer wrote it. My children can immediately recognize the style of Impressionism when faced with an unfamiliar painting and I look forward to introducing them to many more styles as we continue throughout the years.

Anyhow, this year, given the situation and also to help my children handle the disappointment of not being able to see their friends for co-op, I had my oldest (8yo) choose our first subjects of study. She has chosen Degas for our artist, Tchaikovsky for our composer, Rose Fyleman for our poet, and to begin with leaves for nature study. Her next younger sister will get to choose the next set of topics once we have thoroughly examined this first set 🙂

Throughout the process of gathering books and information on Degas, I’m apparently developing a great appreciation for art. I’ve always been more musically inclined, but I suddenly have found an appreciation where there wasn’t any before. It’s invigorating to find good sources, books about his life and works, and documentaries to fill our days that aren’t going to be quite as productive due to various factors.

This year is looking far more promising than I had previously expected it to be and all the children are thrilled to be so involved in the choosing of our poet, composer, and artist. I, also, am looking forward to continuing to develop more of an appreciation for art and poetry alongside my children and for my children to continue developing a great appreciation for the great composers, which has been my greatest pleasure to share with them ❤

A Proud Mama Moment

My oldest daughter, my just-turned-eight year old, received everything she asked for on her birthday this year. Spoiled? Maybe. Although, given what she asked for, I feel as though I’m the spoiled one.

She asked for a dictionary and  a snake reference book. We found her two reptile books because there didn’t seem to be any that were only about snakes. She has absolutely loved and used them all since her birthday and I’m just as pleased as can be that she loves reading and learning as much as she does!

This is my child who was barely reading more than the words “cat” and “dog” a year and a half ago and who has devoured books as varied as Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Secret Garden, and Tennis Shoes in the past year.

I love seeing how much she loves learning and I love talking to her about the books I loved to read when I was her age!

I used to love reading reference books when I was her age too, and I still do, actually 🙂

birthday books

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