Learning to Read

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Learning to Read

By Annie Regan

When I was a primary school teacher, one of my main philosophies was about helping all students learn to read. I still believe in the importance of reading, however, I now see it as a lifelong skill and not something that needs to be learnt by age six, and not a skill that needs to be actively taught. My three children learnt to read in their own time, using their own methods, without ever having any formal reading instruction.


I’ve always been interested in education, and even before I was a teacher or a parent, I believed strongly in supporting people to figure things out themselves, rather than providing explicit instruction or insisting they do things a certain way. This was how I approached my parenting and then my home education – providing opportunities, resources and support so that the kids could learn what interested them, in a way that made sense to them.

By the time my eldest was school age, I had read a lot about the benefits of children learning to read in their own time, and how children can’t learn to read until they are developmentally ready anyway. This was different to what I’d been exposed to in the school system, but it did fit with my own personal beliefs. I’m glad that I had explored this idea, otherwise I think those early years of home education could have been quite stressful.

Word games

We had always played a lot of word games – rhyming and sounds etc, and I read to the kids a lot. I also did a lot of reading myself, fiction, non-fiction, articles online, magazines, manuals etc, so the kids were always surrounded by words and reading.

As my eldest’s friends started school, we continued just playing games without any pressure or even talking about learning to read. Her friends would come over though and show her things they had been learning, so she was exposed to the idea of phonics. Her friends were sounding words out, and she was trying to, but it was quickly clear that it didn’t make any sense to her.

She’d learnt a few three-letter words from games we played (run, sit, cat, dog etc) and she could recognise these words when she saw them. She also knew the sounds of the letters of the alphabet, again from playing games and singing songs. If she saw a new word she could sound out each of the letters, but it didn’t then translate into putting those sounds together to make a word. She could sound H – A – T but to her that was three separate sounds that didn’t mean anything. She could read CAT, but if I asked her to replace the C with an H, it became a whole new word that she didn’t know. The tools her friends were telling her about didn’t help her. It quickly became clear that she was a whole word, rather than a phonics, reader.

I wasn’t worried because I’d read enough about learning to read, both when I was teaching and as a home educator doing my research, to know that different kids used different methods to learn to read. I was pleased that she wasn’t stuck in a school system that insisted she use a method that didn’t make sense to her. (I realised too, that I was also a whole word reader so I understood where she was coming from). We continued to play lots of word games (when she wanted to) and I read books to her and her siblings, read things to her when she needed to know what something said, and I trusted that her skills would develop as she became ready.


She gradually learnt to recognise more words as they became relevant to her. By the time she was seven she had a fair number of words she could read but wasn’t really interested in picking up new words for the sake of it.

At one point I thought she was ready to try to read a book – I picked the first page from the Cat in the Hat, because I thought that she could manage it, and suggested she read it with me. By the time we had struggled our way through the first paragraph we were both in tears and the other kids were upset as well.

That was the first and only attempt I made with any of the kids to get them to read when they didn’t want to, and the only ‘formal’ reading lesson any of them ever did. It was a clear reminder that if her brain wasn’t ready to decode the words yet, there was nothing I could do, no amount of me thinking she was old enough or even believing she was ready, that could make her brain do the work. And pushing through was only going to make reading a chore and something she didn’t want to do, rather than nurturing the love of reading that was going to make it easier in the long run.

By this point my extended family were starting to worry about her lack of reading progress. They’d been excited when she was reading a few words at age four or five and thought there should have been more progress than there had been. They were worried that my crazy home education ideas were neglectful and that she would be at a disadvantage for the rest of her life. A couple of family members in particular were not shy in expressing their concern to me. I could see that this was scary for them as it was so far out of their previous experience, so I tried to listen to their concerns, as well as to reassure them that I was confident that she was making progress in her own way and that the benefits of letting her take her time far outweighed those of putting pressure on her. Some of them relaxed a little but others stayed vocally concerned.

Luckily I had read about and spoken to so many parents of kids who were allowed the space to learn in their own time and all of them, now teens and adults, had learnt to read fluently. Some had learned by age 6, others as late as 14 or 15, but all without stress and trauma. I trusted in the process and believed that learning to read in one’s own time was a massive confidence boost – if you can solve the puzzle of learning to read in your own way then you have the confidence to solve other problems that you come across.

Got it!

Over time she picked up more and more words, and a few months after she turned eight she started to try to read books by herself. She’d skip words she didn’t know and was able to pick up the general story line and was quite happy at being able to understand more.

We went on holidays when she was 8 ½ and something clicked for her – suddenly she was feeling overwhelmed when we drove through a town because she could read all the words on all the signs and she couldn’t stop herself from reading them – there were words everywhere and she knew what they all were. She found it really tiring to suddenly be bombarded with so much information.


From then on her skill continued to develop quickly. She figured out ways to decipher new words – using bits of the word that she already knew, having a guess from context, or asking someone if she still wasn’t sure. She started to read more complicated books, although reading for pleasure has never been something that really appealed – she’s far too active to want to sit down quietly reading for very long. She started to read Harry Potter – I‘d sit with her and she’d read, and squeeze my hand if she didn’t know a word. It was a good way to move through the text smoothly without her getting stuck on words she didn’t know, and it helped her learn more words quickly. Before she was nine she could read anything she came across.

Even though I trusted all along that she would learn in her own time, I definitely felt relieved and a load of pressure lifted once she could read independently. My family backed off a bit and I felt like there was less pressure on the younger two kids, because we had evidence that this method could work.


My middle child always loved words and sounds and books. He would sit for hours and listen to stories, whereas my eldest would listen for a while then wander off to do something else. He liked to play with the sounds that different letters made, and noticed patterns in sounds and in word shapes from an early age. I assumed that this might lead to him reading at a younger age, however he is always cautious in his actions and there is a big difference between being able to play around with sounds and read bits and pieces of words, and reading for meaning and needing to get it right.
I’d read an article by a psychologist years ago that said for some kids, taking that step to reading independently is a big risk – lots of ways to get things wrong, and for cautious or anxious kids, they’d prefer to wait until they know they are right rather than just having a go. I saw this played out perfectly by my middle child. I could see his skills developing, but he was reluctant to test them until he was sure he knew what he was doing.

Pressure off

There was definitely less pressure from my family, as they’d seen that my methods didn’t stop my eldest from learning to read. There was also less pressure from me – even though I hadn’t felt like I had put pressure on as she was learning, I think there was a level of tension in me as I hoped that the philosophy I believed in was going to bring about results. This time I wasn’t worried, I was completely confident it would work, so there was no stress.

Through the early years of ‘primary school’ he absorbed knowledge from every source he could. Not being able to read didn’t slow him down. He listened attentively to documentaries and to books read to him, he pored over pictures in books and extracted every bit of information he could. He’d ask me to read the captions and then apply that to what he could see. He knew more about animals than just about anyone I knew.

Even my reluctant family were impressed with how much he knew without being able to read. It was a good reminder that schools need kids to read quite early as it’s then easier to present information to a large group – this isn’t necessary for meaningful learning in a one-on-one situation.
We continued playing lots of word games, and there’s always reading involved in any board game or computer game. I’d read instructions and text in games, I read books to him, including some long chapter books (hundreds of pages) and we listened to audio books. I could see the number of words he knew was increasing steadily. He could soon read gaming words like Play, Next, Level, as well as the descriptions of items in Minecraft. He could read ‘Knowledge’, ‘Strength’ and ‘Resistance’ before he could read ‘you’, ‘him’ or ‘and’. He learnt words that made his life easier and were relevant to his needs.


After he turned nine, I started to feel (and hear) pressure from my family again. In his case, I did everything I could to shield him from this pressure, as I knew it would add to his anxiety and his reluctance to try new words. He found it easier to say ‘I can’t read’, than risk being asked to read something he wasn’t sure of, so his skill level appeared to outsiders to be less than I knew it to be. I could see that he was learning as he asked me to read less and less for him. He was also able to sound words out and often commented on the weird way that words were spelled (e.g. noticing the k on the start of knife, which led to lots of discussions about the origin of words, or words with similar features). At age 11, he asked me to read things and then nod and smile – he was reading a lot of things himself and then asking me as confirmation that he’d got it right. He still wasn’t quite confident to trust himself or to read it aloud (which went against something I’d learnt when I was teaching, that kids always read aloud first before they can internalize it and read silently). I was confident that his skills were developing and I was managing to keep the family reassured most of the time.
One day when he was 12, I realised he was playing a heavily text-based game and he wasn’t asking me to read anything. This happened more and more often and soon he was only occasionally asking for clarification. He’d sometimes spell a word out for me rather than bring me what he was reading, and he continued to need less and less help. I‘d always read subtitles for him when watching movies and one day he said he didn’t need me to read them because he knew what they said.

By 12 ½ he could read just about everything he came across. The only time I see him falter now is when he is asked to read new words completely out of context, for example at a recent eye exam, which again is more to do with confidence than skill level.

Number Three

My third child has had by far the least pressure throughout her reading journey. Like her brother, she loved words and books and patterns from an early age – she’s always loved rhyming games and loves looking for similarities in words. She’s been hearing, and then joining in, word games since she was born. She had a huge pile of books read to her every night, long after the others stopped wanting picture books read, and she has listened to all the chapter books we read them as well.

She started sounding out bits and pieces of words at some stage, and started to recognise common words (like the names of Pokemon, commands in games, and other words that were relevant to her. We discovered she could read the word ‘Zoo’ when she was about 4 and we were driving to the zoo – she saw a sign with the word and an arrow on it and she told me the zoo was straight ahead). I read game text and instructions to her whenever she asked, and reading was a relaxed thing that she didn’t even realise might be an issue.

A challenge

One day she found an old list of sight words from my teaching days, and decided to try to read as many as she could. She read a few and came back to it every few weeks and tried a few more, then lost interest after a while. She tried to read a Harry Potter book as well and was happy recognizing the words she knew and having me help with the others.

When she was nine I noticed that she wasn’t coming and asking me to read game text to her anymore, and she was making comments that showed she could understand text around her – signs, instructions, labels on food, book names etc

Without any of us really noticing (including herself) she was now reading. She started reading chapter books and soon was taking a book with her when we went out – she loves to read for pleasure and is working her way through several series we have on our bookshelves.


I’m so pleased that I was able to trust all of my children to take the time they needed to develop the decoding skills necessary for reading, in their own time. This is a skill that they now have and they have the confidence and knowledge that they achieved it on their own.

I provided a supportive, print-rich, reading-friendly environment and made sure that reading was only ever seen as a useful tool and not a measure of worthiness or success. They now all read fluently and easily, with no trauma associated with the learning process.

Just one of the great articles from Otherways 164

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