Does reading have to be taught?

As part of the online conversation I referred to earlier, one of the commenters said that “not teaching a child to read and write does them a great disservice”.

Besides her obvious misunderstanding of what unschooling is all about, there is a subtle assumption in the statement which I find very interesting.

What does it mean to “teach a child to read”? I think most people imagine a teacher or parent sitting down and “explaining” reading to a child. We all remember the Hooked on Phonics craze, and products like LeapFrog perpetuate the idea that reading is something children need to be taught how to do.

But nobody thinks of learning to speak in the same way. You would not tell someone they need to send their infant to school in order to learn the spoken language. Children learn how to speak simply by being around other people who speak. Nobody has to “teach” them. So why is it that society assumes children have to be taught how to read and write, but we don’t believe infants need to be taught language in the same way?

Can you imagine someone suggesting you should send your 1 year old to a school to learn how to speak English? Your reaction might be something like “He doesn’t have to go to school to learn that. He’ll just learn it, all babies do. They just need to hear people speaking about anything, just daily life, and they will learn.”

And yet when it comes to reading and writing we don’t believe the above. Well, I do. I would give the same reply above to someone who said I needed to send my daughter to school to learn reading. In fact, I will go so far as to suggest that all children, barring a learning disability, can learn to read all on their own provided they are exposed to people reading books out loud. Has this experiment been done? It would be difficult given that most children are sent to school right around the age at which many of them will start learning to read on their own. We’d need to look at a random sampling of totally unschooled children, and we all know that study ain’t going to be funded any time soon! The statistics on this page are almost certainly gathered from school children, so saying that “20% – 30% of children learn to read relatively easily after exposure to formal education” does not prove that the formal education is what got them reading. I’d be very curious to know where they got their control group.

Another thing that bothers me is this idea of children being “behind” if they can’t read at a certain age. Most parents seem to equate reading with intelligence and a successful life (we could argue about their definition of successful, but that’s for another post). In fact, if you were to suggest to a group of school parents that it’s okay for an unschooled child to not be reading by age 8 they would likely think you a terribly neglectful parent who is putting your child’s future at risk. Just because early reading is correlated with various “successful outcomes” in life does not prove a causative relationship. I believe this misunderstanding of the difference between correlation and causation lies behind the near-hysterical obsession our society has with children’s learning in general, and with reading in particular.

As a biostatistics geek I find this attitude to be nonsensical. Let’s assume that the distribution of ages where reading begins is Gaussian, or Normal (i.e. your standard bell-shaped curve). The peak of the curve is the Average Age, and the bell forms mirror images on either side of that average. Thus, a child who reads 2 years earlier than the average is at the same Standard Deviation from the Mean as a child who reads two years LATER than the average (standard deviations, represented by the greek letter sigma, are a measure of distance from the mean and, in normal distributions, are equal on either side of the mean). But in our society we treat the child on the left side of the distribution as a genius while the child on the right side of the distribution is “behind” and needs help. It just doesn’t make sense since both children represent the same deviation from average. I believe schools expect kids to be doing some reading by grade one, so let’s assume the average age to be 6. So a child who reads at age 3 (like I did, and like my daughter did) is three points away from average. Well, so is a child who doesn’t read until they are 9. We celebrate the 3 year old and send the 9 year old off to Sylvan or some other tutoring service.

I think we’ve become so used to the whole concept of School that most folks in society just don’t even question their assumptions anymore: kids need to be taught reading and writing because that is what happens at school. We’ve lost our faith in the innate ability of children to learn, and in their innate, instinctual drive to learn.

My daughter walked up to me the other day and handed me this:

I have never asked her to write: she does it the same way she draws and colours, which is to say spontaneously and with interest. I didn’t bother to correct her with red pen marks. She knows how to spell “frog” but she made a mistake by writing and E instead of an R. And you can see her “J” is backwards. Our Learning Consultant said this is totally normal and I suspect there is an explanation for this based on neurological development. If I looked at reading as something I need to teach her, than I might be concerned about her mistakes. Instead I see her backwards “J” the same way I saw her brother when he was trying to walk: they’ll get there eventually.

Anyways, I realize that my daughter happens to be particularly skilled in this area and not all children learn to read and write at such an early age, but I don’t believe that it makes her any more normal than a child who doesn’t start reading until they are 7 or 8. And while it’s true that some kids will not find it fun nor interesting to write out words and rhymes, they will get to some point in the pursuit of their own interests where reading and writing are an asset, and at that point I’m convinced that most could learn with little difficulty (in fact, anecdotal stories lead me to believe they would learn in a couple of weeks what the early readers took a year or two to develop). If only we could be more patient with our children and let Nature take its course…what wonderful things would we, as a society, come to learn about them?

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Does reading have to be taught?

  1. Canterbury Academy

    Could not have said it better myself! Great post!

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