"Is Thomas reading yet?"
By Beverley Paine
An excerpt from Learning in the Absence of Education
And then there is the predictable, annual, question. "Is Thomas reading yet?" my mother asks, yet again, on the phone. "He's coming along nicely now, thank you." I answer.
Just what do you say to all those people who care, and worry, about your boy's reading ability? Thomas didn't pick reading up at five, like everyone(?) else; his sixth birthday came and went and he still needed help with reading his birthday cards; seven saw him writing lists with help; eight saw him copying out words for his stories; nine saw him trying to decipher the Lego catalogue; ten saw him once more needing the Stars Wars subtitles read aloud to him, and then finally, later in that year, he began to read simple sentences, lists and books with relative ease!
What happened to make it all come together? Had I finally 'taught' him to read? I don't believe so. And I don't believe all the worrying was very useful either, but with so much pressure from other people to get Thomas to read before he was well and truly ready, it was hard to resist. The most difficult part was resisting the urge to compare him with others, especially his siblings. I was very grateful his brother learned to read slowly, finally reading reasonably well and independently by eight and a half years. Not that Roger then chose to use his reading skills to read novels. At fourteen, and with very little reading experience behind him, he is able to read anything he wants or has need to.
Like most parents we started to encourage Thomas to learn to read at around age four, preceded by the usual reading aloud of picture books as a baby and toddler. Years of gentle 'teaching' and persuasion followed, using the usual tools of phonics, early childhood readers, picture books, reading readiness work books, personal and picture dictionaries, computer games, projects, story writing, daily diaries, puzzles and games. We tried to concentrate on writing and reading activities that were meaningful in his life, as well as simply pleasurable. At times Thomas was exposed to off the shelf activity work books, and he completed all of these without problems. He just couldn't read yet.
I read volumes of works dedicated to how children learn to read and write. We didn't put a lot of pressure on Thomas, telling him it would happen when he was ready. We just weren't ready for that to be when he was ten and a half!
Thomas's reading ability continued its slow rate of improvement. There was nothing either of us could do to accelerate his skill building, without imposing tedious remedial learning tasks that served only to frustrate Thomas further, and to diminish his self esteem, as most concentrated on simple phonic skill building.
We didn't 'teach' reading every day, but focused on it in spurts. Nothing I tried had any lasting effect. It was like putting a long, slow jigsaw puzzle together. His motivation to read was always high; he wanted to be able to read, but it just wasn't important enough most of the time. There was always something else to do. He was busy, active, learning all the time a tremendous amount of knowledge about the world about him, without needing to read. He had accumulated a lot of useful, practical skills, without needing to read. Reading just wasn't that necessary.
We did come across a list of words, one hundred of the most common words in the English language. Thomas rote learned about sixty of these, and that helped. But still progress beyond this stage was slow.
Despite being unable to read Thomas was fascinated by print. He would 'read' the dictionary while playing scrabble, from the age of four! He looked at magazines, sometimes for hours a day. He poured over the writing in his Lego catalogues, learning to read the words, just as his brother had before him. Slowly, ever so slowly it did all come together, until the day came that Thomas found that he couldn't stop reading. Whatever was lying around on the table, or posted on the wall, advertisements when out shopping - Thomas was reading, or trying to read them all.
I believe he is able to read now at this age, because finally the letters are connecting into words in a meaningful way in his head. It seems to be a brain readiness thing. Thomas hasn't been disadvantaged by this 'lateness' of reading. Our emphasis on reading with meaning and our example of daily reading for meaning ourselves have been important elements of his 'reading program'. The most important element, however, was our ever present trust he would eventually learn to read, in his own way, in his own time!
At twelve years of age he still had a long way to go. But we were reassured that at least he was moderately independent. He didn't consider himself learning disabled, although understands that a school would have labeled him thusly. He knows he is learning differently, and at a different rate, to other children.
When his grandmother comes to visit next time Thomas will be able to answer her question, confidently and happily, dispelling her unnecessary worry about his reading ability.
Thomas is now 25 and has no problems with reading or writing: he has been publishing articles on the internet since age seventeen when he built an online forum www.offroadingsubarus.com . At the age of six Thomas said he wanted to be a writer when he grew up and so he is! A late start didn't diminish his ability to fulfill his ambition. Lots of loving attention, together with protection from harmful criticism and judgment of his abilities at an early age were the key ingredients in achieving this success.
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Since 1989 Beverley Paine has steadfastly promoted and supported home education as an educational choice for Australia families. Her books and websites aim to demystify education, gently deschooling families so that they may meet their children's individual and unique educational and developmental needs. Her honesty, insights and wealth of experience continues to bring hope, reassurance and confidence to families. Beverley publishes her recent articles, tips and links to resources in her quarterly magazine, Homeschool Unschool