Learning to Read by Backing Off


Both of my daughters crossed that magical line into reading “fluency” at around the same time – each in the second half of their 2nd grade year. I know there were YEARS of build up, but still, it seemed to happen overnight. Like magic. Their individual journeys to get there were vastly different, but after partnering, guiding, facilitating, and then just plain old staying out of the way, I felt pretty confident that my youngest, a boy, would find his own way, too, in his own time.

And yet...

He didn’t seem to be as interested in the whole reading thing. Being read to, yes! But not reading for himself.

Being six and not interested didn’t bother me. Not a bit.

Being seven and not interested didn’t bother me. Not really.

Being eight and not interested didn’t...wait, that started to bother me.

So I tried a little bit of extra “nudging”. Nudging that was not well received by my son. I’m a big fan of a well-placed, gentle nudge, but it should be noted that continuing to offer unwelcome nudging is nudging no longer. It becomes pushing. I knew better, and yet here I was – pushing. So I backed off.

Well, let’s be honest here. I backed off after I went ahead and made a mess of things. But I backed off. I took a deep breath and continued on – continued to read to him, answer his questions about what things said in his video games and on television, birthday cards, signs, and books he would look through. When I read aloud to him before bed I would still offer to read with him if he wanted. And then were times when I didn’t offer, that he asked. A book that seemed to click for him, that prompted him to ask more nights than not to read to me, was The Children’s Story Bible.

It was at this point in the whole process that this eight-year-old of mine informed me that he reads all the time during the day. All the time.

Really? The schoolish part of me (a very teeny tiny part, but still there to rear her disdainful head from time to time) clucked her tongue and said, “I don’t see any of that going on, and if I don’t see it and hear it and measure it, then it didn’t happen. And besides, ​whatever it is he’s doing is NOT the same thing as sitting down with me and practicing reading.”

I promptly slapped the schoolish part of me. Hard. She didn’t even see it coming.

And then I listened to my young son as he matter-of-factly told me how he reads everywhere we go. How when nobody is watching him or asking him questions, he reads signs. Street signs, signs in restaurants, at the library, businesses we drive by and stop in...signs EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME.

I smiled and told him how awesome that was, and that one day soon he’d be able to read anything and everything without even having to try. He just would, like his older sisters. He was still a tad doubtful.

After that conversation, I began to pay a bit more attention. I discreetly watched him at moments throughout the day. Watched how observant he was, noticed the times where he stood looking at a sign or a cereal box, sometimes mouthing the words to himself. The unschooler in me went ahead and called forth that schoolish part (the part I’d slapped with relish into a dark, isolated corner). “See? Do you see that? That’s how it happens. Shame on you for making me doubt, for making me not see the full value and beauty in that.”

My son is nine now and will be a 4th grader. He enjoys reading shorter books with lots of pictures or illustrations thrown in here and there. As his skills grow, so does his confidence in himself. The lure of food coupons and cheap toys through our local library’s summer reading program has prompted yet another burst in his reading fluency. So now at night before I read to him, he’ll lie there reading a Mr. Putter and Tabby book.

I just sit there with him, keeping him company, waiting for my turn to read to him. Sometimes he reads out loud to me. Other times he reads silently to himself, occasionally turning the book around and pointing to a word he can’t figure out.

The schoolish part of me would have made him sound it out or figure it out for himself. But now I simply answer my son’s questions.