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Self-directed learning, part 4: How will children learn to read? | The Homepage

By Maggie Bogdanich

How will they learn how to read?!?! This is a common question for folks new to the concept of child-led learning.

A light-brown-skinned child of five or six with dark brown, shoulder length hair and a pink shirt sits at a table looking at an alphabet worksheet. The table has a few reading workbooks on it. An adult woman with light skin and red hair is also sitting at the table; she points to something on the worksheet.
The author's daughter in 2017 getting help learning to read from one of Three Rivers Village School's founders. Photo by Maggie Bogdanich

Reading is one of the most useful tools known to humankind. Perhaps that is why it is one of the first things students are expected to learn upon entering school at age 5. Sometimes it is easy for a child to learn. They can follow along with a teacher, pick up on phonetics, string sounds together, and begin to understand context. However, not all kids are developmentally ready to do any of that by the age of 5. In fact, many kids aren’t ready. Or they may simply be interested in other things. It’s easy to get by as a pre-literate youngster.

Students who struggle to learn to read at a young age are often judged as less intelligent or even troublemakers. Left to their own time, at some point kids recognize how important reading is and the desire to learn arises in them. Oftentimes the desire is so strong it takes very little time for them to pick it up, especially if they are within supportive environments and around others who read and will read to them. TRVS doesn’t require students to take a reading class, however, we witness kids learning to do so all the time and in many ways in ages typically ranging from 5-10.

One way, though not necessarily the most common, is for students to receive support from a school staff member in the form of repeated lessons with simple tools like workbooks or flashcards. Some kids are curious about all the words they see around them on signs, t-shirts, vehicles, and will ask someone in the vicinity to read it to them and slowly over time they memorize the letters and sounds.

Believe it or not, some kids are highly motivated to read so they can read dialog, menus and chats in video games! Struggling to sound out the words their fellow players type while playing Minecraft, for instance, ends up being the primary learning modality.

I’d like to share a personal anecdote about my own daughter, who has been at Three Rivers Village School since the age of 5. She wasn’t able to read proficiently until the age of 10. As a parent, it wasn’t easy to be patient as she struggled and even actively resisted learning to read. It seemed the more I pushed, the more she refused to even try. Around the time she was 7 or 8 I let go of my expectations and came to the conclusion, though it wasn’t easy, that she would eventually learn.

Over time, through a combination of workbooks, individual instruction, struggling on her own, and sheer determination, she did. Nowadays, she reads more often than I ever did as a teenager, often several hours a day. I attribute that enthusiasm to the fact she wasn't forced to learn when she wasn’t ready and therefore reading didn’t become a chore she had to do in order to keep up at school. She discovered, on her own, that reading was a pleasurable way to spend her time.

When a child learns to read does not indicate how intelligent they are or predict how successful they will be in life. If the underlying message is “reading is important” not “reading is important and you must learn it by the time you are 6 or else,” a burden is lifted. The concept of reading becomes more about the value of learning or connecting with others and less about the worth of the child.

Maggie Bogdanich is a staff member at Three Rivers Village School.

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