Learning To Read, The Journey of a Late-Reader Homeschooler
Karen M. Gibson
Reading. Is there a more important skill that your child needs to best prepare him for life? Teaching your child to read can be viewed as the ultimate test for a home school parent — if you can teach your child to read, then you can teach him/her anything. And with so many methods and theories about how to teach reading and programs available to help you with this process, it certainly can be a very confusing time for any parent. How does one choose? Whom do you listen to? Where do you begin? I learned the long and hard way that you begin with and listen to your child. You may try many different programs or none at all, but it all comes down to your particular child, and what worked successfully for one parent or family may not work at all with your child. As I have learned over the past several years, it is your child and his/her progress and needs that you have to use as your guide.
The beginning few months of our first homeschool year I was still very much in the “school-at-home” mode: subjects were taught very traditionally, with textbooks and lesson plans. For the most part we followed grade level suggestions for material. Those of you who know me well know that this didn’t last long. Now we only use grade levels when we are discussing home education with those who don’t understand that grade levels have no bearing on education and for those end-of-year reports required by our cover school. So when I mention grade levels here, please remember that I am using them mostly as a reference point, to give you an indication of age.
This first year of homeschooling, Charles, our youngest, was in first grade (age six). At that time I knew that first grade was when you learned to read. My first two children learned to read in public school and the process seemed relatively easy for them. They learned their letter sounds during kindergarten, then the basics of reading in first grade. By the second half of second grade they were both reading well on their own with only occasional help needed. By third grade they were avid readers and have been reading voraciously ever since.
Reading is the ultimate high for me. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading. Wherever I go, I carry along something to read and my eldest two children do the same. Our home overflows with books and magazines and we make weekly treks to libraries and bookstores. I fully expected that all of my children would naturally become good readers and at an early age. With these experiences and expectations in mind, I really thought that teaching Charles to read would be a relatively easy and painless experience. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
The first thing I discovered was that Charles had no desire to learn to read. He saw no need for it. He was going to be a professional basketball player and they certainly didn’t need to read. They needed to play ball. So practicing basketball was a lot more important to him than reading. I could see that I would need to find reasons why basketball players would need to read. We talked about the importance of signing a good contract and how a player would need to read or he might get taken advantage of by the team hiring him. While Charles could see the logic of this, reading still was not high on his list of priorities. It was important to me, though, and so I insisted upon reading lessons almost daily.
Charles already knew the basic letter sounds from his time in kindergarten, so we began to work on the letter combinations. We played a lot of word games with letter combinations on a white board. All seemed to proceed fairly smoothly for a few weeks. He was somewhat willing to participate, although not very interested. And his lack of interest created a large amount of frustration on my part. Didn’t he see how important learning to read was? Obviously not, for making him sit and work on any formal reading lessons out of a textbook, or even continue our word games, became almost impossible, much like trying to force water uphill. After a few weeks of frustration for both of us, I just gave up. I figured we had all year, so I would wait a bit.
While waiting for Charles to decide he wanted to learn to read (surely this wouldn’t take long?), I began researching the process of learning to read. I asked questions about reading on email lists. I read essays and articles about readers. I listened as other home educators related their experiences with teaching their children to read. As I read and listened and learned, I kept hearing the term ‘late reader’ — the child who doesn’t express an interest in reading or learn to read until he/she is nine, ten, eleven, or even later. By this time I had begun to suspicion that perhaps Charles would turn out to be a later reader. Here he was turning seven and showing no more interest in reading than he did at six!
Almost everything I read and everyone I talked with indicated that a late reader was normal and nothing to worry about. The child would quickly catch up with his/her peers in their reading ability once he began to be serious about reading. And, once the child wanted to read he would practically teach himself and be reading War & Peace within days or short weeks. I wasn’t quite convinced of this “teaching himself” viewpoint. I was sure the parents must be doing something to help their child learn, once the child wanted to, even if it was just sitting with them and answering questions about how to pronounce certain words. But I could see that the child’s desire to read was the key point. It made sense to me that his/her the desire to read would be the prime motivation behind the child learning to read, and that the parent’s wishes and desires were not going to mean much to the child. Nothing I read gave me any indication that our experience would be any different from all those others — once Charles decided that he wanted to read, he would learn, with only nominal help from me. All I had to do was watch for that spark of interest, help him along a bit, and he would just take right off on his own.
After a several months, Charles decided that I wasn’t reading basketball books quickly enough to suit him or in sufficient quantity. He needed to read, but he didn’t seem to make any effort on his own. He wanted me to work with him on reading, so we began some reading lessons. Although we tried various different resources throughout the years, what seemed to work best was the book Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.1 Little did I know when we began the book that it would take Charles almost two years to finish it! He enjoyed reading the stories, but he refused to learn the new words in advance. He wanted to learn them while he was reading — so that was the way we did it. We would read a story or sometimes half a story at a time. But even when possessing the desire to read, Charles quickly reached a certain level of ability and seemed unable to progress beyond that plateau. The harder he tried to learn more words, the more confused he would get and begin to forget the words he already learned. Then he became frustrated. And then, as the frustration level mounted, he lost interest for some time again. When he lost interest, we quit the lessons. And so I waited again for his interest to renew and for him to ask for help with reading. This was a cycle we were to repeat for years.