How Unschooled Children Learn Literacy

Children instinctively want to fit in with society. They want to learn how to read. They can’t avoid seeing words, and they want to know what they mean. There is an intrinsic motivation to learn how to read, so all we need to do, as the adults in their lives, is provide the opportunities, answer their questions, guide them, and support their learning. I have been reading to my children since before they were even born. Books have always been a big part of their lives, and they have seen that books are a big part of their parents’ lives as well, as both my husband and I love to read.
I’ve always sung the alphabet song to my children too. When they were toddlers, we had alphabet puzzles that they loved to put together, and I would sing the alphabet song and point to each letter as I sang it. Just by doing these basic, instinctive things, my kids learned the alphabet, and the sounds each letter makes. Inevitably they would reach the point organically where they wanted to know what a word was in one of their books, or they’d want to know how to spell a word if they were wanting to write a sign to accompany their play or something. I’d always sound the word out while pointing to each letter if they asked me what a word was, and if they asked me how to spell, I’d ask them to think about what letter it started with based on the sound it made, and I would guide them to sound the word out. Obviously, vowels and Ys tend to be more difficult than most consonants, but as they got older and started reading more and became familiar with how words looked, eventually that part came along too. 

I also sang songs or played games with them that included rhyming and alliteration. We’d sing the “Name Game” song and make a game of coming up with sentences that include the different types of sound repetition. These were just built in to our everyday life, such as when they were helping me make lunch or in the car – no need for a formal lesson at the table. Just living and having fun, and allowing learning to happen.

I’m sure most parents instinctively do these things. I think the issue is that many parents do not think this is enough. My experience is that it IS enough, and just continuing with this approach of following their lead and supporting (not directing) their learning is enough as they advance as well. As they became more advanced, my kids and I would discuss things like punctuation and when to use capital letters, which, once again, happens organically, just like learning how to run organically follows learning to walk. Once they started reading, they became familiar with sentence structure and what looks and sounds right. If it came up that I needed to explain contractions, or when to use commas versus periods, or the different ways to spell there, their and they’re, for example, we would discuss that. Honestly, though, my twelve and ten-year-olds are amazing writers who are wonderful spellers, use proper punctuation, and are very entertaining, which I think is mostly due to their love of reading, and finding very well-written books like the Harry Potter series. 

I have never pushed my children to read before they were ready, and I never made them do spelling quizzes or anything like that, which I feel are very good ways to stress them out and turn OFF that innate desire to learn, and all of my children are above average for their grade/age with reading and writing. I have always just taken advantage of opportunities to learn, and to strengthen that learning. Those opportunities include writing letters to family members in other cities and countries (both written by hand and typed on the computer); playing games (especially word games such as Scrabble or Last Letter); doing word search and crossword puzzles; using our Reading Eggs subscription; using Language Arts workbooks; playing Wacky Mad Libs to familiarize the kids with parts of speech and grammar skills; making Christmas lists and shopping lists; reading nutrition labels on food products; using the internet to find information; writing in their journals; writing captions and signs on their drawings; coming up with different types of poems together, such as Limericks or Haikus; making up, writing and acting out stories; and picking out books from the library and book stores, and reading them with us, to us, and on their own.