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. 

Why We Decided to Unschool

When people find out that we unschool, they are often curious as to what that means, why we chose that method of education, and what an unschooling life looks like. 

I have been familiar with homeschooling since adolescence, because my sister and I were both homeschooled at various times; she homeschooled through high school and I homeschooled through part of middle school. Both of us hated school so much at different periods that we were pretty desperate to get away from it. Thankfully, our parents understood this, trusted our feelings about it, and accommodated us. We were both very good at the grades part, but hated the bullying, the peer pressure, the feeling of oppression (I think we both innately had the understanding even as teenagers that we were in a toxic indoctrination system), and more. I ended up going back to public school for high school, and I loved it, simply because of the social aspect, which was not part of my homeschooling experience since there were not many homeschoolers in my area. So already the seed was planted that there were options, and that things could evolve as we went along. No choice was forever. Or, it could be. We were free to pick and choose whatever worked for us at the time.  

When my first child was a baby, my husband and I discussed our options. I knew I didn’t want my kids going to public school. I realized that I disagreed with the philosophy of the education system as we know it today, and felt that there was a better way. Children are born with an innate desire to learn, and the fastest way to turn off that desire is to associate some kind of stress, or negative, with it. For example, bad grades, stressful tests, being taught something before they’re ready to learn it, which happens far too often in traditional education systems, etc. I wanted my kids to always love learning and to be able to take responsibility for their own learning. I wanted them to have positive interactions with people, no peer pressure or bullying, at least until they had a solid foundation of a strong sense of self-worth and could be more resilient if that were to occur at some point in the future.

My sister was already homeschooling her six-year-old daughter, and she had discovered and decided on unschooling, rather than using a curriculum. The more she explained to me what that was – a child-led, interest-based, learning-through-living lifestyle, where parents follow their child’s lead and provide the resources needed to further their child’s understanding of whatever they were interested in at the time – the more it made me realize how similar it was to the New Zealand Ministry of Education’s play-based Te Whariki Early Childhood Curriculum. We had become familiar with Te Whariki because every Playcentre and Early Childhood Education center in NZ follows it. (Playcentre is this amazing parent co-operative organization with centers throughout NZ, where kids come to play and the parents get to stay. All the fun of preschool without the separation trauma. The parents work cooperatively to manage the center, along with an ECE teacher who is employed by Playcentre to implement the Te Whariki curriculum.)  

In the Te Whariki curriculum document, it states that the term “curriculum” is used to “describe the sum total of the experiences, activities, and events, whether direct or indirect, which occur within an environment designed to foster children’s learning and development.” In a stimulating environment conducive to learning, children will learn. Pretty simple.

Once I had the idea of child-led, interest-based learning on my radar, I started to realize that a lot of what is “learned” in school is merely regurgitation of information, memorizing facts just long enough to take the test and then promptly forgetting them. I realized how frequently that would happen to me when I was in school. I started to realize that *true* knowledge comes from exploring things that we are interested in, when we are READY to learn it, and are able to learn it in context so that it is relevant to our lives. 

I knew that I wanted my children to have a rich, stimulating, emotionally healthy, fun and interesting learning environment with lots of variety. I wanted them to really enjoy learning, and to be able to learn about things as they become interested in them, so they are able to learn about things in context and when they are ready to learn them. I wanted my children to be able to learn about life and the “real world” as they are IN it, exploring new things and places constantly. Thus, the decision to unschool was made. 

I explain in more detail what our unschooled life looks like in this post.