The Controlled Panic

One of the most common, and “urgent”, questions we hear from people new to (or contemplating) homeschool is “How do I teach my child to read???”

Note the three question marks. Yes, that’s how it sounds when they say it; there’s an emotional tug in that question that tells you a lot is hinging on the answer.

I have been homeschooling for going on thirty years, and my youngest is 14 as of the time of this post. I have two dyslexic children, one with profound developmental delays, two with dyscalculia, several who were precocious in one way or another, and all of whom have amazing gifts, talents, challenges and personalities! The two who took the ACT scored in the 30’s. The others who have reached adulthood are successful, effective and fulfilled in the families and professional life.

Why do I tell you all this? Because I just want to give some context for the ideas I’m about to share with you. I want you to know that I understand the context of learning challenges — including divergent learning styles and dealing with gifted and disabled children.

Here’s what they used to look like, circa 2006, with some updated images circa 2017:

They’re all even older now, and we have lots of stories to tell about our experience with family learning!

If you subscribe to our newsletter [here] you’ll get more of that. I share my enthusiasm and confidence that children with a variety of learning styles, developmental trajectories, challenges and gifts can be successfully educated without ruining their self-esteem, your relationship with them or their will to learn without force. They really can!

No Excuses

But I have a specific purpose for this post. Considering the aforementioned panic that sometimes accompanies the question of ‘how children learn to read,’ I wanted to get beyond all the worried disclaimers people tend to give [“well, it’s easy for you, because…”, “but what if…?”, “my situation is different, so…”].

To do this I’m going to give you a broad cross-section of experience from people who aren’t me – who aren’t us.

This is a long post, and you can bug out at any time after you’ve gotten the point. But I’m hoping that the weight of so many witnesses with such varied situations and experiences will speak to you, and you’ll find some relevant examples to give you the specific insight that will help you most.

So here is the question I posted on Facebook…


[For audible text: For those who had kids learn to read “organically” without lots of lessons or drilling, can you please give a detailed narrative of what that looked like, what *you* did to facilitate (or not sabotage) the process, and anything else you think would help others who are trying to wrap their head around this?]

Here are the responses:

These are loosely organized by type at first, and then just follow the order in which they were posted on the Facebook discussion.


Seeing others in the family reading made the biggest difference

EL: My 4th child never attended a public school at all and I was freaked about him learning to read. He turned 8 in June of this year. He began reading small words on his own about a year before that but if I tried to encourage a little more he would become slightly disinterested. I backed off. Every once in a while I would show him some tricks like how you could turn the word bat into cat by just changing one letter. My mom read with him one-on-one away from the other kids about 3 times. One day he came home from grandma’s and said he could read. He now reads small chapter books on his own almost every single night. I have extra copies of our family readaloud so that he can follow along. It really just happened once he became interested. I think the biggest key was him seeing me and the other kids read. He wanted to be like the older kids.

Reading aloud; nighttime reading; library trips

KL: We have always done lots of reading aloud together, especially any books the kids asked me to read with them. When they started noticing letter sounds in the words, I asked them to read just a few words of the story as I pointed to them. When they started to slow down or show any tiny sign of frustration, I read the rest of the story to them. They “caught” me and my husband reading, and later older siblings, just for fun. They could see that reading is something older people do for fun and to learn new things. They have reading time every night from 7pm to 8pm before lights out. They may not play with toys or lights-out comes early. This has incentivized the older siblings to read to their younger siblings, strengthening the reading habit in all of them. As they come to my husband and I with their first personal goals, (“I’m going to read this whole book!”) we offer encouragement. As they accomplish those goals, (“Mom, I just read these three I Can Read It books!”) we offer rewards of new books just for them. Ownership and achievement make reading even better for my kids. We also have a graduation party as soon as our kids start setting their own reading goals and sticking to them. We call it graduation because they are going from Core phase into Love of Learning phase. We make this party a big deal and include extended family with all kinds of treats, like Book Worms (gummy worms) and graduation caps (fudge covered graham squares).

Having regular trips to the library, every two weeks, and keeping our personal library in the living room where books are visible has inspired our older readers to pick up more challenging books. That’s how we do it. I have 3 readers and 2 nonreaders (aged 3 and 1).

Even as they get older, I’ve found a lot of value in reading aloud together, one on one. My oldest and I are reading Anne of Green Gables, and my second oldest and I are reading Roald Dahl books. We alternate pages.

  • DL: How old were your kids when you started the reading from 7-8pm etc?
  • KL: Very young. We have five rambunctious boys, so they don’t settle down quickly at night no matter what routine is in place. “Reading time” helps a little, as does the early lights out threat. We partnered room buddies so there’s one big boy with a little boy, so they learn quickly that if they want time to read their own thing, they should read first to the younger child and get them to sleep. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but it’s getting easier for everyone. They cherish their reading time. Our oldest was about 5 or 6 when he realized he could use reading time to read! Since then, he’s been a great example to the others… most of the time.:p

Early start; pause; reading together – led to him reading in his own time.

JE: My son expressed a desire to learn to read. I had done reading lessons prematurely with him in the past and they did not go over well so we had stopped for a long time. It was at the beginning of summer and I told him I would help him with whatever he needed. Instead of doing reading lessons, we just read A LOT of books together – shorter chapter books and picture books (me reading to him). There was no pressure to read. I did download the hooked on phonics teacher app and let him use it when he wanted. He just wanted to read more than anything. That desire was the most important part. I did get some easier bob books and since he loved the Life of Fred books, I got the LOF readers for him. He really did it on his own. I just tried to help him when he asked for it and continued to model to him what it looks like to love books. He is now a voracious reader.

  • DL: How old?
  • JE: He was 5 when he told me he was ready. He’s now 8. My now 5 year old is nowhere near ready. Every child is SO different, that is why it’s important to let them swim daily in beautiful words, then let them take the lead. My other daughter struggled until she was 7ish.

“Uninterested” child with autism learned to read by himself….

DT: Hahaha, are you ready for this?

Our oldest has high functioning autism. We didn’t know it until he was 7yo, though. Even as a baby, we always said he was not a performing monkey. He would NEVER do what we asked him to do if he knew it would draw attention to himself. (ie: Smile for Grandma!…nope…)

We did send him to public school for kindergarten, but it was a really bad fit (undiagnosed autism vs old fashioned “you must fit in this box or you’re a bad kid” teacher). Before K, he knew his ABCs, and in K, they did drill him a bit, but he really hated the whole experience. We pulled him at the end of the year and went back to homeschooling (an awesome decision).

The years start to pass and he will not read. My husband started getting really worried, because he had been a tutor in the public school system and was told over and over that kids who can’t read at a certain level by a certain grade will never gain reading competency. Our son was getting close to that age and was not progressing. He would not even try to read in front of me, and would have meltdowns if we did anything that looked like schoolwork (to this day, we call our learning time “Discovery Time” so it doesn’t reference school).

Then, one day, my husband was making dinner (bless him), and our son came in with a Star Wars book. It was a kids’ book, but it was not an easy reader. He simply said, “Dad, I want to read this to you.” He proceeded to read the entire book from beginning to end without a stumble. You see, he is still not a performing monkey, and learning to read in front of someone caused him anxiety, and he didn’t want us to know he was teaching himself in case he failed, so he did it all secretly until he was ready for the big reveal. While he was reading, my husband looked at me with wide eyes and mouthed, “I’m not worried anymore.” He has been a believer in TJEd ever since. 😉

About six months later, he gave a talk in primary [Sunday School for children] totally unassisted by me. He was poised, confident, and said even the big words without a struggle. He had great vocal tone, and you could he cared about the message, not just the words. The primary secretary leaned over to me and said, “He is such a good reader!” I smiled and told her, “Thanks! Until six months ago, we didn’t even know he could read!”

  • CG: Haha, a similar thing happened with our son that has aspergers. The first time I ever heard him read was when he was 11. He had the scripture in primary. I was in the [primary leadership] so I was in the room, but didn’t know he had the scripture that week. He got up there and just started reading a scripture. I was in the back dumbfounded and crying because I had no idea he could do it.
  • DT: Yes! My son has Aspergers (they just changed what it’s called, you know…so confusing…). They’re little surprise firecrackers, aren’t they?!
  • DR: I have one who is very similar to this. She didn’t want to be taught. We always did read alouds. But when a friend challenged her to finish a particular book before he did, she ran with it. She was 7 at the time. A few months later she started reading in family scripture study and my husband said “when did she learn to read?” My 2 other kids are a completely different story for another day.
  • AJ: Such sweet stories! Thanks for sharing! I used to do ABA therapy with kids on the spectrum. I miss those sweet kiddos! All so different, but all so tender hearted and loving!

Two in the same family learned differently, and on their own timeline.

CW: My oldest watched leap frog learning factory twice then knew all his letters and sounds completely on his own with that. I had Bob books and we would sound out the letters and he was reading small words by 3 1/2 years. Then we slowly moved to more Bob books then using the teach your child to read in 100 lessons which he got bored with so we moved to easy books then slowly harder and harder. But it was all him. My second son who is almost 7 is completely different–slowly reading more–but I don’t mind! His brother was just a fast reader.

Read to them daily since birth, learning sight words on lap.

SL: My youngest has been read to daily since birth. Once she got to be about 5, her elder brother was always reading, which made her want to do it. Sometimes, as we read, we would point to each word as we read it. Then she wanted to read the BOB books, so we sat with her as she began sounding them out. Once she made it through some of those, the light went on and it clicked for her. She learned letter sounds through Leap Frog Letter Factory and iPad games.

CG: I have three boys that learned to read this way. The oldest has aspergers, the middle has mild dyslexia, the youngest seems to be “normal”. 🙂 They all learned their letter sounds by watching Leap Frog’s Letter Factory. The only other things we did was read out loud a lot, and I read my own books a lot. We have a very strong family culture of reading. I have a daughter now that is 6 who is interested in learning to read and she likes to do flash cards so we do them, but that isn’t something I did with my boys. When my boys were ready to read, they just did. After that point, there were some words they didn’t know that I would just tell them, but they always picked up on that stuff really quick. We have reading games available, but we never really used them. I know it sounds weird to most that kids can learn to read without any real instruction, but it truly is what happened with my kids.

Read together; wait for interest; no-stress approach.

EP: We read together (gives context and purpose to reading); I waited for their interest to pique (varied wildly between the ages of 3-8); and approached learning as no stress-no requirement (I don’t mind non-manipulative encouragement to match their desire, however).

I have seven kids, five readers. Several of them seriously taught themselves over a thre-month period when their pique of interest overlapped with a busy family time where I was less available. Honestly, it shocked me the first time it happened, but then I saw it a couple of times afterward and have come to believe it is like learning any other skill. It doesn’t have to be spoon fed, but can be acquired by the seeking mind—especially when the environment fosters it, with lots of other people doing it and shared reading.

My slowest bloomers have read some thick classics and learned impressive vocabulary and English skills.

We were born with a drive to learn!

Oh—and the only one I officially taught to read—like with a program—was the three year old who was my first child. She pushed and pushed me until I convinced her to wait for her fourth birthday for a reading program as a present. She pushed me through the program in three weeks and was done. Done=pick up anything and read. She was the anomaly and super early for me. But all the current readers in my family read extensively and seem to have no qualms regarding book length or difficulty, pending only interest in the material.

  • AP: id some with my now 5 year old. But my 3 year old wants to learn and wants something more formal. Her birthday is coming up, so this is a good idea! She might be the right age for the 100 lessons book (it was too easy for my son by the time I tried it) but I’m curious what you used!
  • EP: We used the program called happy phonics. We tried the 100 less it’s book and my son hated it! I know a lot of people do like it though. Happy phonics is basically a series of games with very little prep work on my part so it worked really well for ME! She loved it.

Early reader learns easily without drilling.

LR: I learned to read, completely organically, when I was 4. I had this collection of audio books on cassette that came with the physical books to follow along in. My mom noticed how intently I was studying these and also provided music tapes with the lyrics printed out. I also have memories of constantly asking what things said. My son also learned to read organically when he was 4. He was (and still is) read aloud to every day and has access to lots of books of all kinds. Like me, he loved to follow along with me as I read, or with an audio book. And he was constantly asking about what things said. Especially at the grocery store. My nearly 6 year old is just enjoying listening to read alouds and inquiring about letters. She has some sight words, and loves to write.

  • DL: Where did you get your audio books that came with the physical book as well? I remember reading those avidly as a kid and loving them.
  • LR: I get most of mine at the library. I get the audio book and then just check out the physical book. They also have some that come as a set. I also use the free audio book stuff on Amazon Prime and get the book from the library.
  • DL: do you let your kids listen to them alone? I don’t let my kids have iPads so Idk how I would do the audio downloads and the book. Do u just Bluetooth it? Great idea, thanks for the suggestions!
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