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Does Unschooling Work? The Theory behind Allowing Kids to Teach Themselves to Read

Does Unschooling Work? The Theory behind Allowing Kids to Teach Themselves to Read

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Although the general assumption in today’s culture is that children must be taught to read, there is an educational movement that claims this is not necessarily true. “Unschooling” (also known as “natural learning,” “experience-based learning,” and “independent learning”) takes an entirely new approach to reading, one that’s self-directed by the child himself or herself. In the unschooling approach, while a child may need some direction and have some questions along the way, his or her educational journey is an individual pursuit, where the child will learn to read (among other things) in his or her own unique way and on his or her schedule.

The Theory of Unschooling

As it pertains to reading, the basic premise of the unschooling approach is that children don’t need to be taught reading at all. Rather, as long as a child is being raised in a literate environment, surrounded by others to read, then he or she will eventually (and inevitably) learn to read as well. This goes well against the grain of traditional educational theory on learning to read (whether phonics or whole language based), in that there is no curriculum established or followed.

A large aspect of unschooling is grounded in the concept of doing “real things.” Thus, the education is experienced based rather than driven by any agenda. Children pursue their lives naturally, and in doing so also pursue knowledge, and adults are expected to trust the inevitability of this natural process. As it applies to reading, this means that a child will inevitably stumble upon a situation wherein he or she wants to know what something says (whether it’s a sign or a picture book), and from that spark of curiosity the mechanics of reading will inevitably be mastered.

How Children Learn to Read without Formal Instruction

In an article for Psychology Today (“Children Teach Themselves to Read” ), American psychologist Peter Gray, PhD, condenses the process by which unschooled children learn to read into seven principles:

  1. There is no critical period or best age that unschooled children learn to read, and there are no apparent consequences for those children who start reading later than prescribed by traditional education theory.
  1. Motivated children can become fluent in reading very quickly, much faster than those who follow a traditional reading curriculum.
  1. Attempting to push an unschooled child toward reading (basically, to teach the child to read more formally) can have negative consequences and delay the learning process.
  1. Unschooled children will turn toward reading and ultimately learn to read only when the skill of reading holds value for them.
  1. Reading is like many other skills, in that it can be (and often is) learned socially through shared participation.
  1. A desire to write is sometimes the impetus for learning the read, with some children learning to read as they learn to write.
  1. In the world of unschooling, learning to read is a highly individual process, and therefore, there is no predictable course through which children learn to read.

As an approach to learning to read, unschooling has been quite successful, with many students of this educational movement growing up to be avid readers and talented writers in their own right.

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