Whole Parenting Family

It’s Okay to Not Stress about Reading! {literacy expert guest post}

early reading not a stress

My awesome girlfriend from law school, Nicole, is an expert on many things. Remember her two part series on her son’s autism? Parts one and two for your perusal.

One of her passion topics is reading and literacy in general. I was messaging with her one day about reading and when should SuperBoy really be really reading and what does that mean???

She was gracious enough to share her expertise with all of us today. So sit back and read her essay on not stressing about reading. Because I really enjoyed it and I think you will too. She also just wrote this fantastic piece over here.

I am a teacher, a homeschool parent, and perpetual graduate student. Looking into many homeschool groups, I see there is often a lot of anxiety surrounding reading and I know a lot of parents worry about it. Even the government is pressuring pre-school and kindergarten teachers to get their charges to read at younger and younger ages. This anxiety seems well-placed because reading is a foundation skill; if you can read, you can teach yourself to do anything else. But…I don’t worry about reading. Seriously! There is an approved-and-perceived-to-be-correct way to teach reading, and I’ll tell you the secret of that method, but first, I’ll tell you what the trained teachers often don’t know about reading and that you, as a home-based educator need to know in order to make sense of everything to decide when, how, and if you want to teach reading. Yes, I said if. You’ll see why soon!

Let’s begin by traveling to Africa, specifically Ghana, where researcher Janice Windborne explored the high number of failed literacy projects in that country in an article published in 2004. What Windborne found was that the reading program was all very nice, but then the program leaders would leave and after they’d gone, the women, who were making great progress with reading, over time, would become illiterate again. What happened? The well-meaning literacy coaches had not taken into account the culture in Ghana, where almost no one could read. As a result, there was no need of signage and what words DID exist were often in English or French and existed on packaging labels for imported items. Unlike in the United States, where every store has a huge sign (and often a gigantic sign to go with it), in Ghana, no stores had signs; people just knew which shop sold what. Therefore, literacy programs, no matter how well-meaning, ran into a snag that few people would consider: if you don’t have a reason to read, then you stop practicing reading and, over time, you stop reading.

Contrast that with the United States, where signage is plentiful. Young children figure out quickly how to read store names like “Toys R Us” or which store is the grocery store, and while colors and memorization play a part, many children start to read, without even meaning to, by reading the signs. One way families may see children start to read is in the television guide that scrolls on cable and satellite televisions. All the words look the same, but somehow many toddlers and pre-schoolers pick out which one says Dora and which ones do not and tell you which program they want to watch. They are reading, but they don’t yet know it.

Let’s unpack that for a moment: people read because reading is relevant to them. Children who use computers or enjoy books often teach themselves to read before other children do, and their parents have no idea what happened. Reading becomes extremely relevant when mom and dad are too busy to read every waking hour as the little bibliophile would prefer, and reading makes playing computer games much easier since mom and dad don’t like to get up every two seconds to read to junior. Kids learn this, so they may suddenly start reading.

This information suggests that some children start reading early because they want to read. For those children, then, there is really no need to spend hours stressing phonics and rhyme and rhythm; they simply know how to do it. My son and I were both very early readers (both around the age of 2) and we read, but neither of us realized we were reading. In fact, if someone asked if we could read, we would have denied it. Reading was just something we did, like breathing or walking, and so neither of us could have explained how it was so. I remember never quite understanding what it meant to “read in one’s head” because, as I later realized, that’s how I always read, unless asked to read aloud, so the term held no meaning for me. In talking to my aunt, who has been a teacher for around 35 years and worked with many early readers, she said the same thing: some kids just read. There’s nothing to do for them and there’s no need to bother with much phonics study or anything because, well, they just GET it.

I mention the early reader phenomenon not to give you fits because your child isn’t reading at 2; rather, it’s to point out that reading happens when it is relevant for the individual child or adult. The women in Ghana mentioned in Windborne’s article would likely have counted among them some “early readers” as well if they had more signage available and more books and reasons to read.

Now, let’s talk about unschoolers, which is a subset of the homeschool population that does not use much formal instruction and yet…most of their children read, too. Most report their children decided to read at one point and simply did so or asked for help in learning how. Absent dyslexia or some other underlying reason why the letters get mixed up, most children do learn to read, even if not taught, in our society of letters and signs and ever-present children’s programming about letter sounds, assuming reading is relevant in the household. If no one reads at home, and you don’t have much, if any, for reading material in any form, then it might be different. But if you’re planning to teach your child at home, odds are you have mountains of books and a computer you may allow them to use from time-to-time. As such, sooner or later, your child will read on his or her own.

Okay, so, I’ve told you all this, but I know that many of you are still unconvinced. That’s because reading is not relevant to your child and you’re panicking about what to do if he or she never reads. You’re doing this because, most likely, you’re convinced that reading early will pave the road to a better, easier life. In fact, most current research suggests that early reading just leads to…well, nothing really. There is little correlation between reading early and success, and later readers usually catch up, academically. Quite often, students who start school not reading are much better at problem-solving than their book-loving peers and if teachers valued both skills equally, both types of children would go on to be equally successful in school. Often, as many of you may know, teachers cheer for their strong readers, leaving their weaker readers behind in the praise department, no matter what other skills they may have. Therefore, it is not the late reading that is causing the lack of interest in school; rather, it is the lack of support for the areas in which students excel. This is something to keep in mind as you’re trying to decide how to tackle the reading problem: does your child have gifts in other areas? Do you celebrate them more than you talk about any weaknesses? Can you wait to stress reading until they’ve had the opportunity to feel smart because of their gifts in music, art, problem-solving (not necessarily math skills), and so on? Can you de-emphasize a weak skill until it becomes relevant for them?

Let’s slow down a moment to unpack this idea since the idea of de-emphasizing weak skills is when some homeschoolers can panic a bit. If I don’t teach the bad skills, how will they get better? Well, let’s look at an example. Let’s say a student loves soccer. She may not care about reading until she discovers there are, in fact, biographies about sports stars and books about how to play better. Then, suddenly, reading becomes relevant, and whammo…she’s a reader (though she generally just reads sports books, but she CAN read other things if she needs to). Maybe she’s now a good reader, but she doesn’t care for science. Wait until she learns about physics and how it can improve her performance. Suddenly, she’s going to be very interested in science and may branch out to other areas after finding success in physics (or she may not…but she definitely knows some science now). If you think about it, isn’t that how it works in the real world, too? If you think you’re bad at math, you don’t decide to major in accounting. Instead, you get good at the math that makes sense for the job you have or would like to have. For someone who becomes an elementary school teacher, often you become really, really good at fractions because that is relevant to your job and you had to get good at it or you wouldn’t have been able to work. You may never know calculus, but it doesn’t matter because you didn’t choose a career path that required it.

So, even though I tried to convince you it’s all going to be okay, whether your child reads now or later, you’re convinced you have a student who is not going to read on his or her own. Ideally, you’re waiting to worry about it until he or she asks for help in reading, but I know…you’re feeling pressured. So, here is what you need to have in place so you can teach reading.

First, do you talk with your child? One sign of a child who will read is one who can have a conversation. Sometimes, parents talk at a child so often that the child does not learn how to have a conversation. This often correlates with delayed reading because children do not have the opportunity to learn language from people who are simply better at using words because they have had more experience using them. This is why you see people talking to their babies and young children, even before they can talk back: they know that babies need to hear words and understand the rhyme and rhythm of language to not only learn to talk, but to learn how to read!

Next, do you have books in your home and can your child actually use them? I know this sounds silly, but you want to have lots of books in your home and you don’t want to treat them as precious gems. We used to toss some board books in with my child’s floor toys as an infant. We read (our own) books around him as he grew, and didn’t care if he handled the pages of regular paper books. The first sign of reading readiness is, in fact, knowing how to handle books. Do they understand the direction print goes? Can they turn pages without tearing them? Do they hold the book upside down? Can they “read” you a story by looking at the pictures and telling a story, turning the pages when it makes sense? If they can, then it’s time to actually work on reading skills.

The first skills of reading aren’t sitting down with a book, though, and you’re probably already doing them. Part of what we need to read is to be able to know and identify our letters and the concept that each letter has a sound (which we will later learn can vary based on the situation). This is when knowing the ABC song and learning that the letter “B” sounds like “buh” comes in. This is also when you want to start doing rhyming games with your child. Rhymes are fun because they help your child to realize that a beginning letter change can completely change a word.

Finally, can your child recognize his or her own name? How about the names of others? Can he or she label items around the house with words? Once a child knows how to handle books, once sounds have meaning, and once print has meaning…it’s time. If you feel like you need a workbook to keep going (instead of using real books based around your child’s personal interests), consider one that works on phonics. For years, Modern Curriculum Press has been the go-to for phonics instruction (they’re the Saxon Math of phonics). Usually, students need just the “first grade” book (Book A) and that’s often enough, though the course of study now includes a Kindergarten book (not really necessary) in addition to the second, third, and fourth-grade book. One book that helps segment starting and ending sounds and works with rhyming words is seriously all you need…unless you like busy work. Seriously. I loved those phonics books when I was little, but they didn’t teach me anything except how to do what the teacher said and follow directions since I could already read.

Finally, what about sight words? For those who don’t know, Dolch created this list of words to memorize for kids. Head here to get the lists of them and even have some flash cards: http://www.mrsperkins.com/dolch.htm . So, what are they for? They aren’t actually to teach reading. These words are to teach fluency. They’re selected because they are high-frequency words in the English language and if you can memorize them (do what the strong readers do), then you will read better. Dolch words are useful, in conjunction with phonics study for those who need phonics study, because many of them don’t sound out easily (like would or could).   In other words, if you slow down to sound them out, you’re going to say them wrong. So, for students who DO need formal instruction, they can be helpful to build reading speed which, in turn, makes reading a more enjoyable activity. The more enjoyable reading is, the better your child will get with it because we have to want to read to read and to read well.

So, in the end, for most children, all you need to teach reading is patience, “stuff to read,” and maybe, for some children, a phonics workbook or two with a side of sight words. You can get a curriculum and you can get into “leveled readers” if you want to, but they aren’t necessary for most kids.  Remember, reading is something that panics teachers, school districts, and parents. As such, publishers have rushed to throw flames on that fire by offering so many resources they will make your head spin. Just remember: people have read for years without expensive materials, and in a society where print is everywhere, even more people will read even without meaning to do it.




  1. Laura on March 11, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    Thank you for sharing all of this! My daughter recognizes letters and it’s time to start talking about the sounds letters make. How do I do that when letters can make so many different sounds?

    • Nicole on March 11, 2015 at 1:18 pm

      Thank you!

      For vowels, you start with their sound WITHOUT an e at the end. As in ah, apple vs. ay. There are all these cute sounds for the variants when there’s time if you find you have to segment the sounds (to see if they can really hear them). As in, “when two vowels go out walking, the first one does the talking and it says its own name” (Paint)or “e marker makes the A say Ay” (for words like bake or cake). BUT that’s for later and if she gets stuck or is working more on spelling.

      For now, you start with the ah (apple) eh (eddie), ih (Indiana), awh (Olive), uh (up).

      For C, just stick with C-cat, cub, cake since c sounding like s is rarer on everyday words (circle, true, but that’s a blendy sound anyway). That’s usually what I do…stick with the most common words your child is likely to encounter. Dr. Seuss books work well with this because his books make up sounds BUT you know how to read them because you know phonics (even if you don’t know why you know it). So if you’re stuck, let him kind of help you play with language and then you don’t have to go looking for sounds to play with.

  2. Amanda on March 16, 2015 at 10:14 am

    Such a great post! I think my older son (3.5) meets most if not all of this pre-reqs but we’ve been so open to it all since he obviously has the energy for all day movement and play. I really want to get us some more beautiful books. I know that drew me into pretend worlds when I was itty bitty which made it all fun and beautiful! Thank you for asking your friend and her informative post!

    • Natural Mama Nell on March 16, 2015 at 12:06 pm

      She is so helpful! I’m really glad you enjoyed this.