When we first looked into home education, I read a lot of books. The first one I read was The Unschooling Handbook, by Mary Griffith. I was doubtful. In it, she suggested that children were naturally curious and would want to learn things if left to wonder. I used to be a child. I remember! There is no way I would have spontaneously approached adults with my questions, my curiosities, my ponderings. With so much on the line, how could I trust my child to do it when I could not? I set that book aside and read others. Books about how to structure a day. Books about how to plan a curriculum. There were books by John Holt and John Taylor Gatto. Eye opening. By the time I got to the bottom of the stack, I realized that if we didn't put C into school, he wouldn't lose his curiosity. And he didn't. Unschooling was the method that made the very most sense for our little child, then only 2.75 years old.
We sent him to playgroup, having visited half a dozen. Having seen the ones with time out in a different room, the ones where the workers talked about the children as if they weren't there, the ones with shouty cross adults, I finally chose one for C which was run by adults who talked to the children like people and helped them work out their problems rather than punishing them without concern for their feelings. It was nice for C to be able to go play along side other kids, since that's what they do at that age.
The problem came in the second year. The children, then four or nearly four, were going to have sessions separate from the younger kids. The bigger ones were going to start learning to read because the schools wanted them to. Phonics. C hated phonics. And by hated, I mean if I mentioned letter sounds at all he would cover his ears, scream, and leave the room. Literally. It was spectacular. This child did not want to be taught to read, at least not with phonics. He turned out to be a whole word man. What made sense to him was to memorize every word in the English language, one at a time.
I have to say, I see the sense of it. Is there a single letter in English which always makes the same sound? There are more exceptions to the rules than there are adherents to the rules. It's a lot of work, but it's his way.
I told playgroup that if he was at all stressed by the teaching of phonics, I would pull him out of those sessions. What sense is there in stressing a little child over letter sounds? Fortunately, all went well. He got the special job of telling the other children the letter NAMES each time. A lot of the other little kids knew letters aah, buh, and cuh, but had never heard of A, B, and C. Our C got to be the one to enlighten them. And he learned the letter sounds, but he wouldn't let anyone talk to him about them or ask him questions about them. Totally off limits.
If he had gone to school the next year, he would have been made to learn to read, and he would have been made to learn to use phonics. It was the only way the schools were approved to teach them. We would have had a little boy who possibly could read at the age of five, but who would have no love of it. It would have highlighted what he wasn't ready for. It would have made him behind, slow, and in need of special help. It would have hurt his soul.
In the mean time, he had loads of questions. Loads. We learned science, math, and I read to him a lot. He loved books, and he wanted to read, but he flat out refused to be taught to read. He got his hands on a calculator and asked what the square root symbol was. I told him it was square roots. Not good enough. He wanted to learn more. He wanted a real answer. So I sat down with paper and pencil and explained it to him. He understood. He could explain it back to me, and to others. In time he forgot, but then he asked again, and I explained it again, and I threw in squares as well. He absorbed it much more easily than the first time.
I didn't really need my (then) five year old to know square roots. What I did need him to know is that I take his curiosity seriously. I need him to know that if I don't have an answer I'll find one, or I will find someone who can explain it.
In the mean time, he still did not want to be taught to read. He had questions about where babies come from, which is natural since he quite recently was one. We read books, and he got really interested in cells and cell division. I found a way for him to learn some immunology, which he absorbed greedily. He learned some physics and chemistry, and some other biology.
I started to get nervous about the reading thing. He was getting to be six, then seven. Yes, I know that the Scandanavian countries which start their kids reading at seven or eight have the best adult literacy, but this trusting your kids to want to learn business can take nerves of steel, and mine were faltering.
I tried to be sneaky and teach him little bits. In the car he would see signs and ask what they said. I told him that as driver I couldn't look, but if he could read me the letters, I would tell him what it said. So we did a lot of that. I was thinking it would all go into his brain and help the concept of reading gel a bit.
What finally got him reading was electronic games. He wanted to know what the instructions said. We'd read some, but he might have to wait for someone to help him. I'm not sure exactly when it was, but some time in that year he was seven, he just started reading things to us. He taught himself to read the same way he learned to speak, just by listening to other people doing it. He makes some mistakes because he still likes the whole word method, but now at eight he will accept some help. I tell him that English is actually really tricky, and that sometimes you just need to be told things about words and how they're said. He takes it in.
But he reads. We let him take his own path, and he got to about the place schools would have wanted him to be by now, but without making him feel bad about having his own time for learning it. We trusted him, and it paid off. When they want to know you can't stop them. Not unless you teach them that what they want doesn't matter.
And he still understands squares and square roots. I asked him to explain them to someone just the other day, and he got it right.