She is bright and keen to learn and quite liked the idea of ‘doing school’ so we purchased some KS1 workbooks, found a very gentle and laid back kinder curriculum that we could loosely follow and set off. From the age of 3 she was desperate to be able to read and write. We utilised a variety of resources and by 4 she was writing and recognising small words and her alphabet. She expressed a strong desire to read so we started borrowing early reader books from the Oxford Reading Tree range and started slogging through them. It wasn’t easy. Phonics didn’t come easily to her, each time we opened a book felt like a battle before we had even finished the first page. She got frustrated and I did too, unable to comprehend why she couldn’t recognise words that she had previously read with no problem. I started to feel like we were taking the wrong approach. I didn’t want her to associate reading with duty or frustration. I wanted her to love books.
I didn’t exactly stop the process completely but I didn’t initiate borrowing any more of the trusty Biff, Chip and Kipper Oxford Reading Tree series and if she did pick one at the library I followed her lead on reading it at home rather than insisting we look at it daily. She often forgot and I was happy with this. I continued to read to her and she still liked to look at books from our shelves, poring over the pictures and putting her own stories to them. In the months after our third child was born all formal learning ground to a halt. Babies have a habit of doing that I think! But then something strange happened. When her littlest brother was 3 months old she approached me with a book (Peace at Last by Jill Murphy if I recall correctly) and asked if she could read it to me. I agreed and lo and behold, read it to me she did. I was amazed and remember asking her ‘when did you learn to read?!’ She chuckled to herself and shrugged, in the unbelievably cute manner that she does.
“I was amazed and remember asking her ‘when did you learn to read?!’ She chuckled to herself and shrugged, in the unbelievably cute manner that she does.”
A LOVE OF READING
Something had suddenly just clicked for her. All that time with her head spent buried in books, muttering to herself had obviously been her preparing herself. And ever since that day she has been fluently reading and, most importantly, comprehending books left, right and centre. In fact, whilst making her bed recently, I discovered books hidden under her pillow. I couldn’t be cross at her staying up secretly to read as I remember doing the same as a child after being told to sleep. I’m just overjoyed that she has developed a real love of reading. I’m still amazed as I think about it. Interestingly, around the same time, her violin teacher told me after a lesson that something had changed and she had suddenly gained an understanding and ability in playing that she hadn’t previously possessed. As far as I’m concerned, the two are quite obviously linked.
It’s a funny thing really because I’d read about people who left their children to learn to read on their own and had even spoken to friends who reported their children doing just that. But I never quite believed that it was possible, or at least, that it was common. I assumed that their children were exceptionally gifted or very unusual in learning so fast and so efficiently. Now, however, I wholeheartedly believe in trusting children to learn at their own pace. That when the time is right for them and they are ready, things will just click. And that time is going to vary vastly for every child. Some children will be reading fluently at 4 whilst others won’t get there until 9 or even 10. But I truly believe that they can all get there by themselves if trusted to do so. A one size application of an ideal reading age really does not fit all. Every child’s development has a unique timescale and process to it. Learning is an innate process that at times seem to defy logic or our perception of sensible progress. But just like the metamorphosis of caterpillar into butterfly, it will happen, even if from the outside looking in, nothing seems to be happening.
SPACE TO LEARN
I think our mainstream educational ethos has forgotten how important it is to be able to give children space to learn things by themselves. Although there is definitely a time and place for gentle guidance and direction, especially when requested by the child, there is an equally valid need to leave children alone. To let them look at the pictures and interpret the story for themselves, to let them discard books altogether for a period of time, to let them use whatever tools they require and instinctively know they should use to prepare themselves for the act of reading. If we push them, as I saw with Sophia, there is a danger of them seeing something that they could love as a chore, or of them superficially gaining an understanding but missing a vital level of comprehension.
This concept of letting things just click rather than us directing them through the process doesn’t just apply to reading (although it is a great example). It can apply to children learning any number of things; from academic concepts to muscial ability or crafts such as knitting or even something more practical and coordination based like riding a bike. The message that I think we often forget is to trust our children. They may be immature and inexperienced in many respects and it easy to want to take control of their learning entirely but they are each unique and will have a different learning journey to take and we need to allow them a little space to find out what that is. We really need to let them choose the path themselves and just be ready to help and guide them when they need us.
Our competitive market driven world invades every sphere of our lives and unfortunately, even parenting can be found tainted by the whiff of competition. Whose baby sleeps through the night first, which reading level your child is at compared to their classmates, what grades they get in their exams. The comparisons and comments start from birth and never seem to end. But there really is no need to worry. Your child might be the first or the last in their peer group to do something or smack bang in the middle and each and every one of those places is just fine. In fact, more than fine – it is perfect because it is right for them. We celebrate their uniqueness in every other element of their being, from the way they look to their sense of humour, their cute idiosyncrasies or their favourite games to play. But we forget to apply this concept to their learning.
Of course, just as hard as trusting your child is trusting yourself. To not worry, to not make comparisons, to not push them too hard or berate yourself for what you might see as a failing if their timeline for learning doesn’t match the national average. I speak from experience, I am a control freak by nature and constantly fret over, well, just about everything! In fact, even as I’ve been writing this I’ve realised how ‘behind’ my middle child is in terms of letter and number recognition in comparison to his sister at his age. But his drawing skills, balance and coordination far surpasses where she was at the same time. Which just goes to illustrate my point about uniqueness all the more! But I still find it hard not to worry or try and persuade him to take an interest in something he’s just not ready for yet. I am holding back now though because I know that when he is ready, he will initiate it himself and I can facilitate formal learning for him at that time.
Parenting is a journey on which we are taught so much, our preconceptions are stripped away every day as these small folk of ours amaze us with their wisdom, their observations, their self assuredness. But this realisation of how things can suddenly just click and watching it in Sophia’s learning to read is one of the most profound parenting moments for me yet. In retrospect it seems so natural and simple that she could master this ability herself in her own time, just like she taught herself to walk, to eat, to talk. But I was so caught up in how we are told they should learn that I complicated the matter entirely. When she was ready, it just clicked. I hope to keep this knowledge close to my heart as my children grow and face more challenges. I hope that I will always remember to trust their own innate process and that I will always support them to learn and achieve their goals in the timescale and approach that they choose, not in a manner that society or I dictate.
Hannah Durdin lives with her three children and husband just outside of Exeter where she juggles home education, writing, weightlifting, and spending as much time on Dartmoor or by the beach as possible. She trained as a doula and breastfeeding peer supporter but both of these are on pause as she embraces the fullness of life with three children aged five and under.