Our society values learning to read. We give social support to literacy programs. We associate the ability to read with intelligence. No one argues against using reading as a measure of children’s educational accomplishments. All 6 year olds should be literate and that’s that. We don’t give the same unconditional loyalty to children’s attitude of wanting to read. Once children know how to read, our interest in whether they continue to read wanes. By the time children grow up, they casually remark that they rarely have time for reading and no one is upset. Few eyebrows are raised when confronted with the statistic that most adults get their news from non-literary sources. Yet reading as a skill is prized in traditional schools and often used as a benchmark of progress in child development. Proud relatives brag to their friends and neighbors that Jimmy learned to read at 4. Very few parents brag that their children learned to read at 8 or 12. On the contrary, many are embarrassed that learning to read in later years indicates poor parenting or poor educating.
My son learned to read when he was 10 years old. As a parent of a “late reader,“ I understand the social pressure put on parents (and grandparents) of children who choose not to learn to read at an early age. I also find I need to often remind myself of two important factors. 1) Children- regardless of when they learn to read - cannot be told apart by reading skills once they are adults. Children at our school universally learn to read by the time they graduate, perhaps because the people around them read and write to communicate. When others in their lives enjoy reading and value spending time doing it, children do too. 2) The second factor involves how children learn. Children need to explore their world, play with the raw materials of life, and interact socially from babyhood. The complicated skills they practice in childhood such as walking, talking, negotiating, building, thinking, and creating, results in developing their intelligence, including executive functioning and social abilities.
The freedom to pursue their interests allows children the power to invest in what they choose to do. When we allow them not to read until they are ready, we trust children to decide what they need to learn. When the child learns to read on his or her own, she learns a valuable life lesson - one more important than the skill itself. Developing the attitude that “I can learn this” allows a child to become an independent, life long learner.
Skills acquired by choice are immediately applied to do something relevant to the child’s interest. It is not more important to learn to read than to learn to create art, or pursue math, or explore the environment. Having the attitude of wanting to read develops when- and only when- each child finds an interest she passionately wants to read about. That time arrives at different ages for individual children. If we respect the things that children choose to invest their energies in every day, we will see them growing in many important skills. Reading is just one of them.
I am fortunate in seeing the results of being patient and trusting children to follow their interests. My son learned to read and successfully achieved many years of higher education. At 40, he enjoys reading - both professionally and recreationally. I have observed many other children grapple with reading skills at different ages. Because of having time to Not Read, they learn both how to read and To Read when they are ready.