Today I’m sharing some of the benefits of learning to read later, especially if you choose to take a more natural approach.
While I’m a passionate advocate for natural learning and unschooling, don’t be put off by the idea you have to take a more natural approach to reap any of these benefits.
That’s not the case.
Even if you’re not sure what a natural approach to learning might look like (we’ll get to that in a minute). Or your child is following a prescribed curriculum, in school or out…
If you’re worried about your ‘late’ reader or despairing that your child isn’t showing any interest in reading yet, this post is for you. I hope you’ll find some comfort and peace because there’s a lot of good news.
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Is learning to read later really okay?
Early reading is seen as a gold standard in our school system. And children are being pushed to read earlier and earlier.
But is earlier better?
Does early reading put our children at an academic advantage?
And are ‘late’ readers destined never to catch up?
Spoiler alert :
[Studies] show that the early introduction of formal learning approaches to literacy does not improve children’s reading development, and may be damaging… the children who started at 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later.
Suggate, S. P., Schaughency, E. A., & Reese, E. (2013).
The evidence we have so far is that if you start formal teaching of reading very early the children do well in tests but when you follow them up to the age of 11 or 12 they don’t do better than those who have had a more informal approach.
Professor Lilian Katz, Professor of Education
Let’s define some terms.
What do we mean by learning to read later?
Do we all agree on what reading is?
And what is this natural approach I speak of?
Let me explain…
What is late?
In school, it helps to have children who can read, even a little, as early as possible.
Yet, by their own admission schools are not meeting the standards they’ve set themselves. UK Govt statistics show that at least a fifth of children leave primary school without the reading skills needed to do well in secondary school.
While functional literacy is deemed equivalent to the expected reading age of a 9.5-year-old, many children in school don’t reach this level until 12 or 13. Research on unschooling families shows reading fluency is most commonly achieved between the ages of 8 and 12.
So your child may not be that ‘late’ after all.
While the word on the street might be that children learning to read after 5 are late, it seems far more children roll in late than you might’ve been led to believe. And that’s no bad thing.
What is reading?
When do we go from learning to read to being a reader?
What is reading?
Is it decoding or comprehension that matters most?
Children with good decoding skills sound impressive early on. In school, especially where reading is primarily taught through phonics, these children are seen by themselves and others as further along their reading journey than their peers, whether they understand what they’re reading or not.
Yet children learning to read outside of school are more likely to declare they can’t read for years after decoding their first few words. Only satisfied they’re a reader in their own right once they have the fluency needed to understand ‘adult’ level text.
What is a natural approach?
Humans are naturally curious, driven to learn and explore.
And natural learning happens at the child’s own pace when they’re ready. No force or imposed instruction necessary.
Surrounded by the written word, children don’t have to be made to read. No need for required texts, at required times, or any requirement to read at all 😲
This doesn’t mean they’re left to figure it all out alone, bobbing in a sea of bewilderment. Far from it.
Natural learning works best in the context of strong, connected relationships, with huge helpings of trust, respect, and support on offer.
If you’d like to find out more about natural learning, check out these posts:
Supporting natural learning: a step-by-step guide.
What kind of homeschoolers are we?
8 Benefits of Learning to Read Later
So now we’ve got clearer on some terms, you’ll see this idea of a ‘late reader’ might not be as simple as it seemed.
Of course, learning to read at a young age might come in handy, especially in school.
But when it comes to life, there are a whole heap of benefits to leaving it later and allowing the process to unfold naturally.
Let’s take a look at them right now…
1. It can be surprisingly fast…
The more of a language a person has heard and understood, the easier reading will be. The more stories they know, the more places, people and things of which they’re aware, the easier it will be to recognize their names. The more words they know the easier it will be to deduce successfully words for which sounding out is an imperfect method, such as “soldier” or “machine” or “thought.”
Learning to read in a society surrounded by the written word is a process that begins at birth.
We learn to read in many different ways, through stories and signs, play and print, and speaking and writing. And just like speaking, reading is a skill that’s hard to avoid and is refined over time.
Yet it can feel like magic. One day it seems impossible then the next… your child is reading Harry Potter like a wizard.
Much of the literature on reading readiness focuses on the skills you’d expect – recognising letters, rhyming, print awareness, and so on. Yet increasingly evidence shows that being ready to read has much more to do with the connections between our body and our brain than previously thought.
And trying to impose reading on your child before their brain and their body are ready, might be causing more harm than good…
When we try and teach kids to read and write before they’ve had their fill of play and movement, we short circuit the process. It’s like trying to drive a car with flat tires- it’ll go, sure, but it’ll be clunky with a huge possibility of long-term damage.
Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. With a bit of patience and a lot less pressure, the process of learning to read can be surprisingly smooth. When the time is right, and your child has mastered the emotional, intellectual, and physical skills that support reading, the aptly named Goldilocks effect comes into its own…
Often children seem to reject what they aren’t ready to learn, only to return to the same skill or concept later with ease. This is not only an expression of autonomy, it’s a clear indicator that each child is equipped with a learning guidance system of his or her own.
2. … And more fun
Forcing children to “learn” things that hold no interest is like forcing a person to eat when they aren’t hungry or to sleep when they aren’t tired: you can do it, but it will always be a battle for everyone involved.
The more knowledge your child gathers, the greater their vocabulary, and the more stories and speech they’ve heard, the more likely they’ll be to understand the written word. And the more motivated they may be to begin.
Often when reading clicks, motivation is the final piece of the puzzle. Maybe your child wants to read a particular book or get to the end faster than you’re managing together. Or they’re keen to chat with their friends on a favourite video game.
With a personal goal in mind, they’ll be more inclined to put in the effort, rather than going through the motions because they have to.
No longer an abstract idea, learning to read has real meaning and purpose. It inspires enthusiasm, and dedication. It matters. And it’s a whole lot more fun.
3. It builds confidence and trust in themselves and the learning process
Learning to read is a complex task. Just like learning to walk and talk, there are so many aspects at play. Yet most children develop a level of competency in walking and talking at such a young age, they won’t remember much about it.
Reading is different. It happens around, or after the age at which children are generally required to be receiving compulsory education. And while your child may only remember one or two specific instances from this time, they’ll carry an impression of the experience their whole lives.
For too many adults, the impression they have of learning to read is that it was difficult, even torturous. Feelings of shame and worthlessness, and examples of humiliation are common, especially if they were labelled a late reader or diagnosed with learning difficulties.
And of course, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stress inhibits your ability to do anything unrelated to your absolute survival. Stands to reason, stressing about learning to read is bound to make learning to read that bit harder.
Yet it doesn’t have to be this way for you or your children. The truth is that whenever children learn to read, whatever their age and whatever teaching they were exposed to, the achievement is theirs. Whether they learned naturally, or not.
Of course, teaching isn’t all bad 😉 But it can muddy the water a little…
Humans taught themselves to learn these useful, necessary things [reading and basic math] for hundreds and thousands of years, at their own pace, through their own interests, before they were made compulsory through schooling. (For those who doubt this, literacy rates in America were higher 250 years ago than they are today, well before widespread compulsory schooling.)
And from the same article…
If children started school at six months, teachers like me would even be congratulated for their learning to talk and walk. This is what has happened with so many of the things we try to “teach” in normal schools, like reading and basic math.
When children learn to read naturally, they gain confidence in their ability to learn anything else they put their mind to. This can have a profound impact on their self-belief, not to mention the sheer joy of a job well done.
4. It allows more time for play
Children need these healthy, harmonious, rhythmic and non-competitive movements to develop their brains. The movements of their bodies and their love for learning will create the pathways in their minds for reading, writing, spelling, mathematics and creative thinking.
For most mammals, and particularly humans, play is thought to be essential for healthy development. It helps create and cement social bonds, and it has a vital role in the learning process.
And yet modern life for many children leaves little room for play. And the play they’re offered is often structured, adult-led, or designed to be ‘learning-based’. An interesting term, as if naturally-occurring, spontaneous and child-led play were anything other than learning-based 😕
Perhaps most worrying, a number of studies have documented the loss of play opportunities for children over the second half of the 20th century and demonstrated a clear link with increased indicators of stress and mental health problems.
School starting age: the evidence
Cutting down on reading lessons means more time for play, and we’ll explore later just how important that might be, and not just for our children.
5. And more time for reading aloud
Fewer reading lessons also allows for more time spent reading aloud to your children. Not only is this one of the best ways to encourage a love of reading, but it also helps build many of the supplementary skills that make learning to read so much easier.
Establishing a habit of reading aloud with your child is a wonderful way to make memories, deepen your relationship and have tons of fun together. Sharing stories with your child expands your shared understanding. It invites conversation and offers common reference points you’ll likely come back to again and again.
Children can listen to books far in advance of their decoding ability. Not only is this likely to be more fun than sticking to early readers, but it opens up all manner of additional learning. Vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar for starters.
But even more importantly, sharing books with your children enhances their social and emotional development. From learning about far-flung places, and feeling for the heroes and villains alike, stories skyrocket our capacity for kindness and compassion.
6. It supports natural development in other areas
Learning to read later allows for the natural development of other senses and skills. Young children are masters at acquiring information from a range of sources, with keen observation and memory skills envied by the adults around them.
Reading relies heavily on vision.
…with the advent of the printing press and the widespread literacy that followed, the balance of our senses has shifted so that our visual sense has come to dominate, pushing our other senses to the background. Whereas pre-literate humans were more attuned to all their senses, modern humans have become increasingly reliant upon seeing.
Before our children learn to read they use all their senses to help them find meaning in the world. Text is not their go-to source of information, they often pick up other cues in books and in life that readers might miss.
And the later our children learn to read the deeper these skills are embedded, and the more likely they are to continue to use them. Rather than worshipping books and writing, they may retain a much more balanced and pragmatic view – recognising books and reading as one way to learn. Not necessarily the best way. And certainly not the only way.
7. It nurtures a lifelong love of reading
Being able to read is useful on a practical level, of course, and I’m a great fan of it. But however much we value it, and as a writer, I’m mighty glad we do, reading isn’t essential for survival. Or even for living a fulfilling and enjoyable life.
There are many among us who cannot read, whole communities past and present with few, if any, individuals skilled in decoding the written word. And while the decoding part isn’t the most interesting, or even important part of reading, it is the part that gets the most attention. But that’s for another post 😉
And even among those who can read, statistics show many don’t choose to do so unless they have to. Research shows that around a third of all adults and as many as half of young adults don’t read for pleasure.
Yet reading has so many benefits, far beyond its practical use – socially, emotionally, and even physically – think how many times you’ve fallen asleep with a book in hand, and we all know how important sleep is for our bodies 💤
Yet, pushing your child to read before they’re ready might just put them off reading altogether, just as it may have done for so many adults before them.
…the children who started at 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading… than those children who had started later.
School starting age: the evidence
…the results of this study suggest that resorting to methods like mandatory reading assignments such as reading logs are ineffective ways of fostering a love of reading and may even lead to a decrease in children’s motivation to read.
Journal of Research in Education
Encouraging a love of stories and books, focussing on the pleasure of reading, and allowing them to choose the time and pace that feels right to them, can all lay down positive associations with reading that last a lifetime.
8. It might help build a better world for us all
Now, this is a big claim. But maybe one of the biggest benefits to learning to read later, especially if you’re taking a more natural approach, is the impact it might have on us as a society.
Perhaps surprisingly, the earlier or later you learn fundamental skills makes very little difference later in life, academically, at least.
But the younger children start school and the earlier they’re exposed to more formal learning experiences, the more potential for long-term harm, especially in the realms of social and emotional development.
…children from the direct-instruction kindergartens performed significantly worse than those from the play-based kindergartens on every measure that was used. In particular, they were less advanced in reading and mathematics and less well adjusted socially and emotionally.
Your child’s early learning experiences will impact their whole lives. Not only, in terms of how they feel about themselves and the learning process, but also how they respond to others, and show up in the world.
The more healing any of us has to do, the less of our energy and resources we’re able to muster for the good stuff in life:
- Building healthy relationships with ourselves and others
- Embracing the joy and beauty of a life well-lived
- And, helping to solve the problems of the future.
The more choices, and the more respect you give your children, the more likely they’ll be to offer these to others.
Supporting your children’s physical and emotional development, especially through play and nurturing, paves the way for them to pick up reading at the time that is best for them. And it avoids much of the harm and hurt, the frustration and fear, and even the resentment and rage that might come from being pushed to do what they just aren’t ready for.
Every interaction we have with our children informs their mental model of the world and their place within it. And the more we can make these interactions kinder, gentler, and more accepting of where our children are, rather than where we think they should be, the more we are contributing to a brighter future for us all.
Learning to read later might not be so bad after all 🙂
When learning to read happens naturally, it doesn’t look like school’s reading lessons. It doesn’t take years. It might take only days, but the tricky part is when those days will come. If you plant watermelons, picking at the leaves and threatening the vine will not get you a watermelon before one was going to naturally grow and mature. It’s the same with children.
No doubt, allowing our children to learn to read naturally takes some steely courage and for many of us, a lot of patience. And while there’s limited research in this area, what we have so far is encouraging.
The myth that if you don’t start early, you might as well not start, tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy… If we did things a little differently, we might find out that people whose learning curves were much slower might later on go up just as high or higher.
If you’re taking a more natural approach to reading, or you have a ‘late’ reader, I hope this post offers hope and helps to calm your fears. And there’s more on the way…
Heading this way soon, a post filled with language and literacy resources, including lots of reassuring articles like this one.
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Happy week all x
Hey Hayley. This was a great insightful read. I could totally relate with you when you said ‘natural learning happens at the child’s own pace when they’re ready. No force or imposed instruction necessary’. I have observed this journey of my niece. She used to pay a lot of attention to her surroundings instead of just the textbook reading. I think because of this habit, her observational and reading skills, both are much better than her peers.
Hey Sarah, thanks for your comment. Glad you liked the post 🙂