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We’re not teaching our children to read

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” ~ Albert Einstein

Something incredible has happened, my 8 year old has picked up a book and started to read. It may sound strange to some people that I’m excited about this, what is so exciting about that, I hear you ask, can’t all 8 year olds read? I understand this confusion. In the UK literacy is at the forefront of education from the moment a child begins school at the tender age of 4. From the minute they start school they are taught to read using the phonics system, then subsequently tested and measured on their reading skill. By age 8 all UK school aged children are expected to be reading quite substantial chapter books and be able to spell words such as ‘picturesque’, ‘consequence’ and ‘phenomenal’ during weekly tests. They must learn the about fronted adverbials and conjunctions. As well as writing large amounts comprehensively, in cursive writing, and being assessed termly. If they fall behind, they are taken out of other more creative lessons for ‘interventions’ to ensure they are not falling behind. All normal stuff for schooled children.

Now ask yourselves, Who made these targets? Who decided what our children should know and when they should know it by? Who do all of these data and assessments really benefit? Why do 8 year olds need to know about fronted adverbials?

And the big question, what about children who are less academically gifted? The wild children, the free spirits. The painters, dancers, sportspeople and eccentric inventors. Where do they fit into this one size fits all curriculum?



I can tell you. They have no place. They are forgotten, pushed to the back of the class. Told they are too chatty, too fidgety, too giggly, too naughty. Or in our daughter’s case, too shy, too quiet, never contributing to class, told she isn’t good enough, told her attempts at following instructions are wrong.

Pushed to read and write before she was ready, the consequences of which, was a newfound hatred of reading, losing her confidence, feeling like she wasn’t good enough, and even worse damaging her mental health.

Pushing children to read and write too soon is extremely damaging and new scientific research has proven the fact.

Did you know that the right side of our brains develops first? The right side is the creative side, the emotional side, where imagination thrives and empathy develops. The left side of the brain is the analytical side, for problem-solving. Do you see where I am going with this?

Vince Gowman, remembering to play, explains this perfectly:

“The left brain’s functionality is one of language, numeracy, literacy, analysis and time. It is the logical, calculating, planning, busy-bee part of us that keeps us anchored in the pragmatic world, and in past and future. The right brain, on the other hand, is responsible for empathy, intuition, imagination and creativity. It is where we wonder, dream, connect and come alive. Through the right brain, we dwell in the space of no-time, in being absolutely present. While the left brain is more interested in outcomes or product, the right brain cares much more about process—the journey is what matters, not the destination.

But there is one more vital piece to understand: The right brain connects us to our boundless sense of being. Being is primary; hence the right brain developing first; hence, human being, not human doing. The left brain is far more interested in doing. Young right-brain dominant children, by contrast, are quite content being.

Understanding this we can better appreciate why play is so important in child learning and development, and why we need to be extra careful with the amount and timing of academic agendas created for children; with how much we emphasize product—what kids have accomplished at school—versus process—who they are becoming and what they feel in their explorations. That the right brain develops first is pertinent information for those in the field of education, as well as parents, regarding what is developmentally appropriate. Pushing literacy and numeracy on children before age seven may just be harmful to their little, developing brains. Without the capacity to use their academic minds in the ways that are being asked can cause children to gain what’s called “learned stupidity.” They believe themselves to be incapable and lose their natural desire to learn.”

This is exactly what happened to our beautiful, vivacious, imaginative daughter! She believed herself to be incapable and lost her natural desire to learn.

So two years ago, aged 6, we pulled her out of school and began the long process of letting her grow to love learning again.

This has been a long, arduous journey that has taken 2 years, but to witness the natural learning process that all children are capable of is really a magical sight to behold.

When she first left school we decided to take the pressure off completely. No forced reading, no coercion, no reward charts and definitely no boring phonics books. The goal for us was for her to learn to love reading again. We carried on reading a wide, varied selection of books to her every day. We made sure she witnessed us reading, and not just books, magazines, newspapers, signs.etc. We started the weekly tradition of ‘Poetry Tea Time’ where we’d huddle up with cakes and tea whilst reading poetry. Audiobooks are played in the background whilst we go about our daily lives. As well as weekly visits to bookshops and libraries.

By allowing her to grow in her own time, and fostering a nurturing environment where reading is seen as something to enjoy and take pleasure in, as opposed to something you are forced to do and
tested on, she has started to pick up books and read. All by herself.

She can read at any time of the day, and can choose any books she wants; no longer restricted to a specific set of levelled books. Her books of choice at the moment are Shakespeare, (no joke!).

After one particular incident at school where she had her work ripped out of her book and binned because it “wasn’t good enough” she was reluctant to ever pick up a pen again, she has also started to write for pleasure now, lovely little notes, stories and annotations.

So for those naysayers who don’t trust that children can learn without force or coercion, we are here to prove you wrong. Both of my daughters are self-taught readers. One before she began school, aged 4 by independently deciphering words, the other aged 8. Again no phonics, both read by deciphering words or just asking us to say the word and memorising it.

From a young age, she has suffered from pain in her eyes, particularly when doing close work. The school stated they didn’t see a problem, and we have been backwards and forwards to the local ophthalmology clinic for 2 years. We recently decided to just pay privately for a diagnosis. The outcome of this is that she has been diagnosed with visual stress and requires prescription glasses and coloured overlays for reading. She also has suspected dyslexia and is currently undergoing testing for this. Since collecting her new glasses she has been highly motivated to read, picking up books and choosing to read for pleasure.

I’m so glad we chose to nurture her rather than to push, to foster a love of reading instead of worrying about her reading levels, to allow her the time and space to live in her right brain for as long as she needs to, to spend her childhood days playing.

I’m not worried that she isn’t as fluent a reader as her peers, I don’t care that if she were to sit a formal test she would fail. She is brilliant in many other ways. She can age fossils and bones, and identify plants and birds. She can tell you about the constellations and how volcanoes work. She can tell you pretty much anything you want to know about ancient civilisations and mummification. She can cook, enjoys cleaning and helping others. She picks up litter when we’re out and is often found swinging from the highest tree branch. She cares deeply and passionately about others. The absolute definition of a wild child and I’m in no doubt that if we’d left her in school she would not be the wonderful, creative, vivacious girl she is today.

So my message is don’t worry about academic goals, stop panicking about when they will learn to read. Let’s trust our brilliant capable children, they’ll learn what they need to when they need it.

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