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Reading With Grace: An Unschooled Child Learns to Read
By Becca Challman

Grace reading

The year is 1971 and my six-year-old self is about to learn a traumatic lesson. My first grade classmates are all struggling to sound out a list of phonetically spelled words. Things are moving agonizingly slow and I feel as if my turn will never come. I cannot wait to show off how well I can read, thereby winning Mrs. Hank’s undying approval. She has only made it around to Daphne in the middle of the first row (they’ve arranged us in four rows of five). The tiny blonde girl flushes and sweats under the teacher’s critical examination. Meanwhile, I wait in my hard chair in the last row next to the window and oh, I am so bored. Craving stimulation, I flip to the back of the chunky phonics workbook. Jackpot! Whole paragraphs punctuated by colorful illustrations beckon. I begin reading about Dick and Jane, occasionally stopping to steal glances out the window at a squirrel gathering nuts beneath the maple tree.

Soon, I am oblivious to the fact that the students’ voices have fallen silent. I vaguely hear the click-clack of the formidable teacher’s shoes as she makes her way toward me. Finally, the pink and eggplant-purple paisley pattern clinging to her ample frame draws my eyes upward. “Becky S,” she barks, towering over my desk, “What do you think you’re doing?” I cringe. “Reading,” I whisper. She mistakes my honesty for sarcasm. “No,” she barks again. “Reading is what I am trying to teach you, what I get paid to teach you! I’m not standing up in front of this class for my health you know. Reading is what we are trying to do while you, Miss Smarty Pants, are looking ahead in your workbook instead of paying attention.” She finishes her demeaning dissertation by whacking me on my tender upturned palm with a ruler she keeps for just such a purpose. I ferociously fight back hot tears of humiliation, but to no avail. Her words sting my spirit far worse than her ruler stings my hand. My tears spill. From that moment on, I learn to hide who I really am.

That is how the government-run education system rewarded me for learning to read before I started school. My husband Scott endured similar experiences. He recalls being perplexed in first grade when his friends, who usually spoke clearly, suddenly began stuttering and stammering as they tried to read. When he asked why they were talking like that, his teachers thought he was poking fun. He explained that it just didn’t sound right; he didn’t read aloud like that. Well, that did it. His teachers refused to believe he could read at all, much less read coherently. They made this shy little bespectacled boy stand up in front of the class and read words from an overhead projector. When he recognized word after word, when he enunciated each word clearly, when he read, and read and read, they merely shrugged and dismissed him, without an apology.

Besides angering the teachers by learning to read on our own, we each had vivid memories of persecution by bullies in school. For whatever reasons, we did not swim in the mainstream. We were different from the popular kids, the athletic kids, the challenged kids. We fit into no group. We were individuals in an environment that demanded conformity. Because we were unable to conform (I use the term “unable” because we could not change our circumstances, although there were times we tried to change ourselves in order to be accepted), our peers and the adults who were supposed to protect and encourage us punished us.

No child of ours shall suffer daily punishment in the name of “education.” Thus, we decided to reject regimented learning even before I gave birth to our daughter Grace. We wanted her so much, we are not going to entrust her formative years to strangers just because it is the societal norm. At least attending public school taught us that much.

Adventure Awaits

With the feelings of anticipation for the life learning adventures ahead, however, came the trepidation. Would we be able to guide her effectively? Would she learn enough? Would she learn to read? Would she learn to write? Would she learn to do parenthetical equations? Or would all these skills elude her without professional teaching? We soon discovered that natural curiosity leads Grace in the direction that is right for her. All we have to do is follow as delighted observers who can relax and enjoy the journey. We feel pure bliss, knowing that next year when her generational peers start kindergarten, she can continue playing, exploring and learning in the real world – our world…her home.

All of this brings me to my point: Our four-year-old daughter can read. It happened naturally, organically and, according to statistics, early. Is she exceptional, as so-called experts might label her? Yes. She is exceptional, in that she has been given the time to let her life unfold without too many restrictions. She eats when she gets hungry. She sleeps when she feels tired. She explores when she feels curious. She learns what she wants to learn when she wants to learn it. She was in no hurry to learn to walk. She was in no hurry to learn to use the potty. She was in a big hurry to learn to read. But alas, we’re jumping ahead.

A Powerful Princess

Gracie took her first autonomous steps when she was a year old. “That’s that,” we thought. She, on the other hand, probably thought something more along the lines of my husband’s little joke, “Walking is for chumps.” Why should she rush to walk when she enjoyed riding in her parent’s arms? No matter, we got the pleasure of carrying her for another month or two, until she determined walking would be faster. Then she walked. Not long after that, she began running and we chased after her. Our strolling days were over. Looking back, I can see that Grace simply followed her instincts and did what came naturally. We simply followed Grace.

As for the potty, we bought her one as soon as she could walk. We supplied her with picture books about learning to use the potty. One even had a button that produced the sound of a flushing toilet. We moved her potty around to make it more accessible and enjoyable for her to use. I mean, who wants to interrupt watching Sesame Street to toddle to the potty? Despite our best efforts, Gracie remained unimpressed. She did not begin to use the potty consistently until she turned three. Once she began, however, that really was that. She applied her potty preparedness once and for all time. She no longer wears a diaper to bed. She seldom has accidents, day or night. She uses public toilets when necessary, although, just like the rest of us, not without flinching. Occasionally, also just like the rest of us, she even enjoys combining her skills by reading while on the potty. No doubt about it, Grace learned to use the potty in her own time and she learned it well. She is a natural born princess – heir to the throne.

Long, Long Ago

When we told Grace’s 96-year-old great-grandmother that Grace was already learning to read, she responded, “How do you know if you’re teaching her right?” Her concern about following a predetermined procedure outweighed her delight in Gracie’s newfound abilities. The system, instituted even before great-grandma was born in 1911, has conditioned her to believe that children only learn by being taught and that the only effective teachers are the ones found in classrooms. Her death grip on the past reminds me of a song called School Days written in 1907: “School days, school days. Dear old Golden Rule days. Reading’ and ‘riting and ‘rithmetic taught to the tune of a hickory stick…” Apparently, many people from her generation recollect their primary school miseries with a certain amount of fondness.

Some of the rest of us, however, regardless of our generation, know that children absorb and apply what they want to learn, not what educators want to drill into them. Noam Chomsky, in his book Chomsky on MisEducation (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000) writes, “A good teacher knows that the best way to help students learn is to allow them to find the truth by themselves.” Grace sees us reading. Grace hears us reading. Grace wants to learn the truth revealed by the symbols on the page. Grace learns to read.

A Dark And Stormy Night

According to recent statistics posted at, 60 percent of America’s prison inmates cannot even read graffiti. One-fifth of America’s high school graduates cannot read their own diplomas. Half of all teenage criminals are amassing rap sheets faster than they can read them. In addition, nearly half of American adults are functionally illiterate. In other words, they recognize the Wal-Mart sign, but they cannot read the labels on its merchandise. Scary.

Reading is an essential building block of learning. All other technical learning rests upon the foundation of reading. So what is a concerned parent to do? Given the critical role reading plays in a child’s development and happiness, learning to read is a milestone toward which many parents over-eagerly push their children, rendering reading a chore rather than a joy.

Preschool seems to be the government’s answer. Stick them in a classroom environment early and keep them there until the state can try them as adults. Tongue in cheek aside, the fact remains that institutional schools are failing to teach children to read. When confronted with this fact, teachers insist parents should do more at home. Finally, we can all agree on something.

Hearth & Home

The greatest advantage of the life learning lifestyle is having time. The time we fight to preserve (or retrieve from the hands of educators and bureaucrats who would have our children imprisoned in the interests of corporations) serves us well. So, rather than spending all day watching automatons serve the machine, our children can spend all day, safe with those who know and love them, watching us. Watching us do our thing, they will learn to do theirs. If one of those things is reading, for the joy of it, then our children shall discover that joy. Role modeling is one of the most effective ways to impart information to children, although most of the time we’re not even aware we’re doing it. As any parent of an adolescent will tell you, kids learn more from what their parents do than from anything they say. Children learn how to speak by listening to others speak. They learn how to converse by watching and listening to others converse. They learn how to hold books by watching other people hold books.

Moreover, children’s curiosity dictates what they learn. Therefore, providing an environment that will stimulate their curiosity can stimulate learning. Children surrounded by books will explore the books. Children immersed in language will absorb a certain amount of language. Children who hear stories and lots of stimulating conversations as a part of their daily lives will begin to converse and tell stories.

Disarming Prince Charming

My husband and I both love to read. It is inherent in who we are. It defines us. Before Grace was born, we read to her. Her first toy was actually a cloth bunny book. When she was a tiny baby in the co-sleeper, she drifted off to dreamland accompanied by the comforting sound of my husband’s voice and our laughter; we favored political satirists like George Carlin and Al Franken. It was, after all, 2004 and we needed to laugh; still do. During the day, when I nursed her, I read her chapter books like Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Wynn Dixie. Perhaps, when she is old enough to read them on her own, she will feel an affinity for the strong female protagonists in these brilliant books. I know that reading to her helped me maintain my sanity…and it soothed her. If it also laid the foundation for her belief in herself as a strong, resourceful and independent hero of her own life story, then that’s just a bonus!

As she grew, we provided her with sturdy board books, which she teethed on, tossed and tore as much as she could. Some survived and she treasures those. The ones that did not survive still taught her things about her world, like the difference in the effort required to rip paper versus that required to rip cardboard. Later, she moved on to Little Golden Books and Dr. Seuss. We gave her old ones that had belonged to her dad when he was a tot. She mauled and maimed a few of those, but she quickly learned that if she wanted to examine the pictures, the pages had to be intact. By the age of two, she handled books properly and with respect, with little interference from us.

Soon, she began to pay attention to print in her environment. She read traffic signs, restaurant signs and store signs. Her father read her the Sunday comics and she would point excitedly and scream out the words she recognized. He still reads to her every day – books, comics, anything she requests. Watching them cement their father/daughter bond, I remember how we began assembling her library before she was born. Hunting for bargain books at consignment shops and antique stores became our favorite evening endeavor. Now, she accompanies us to bookstores, sitting and reading among the stacks while we concern ourselves with future acquisitions for our family library.

Happily Ever After

What if, despite all of our efforts to create an environment conducive to reading, Lance’s kid from the castle next door, who, incidentally, attends the King’s Own preschool, can read, but our child cannot even recite the alphabet? Unschooling advocate and author Valerie Fitzenreiter (The Unprocessed Child – Living Without School, Unbounded Publications, 2003), encourages parents to relax and stop using societal criteria to gauge the development of their children. “When children initiate their own learning, it does not follow a curriculum designed by authorities deeming what they should know at a certain age.”

The consensus among literacy researchers is that most children learn to read by age seven. Grace’s experiences prove that life learning children are not “most children,” but individuals. And each individual will learn to read when ready. Some will apply themselves to cracking the reading nut quickly; others will be too busy studying the squirrels running up and down the life-learning tree. In any case, each shall discover the joy, eventually. They learned to walk, they learned to use the potty, they will learn to read – at home, with grace. In the meantime, why not visit the local library for a book about squirrels?

Becca Challman firmly believes that the most important lessons she has ever learned, she learned from experience. Those experiences have taught her that she would rather live to learn than live to earn, that there is more joy in helping a child discover her truest self than in making sure she attends school every day and that if there were no other reason to live, there would still be books. Becca and her creative genius husband Scott reside in the present, reject regimented education and embrace life learning, each other and their daughter Grace Lillianna.

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