In the middle of a farm task, my cell buzzes with a message from my daughter.

“Thomas has something to show you. He’s really excited.”

I came to a logical stopping point on the project and headed inside. My two children were sitting at the dining room table, across from each other, beaming. In front of Thomas was a Dr. Suess book, “Green Eggs and Ham.”

“Go ahead. Show her.” came Eryn’s encouragement.

Thomas picked up the book, read the title page and proceeded to read the entire book, pausing here and there to work out the words. This happens in households all over the world doesn’t it? What is so special about this particular event (other than, of course, it’s my own child accomplishing it)? Well, Thomas is 10 years old and he is just now showing us his reading skills. Ten? Yes.

I can hear the gasps now.

You see, Thomas could sit and do math all day long. He can build things and use his incredible imagination to draw and plot out movies and stories, all visually, of course. We have notebooks full of his sketched stories. And, regardless of how long its been since he drew them, he can flip through the pages and recite to you the story exactly. But, he struggled with reading. And, when I say “struggled,” that’s an understatement. We tried everything – phonics, specialized coaches, and more. But once he started showing stress, I would quietly allow him to move on to something that brought him pleasure not pain.

Meanwhile the voices in my head and many voices outside, for sure, were telling me I had to do something. He must learn to read. Other voices, along with things I’ve read, offered something different. He would learn when he was ready and the dyslexia may not be an issue if he is allowed to come to it gradually, at his own pace. So we backed off and let it be. We learn everything well when we learn by immersion, right? Langauge, whether spoken or written, should be no different. Can a child learn to read without help?

Obviously, the answer is yes. Thomas just did it. Here’s what we did to support him.

ABC Dice dates back centuries and is a useful tool for learning words. Our exchange students love it too!

  1. We surrounded him with books, print and digital library audio books.
  2. He has an ipad/iphone on which he used Siri to help write and read messages to us.
  3. We turned the captioning on for all the movies we watch at home. (As a future filmmaker, he watches and re-watches a LOT of movies and this is beneficial to our exchange students too.)
  4. We played games with letters like ABC Dice and OSMO.
  5. He played games, like Club Penguin, that require reading. (We read many club penguin responses to him.) Go.Disney (now Disney Junior) was another good one for many years as well as PBS kids.
  6. He played on – sometimes for hours at a time. (This is an awesome program for learning to read. A reward on ABCmouse is the pets. Thomas had extensive hamster cages with cute little critters running around and a pet dragon that accompanied him on his reading and math advetnures.)
  7. We loaded interesting read-along books on his iPad.
  8. He loves Minecraft and watches many let’s play Minecraft videos, like Stampy Cat, on YouTube. (Minecraft and ABCmouse may have been the biggest helpers)
  9. He expressed an interest in the ABCmouse letter video series for the iPad so we loaded them up.
  10. We read books to him (and still do).
  11. We provided backup and encouragement when confronted by do-gooder adults that expressed “concern” because he wasn’t a “reader” yet.

He absorbed it. And, he’s reading. Not just Bob books and early readers, but he recognizes many sight words and larger, scientific/metallurgic words (thanks to Minecraft). We were often surprised that instead of playing a game that he loved on his iPad, he would be watching and rewatching the ABCmouse videos or listening to a read-along book.

What we did not do is perhaps just as (or even more) important than what we did to support him. This is what we did not do.

  1. We did not apply pressure. We were totally not worried that he wasn’t reading by a certain age that the “experts” had arbitrarily assigned to a child’s age.
  2. We did not have him sit at a desk and fill in worksheets. (Tried it at the beginning. It was horrid)
  3. There was no endless droning of letter sounds on phonics CDs. (Tried it at the beginning. This was horrid for him as well.)
  4. We never forced him to sit a any computer program for learning. We simply introduced ABCMouse, Disney, PBS and the iOS apps. How much time he spent on computer games and learning apps was all up to him – but he did really enjoy them and they had a great impact.

So, when we say “he taught himself to read,” he did. But he wasn’t just left on his own without resources. We piled them up, put them in his path and made things available. Then, we let him alone to choose his path and explore those things. We encouraged. We played. We led by example (we are all avid readers). That’s what we see as “unschooling” and so far, it works better than we could have ever imagined. And, it’s amazing.