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Saturday, June 27, 2015

I Never Read to My Son. Yet He Can Read. And He's Only 3.

My three-and-a-half year old can read. He can sound out simple three letter words. This is SO exciting for me! Partly because I'm his mom, and it's just frigging exciting. But also because I rejected the behaviorist parental script that instructed me to read to him. I feel like I just got away with something BIG.

As a baby, I never read a single book to Anders. Someone gave him one of those cloth baby books, and I did leave it in his room with all his other toys. He chewed on it periodically, but I never sat him on my lap and read it to him, and I never once saw him leaf through it like a book. But I did see him, once he could crawl, get his hands on my books and stare at them as he saw me do.

As a one-year-old he owned two books: that little cloth one and one called Baby Faces that featured photos of babies feeling different things like sad, mad, and tired. I read that photo book to him on airplanes (less than a dozen times total throughout the whole year). Anders continued to play at reading with my books. By this age his play reading also involved having a pen or highlighter in his hand and making little scribbles in the books (just as he had seen me do).

As a two-year-old he had about a dozen books on subjects in which he had shown interest: animals and machines. No story books though. The dozen books he owned were books that showed only photographs of real life with words beneath the photographs. I never read those books to him though as that would have been very boring (and philosophically horrific) for me. As before, he continued to play at reading with my books.

All this time I did read to him from the book I was reading if he asked me to. I read a lot. I always had a book in my purse. When we went somewhere, like the park, he would play, and I would read. When we went to the store, and he wanted to play in the car before getting into his carseat, I would read while I waited for him. He would often see me reading in the morning and evening as well. About once a week he would climb onto my lap, and I would read aloud to him whatever I happened to be reading at the time. We still do this. I am reading a book on death right now, and I read him a paragraph of it last night about which he commented, "How interesting!"

Also, I never shoved the alphabet down his throat. He never owned clothes with letters all over them. He never owned puzzles or dishes or placemats or rugs or toys that featured the alphabet. He didn't and doesn't to this day own a single thing, not even a decoration, with the alphabet on it. He never watched any Sesame Street or any of those other shows that claim to teach kids to read. He knows none of the children's songs that involve the alphabet either--or any children's songs for that matter.

When he turned three I read to him his first story books: Where the Red Fern Grows, and all of the Little House books. He loved these books, and so did I. They did have some pictures, but very few. I did edit the books a little, so that the characters modeled communication skills I support.

When Anders was three I asked him if he wanted to learn to read. He said, "No." I said, "Okay. Maybe when you are older!" Three months later I asked him again if he wanted to learn to read and he said, "Yes!" So I got the Hooked on Phonics program for pre-schoolers and we started learning letter sounds. I did not teach him letter names as that is highly confusing, and there is no point. The purpose of the ABC song is not reading but alphabetizing. One does not need to learn to alphabetize until one is using a dictionary and conceptualizing alphabetical order--maybe age seven.

I did not do anything gimicky to make learning letter sounds fun. I did not do a letter for a whole a week or give letters personalities or faces (like in Ron Paul's reading curriculum). Hooked on Phonics was the simple program I was looking for--though I would have liked it to be even more simple with fewer colors and distractions. Anders usually learned one letter each day we worked on them, and we usually worked on them five days a week. Learning a letter rarely took more than five minutes. Within three or four months Anders had learned all his upper case and lower case letters and finished the entire program except for the six horrible story books that came with the program that I did not read to him--one of the books was pure propaganda for cereal and another for corn.

Anyway, after we finishing the Hooked on Phonics program for preschoolers, I bought the next one--Hooked on Phonics for kindergarteners. That is the program we are doing now in which he sounds out simple three letter words. Our current program came with about thirty little books for him to read. All have anthropomorphic animals, but since he is very clear on reality at this point, I'm okay with it. Moreover, we talk about it. Because he has not grown up with any exposure to anthropomorphic animals, he thinks the idea of a cat speaking English or driving a car is absolutely hilarious.

If Anders had chosen to not learn how to read until he was seven or even eleven I would have been okay with it, but it would have surprised me. My hypothesis was that the number one thing I could do to encourage my son to read was not reading to him, but rather, reading. Just by being myself and doing what I consider enjoyable, I modeled a behavior that my son decided to acquire.

But he's only three. He may decide to take a break on learning to read while he focuses on mastering some other skill. He may take a break for years. He may be able to read, but chose not to. He may be able to read, but be a terrible reader. And of course he could be reading right now not because of any behavior I modeled, but because it is in his DNA, i.e. it could be nature and not nurture.

Also, I don't want to make it sound like I buy into the "kids must be readers!!!!" ideal. Anders's reading is an exciting result in my parenting experiment and an exciting milestone for me as a parent. But I am not trying to make him "a reader." I think many parents think reading is the cause rather than the effect of an active mind. Though I would agree reading can contribute to having an active mind, I think it can only contribute if the mind is already active.

-A while back I read some interesting accounts of teachers from the 1800's complaining that picture books were making it impossible to teach children to read. "The kids stare at the pictures instead of the words!" the teachers wrote into newspapers.
-When I worked with kids I read to them a lot and found it to be very unsatisfying. Babies just wanted to eat the books. Toddlers memorized ridiculous nonsense and, worse, received parental approval for spouting ridiculous nonsense. Preschoolers internalized terrible ideas about life like magical-thinking and control-oriented relationships. So not only did I find reading to children to be unsatisfying because of the behavior it produced in the children, I found almost all kids books to be philosophically horrific and simply not fun for me.

-Before I got the Hooked on Phonics program I tried the Kumon program which I found even more horrific in terms of propaganda. I will do an entire post about in the future.
-I did get Anders one alphabet toy--magnets--so he could feel the letters with his fingers. I got rid of them after a month as they made my kitchen ugly, and I just didn't think it was necessary.
-Anders has two Montessori letter games on our iPad that he plays on airplanes, which is to say, not often.
-I did read Anders thirty or so versions of The Three Little Pigs and The Little Red Hen while I was researching these stories for myself when he was a little over three. So he did get to hear some picture books.
-The Hooked on Phonics program instructed me to teach the ABC song, and when Anders was very good at the letter sounds, I decided it wouldn't hurt, so I taught it to him. This turned out to be a terrible idea. He loved the song, of course, but it took us about three weeks to recover from its confusing influence i.e. he still says "pee" sometimes instead of "puh" when he is trying to sound out a word.


  1. Thanks for reporting back to us on how your child rearing theories are working out in practice. I learned to read in first grade and could read the Britannica. Variable outcomes for my siblings; one could barely read on graduating from high school. (She now has two college degrees.) Another could read but did not know the alphabet. When we were room mates for a while I had to look things up in the phone book for him. His life was not utterly ruined. The family need not be a miniature welfare state.

    1. Hi Irrevo,

      Thanks for the extra data! Were you guys home, unschooled, or public schooled?


  2. I wonder if I could solicit your thoughts on the point of propaganda in children's books. Of course, propaganda is created for the purpose of manipulation rather than education, and thus its educational value within the context of the subject being propagandized is null; however, propaganda is a real phenomenon, and one which children will need to deal with in the future; therefore, is it not desirable that they be exposed to it as a subject in and of itself?

    In this post, you describe shielding your child from material you deem to be propaganda, but I think you yourself would be opposed to someone shielding you from material they deemed to be propaganda, so is it objectivist to shield your child from this? Could this be an opportunity to teach your child to discern between informative and manipulative communication?

    1. Hi Digital Pioneer,

      I am so sorry I didn't notice this comment until now! Yes, children will be pelted all their lives with propaganda. Yes, it is extremely important to expose them to it and to always talk about it. I have many many opportunities to teach Anders to discern between information and manipulative communication on a daily basis. We talk about it so much that it gets tiresome.

      I think the excess of the negative propaganda and the constant conversation required is why I didn't feel conflicted about adding some examples of actual healthy conversation to books we are reading. I don't see myself as "shielding him" from the negative so much as taking advantage of an opportunity to provide some positive.


  3. This is fascinating and refreshing! My son (11 months old) is generally uninterested in books. He would prefer to play with them like toys rather than look at the pages and be read to. I also don't particularly enjoy reading to him since he's not interested and the books are boring! I was feeling rather worried about this, but you've made me feel a lot better about it. One thing I'm curious about - what made you decide to use a program to help your son learn to read at age 3 rather than waiting until an older age and/or waiting for him to teach himself? I know schools nowadays are pushing early reading, but I've read some things suggesting it may actually be better to learn to read when you're older, and I know many unschoolers prefer to let their kids teach themselves to read rather than using a program.