the "late" reader

In November my 8-year-old son was just beginning to get interested in learning how to read. He would try to follow me as I read to him, and would ask what sounds certain letters made. Although we hadn't taken a phonics approach, he has gotten the idea from well-meaning family and friends and children's television programs that this is just what you do to learn to read. He quickly became frustrated to find that phonics doesn't always work and that you just simply have to become familiar with the sounds that certain groups of letters make, which often means memorizing whole words.

This frustration -- that learning to read wasn't going to happen as advertised -- slowed him down a bit, I think. But he's taken off again, and I think it's going to happen very quickly from here on out. Recently in a drive-through he read, "Please pull up to next window." The first couple of words he sounded out, but he read the rest quickly. He said he just guessed what the rest was going to say, meaning that he inferred meaning from context, which of course is an important element of fluid and fluent reading. Then he said, annoyed, "why isn't there a "the" before "next"? He was recognizing the individual words as well. The connections seem to be happening now, not just quickly, but lightening fast.

I've long believed that people learn best when they are truly developmentally ready, and that only they can know when that is, and that they will know when that is by virtue of it simply happening naturally, in the absence of coercion or unsolicited teaching. The only really useful thing anyone else can do is to provide opportunity and answer questions. This is not an easy thing to allow in a culture that goes apoplectic over a child who can not read by second grade. It's considered a sign either that the educational system is failing the child, or that there is something wrong with the child. I consider it a sign that the child is not ready, and that the educational system has failed him not in not imbuing him with a skill for which he does not yet have the aptitude, but in leading the child and those around him to believe that he was already or has become disabled. These late readers within the school system often never learn to read well at all; how we perceive ourselves affects who we are able to become. Society in general, however, refuses to recognize that and stridently insists that the reason they are poor readers is that there is one small window of opportunity for learning to read and they missed it.

Who is right? It would be very easy to find out.
See what happens when children are not pressured to learn -- ever. Well, we can't experiment on children (never mind that the whole of our modern system of instruction is an experiment) -- it would be unethical within the current educational belief system. Ah, but here's where autonomy and free choice comes in. Parents who are not under the thumb of the state have nothing invested in protecting the current paradigm, and being outside of it they are able to regard it critically. As such, it is not unethical in the least for them to do a different kind of experiment, as long as it is based in reasonably sound principles.

Many already have, and what they have found is that 8 years old is not relatively late to read, it is actually relatively early, as far as true developmental readiness. According to John Holt, the average age of "becoming a reader", among those who allow the skill to develop naturally in a noncoercive and book and reading-rich atmosphere, seems to be about nine years old, with a spectrum of normal ranging from ages 4-14. And the most common experience for those on that spectrum who are "late" is that of a child going from seemingly little reading comprehension at all, to within months reading adult-level text.

Annette Mackay:

I think the turning point for my son came, when, at the suggestion of many other homschooling moms of boys, I plunked a Calvin and Hobbs down within his reach. He was 10. He was not yet reading, he picked that book up and poured over the pages. He 'read' the entire thing without ever reading the words. He flagged page after page after page of favourite strips. I left him alone. Several weeks later he started coming to me for help with a word he didn't understand, or a strip he wanted to know more about but couldn't read the words. I would answer him and off he'd go. That was the beginning. [...]

[...]he did learn to read......gently and slowly......going from large print with not much on a page to the big, thick, small print, no pictures Star Wars anthology that came out just before Christmas. That was his first self read novel. Do you think he could have picked a bigger, more detailed book to begin with? He waded through that one in about four weeks. [...]

Now at almost thirteen, nothing is beyond his grasp, and he loves a good book.


Surely he would read by five years of age. But not Chris. Maybe by the time he was six years old, or by seven? But Chris refused to be forced or cajoled into reading. By now his friends were learning to read in school, but Chris still couldn't read. He struggled to decipher simple words and he hated trying to read because it was so frustrating.

[...]And then the miracle happened. Right about his ninth birthday, reading clicked in his mind and he just began reading. Within a month he was reading easily at his grade level. Within a year he had read every book on airplanes at the public library. The librarian, who thought he was a wonderful and precocious child because he read so much, gave him a special "adult" library card, so he could begin checking out adult books about airplanes.


Julie's twelfth birthday came. She could read a little, but only with great difficulty and frustration. Liam's sixteenth birthday came the next month. He could read a little too, haltingly, and with great effort. What to do? I just doggedly held on to the belief that they would read someday. I didn't consider specialists or therapies. I just waited, trying to ignore the worried voices in my head.

Then something happened. I have no idea what. They both just started reading. Maybe it was the incentive of online chatting. Maybe it was long boring days at home. Maybe it was just the right time, and the parts of their brains that can process the written word had a growth spurt. It doesn't matter.

Liam is sixteen and a half now. Six months ago, he was unsure about taking a driver's ed class for fear his reading level might cause him to lag far behind the class, or for fear of the embarrassment it might cause him. And how could he take notes? Would it be too much?

Today he is reading adult level books out of his father's paperback collection. He loves war stores based on real battles and other kinds of adventure books. Julie is devouring Harry Potter books and Goosebumps. They are both reading about a book a week.

Wendy Styles, in response:

My now 12 year old son was on the same path as Chris, refusing to read in kindergarten and then again in another kindergarten (repeated). Addy (Adam) had absolutely no interest in learning letters period. I took him out of school in first grade and decided to unschool him since I had already had tremendous success with my now 16 year old daughter, Sasha. I tried...and my husband tried to interest him in reading cereal boxes...all during the time that I was reading to him during the day and at bedtime. I continued reading to him every night but even at age 8 1/2 he still didn't even recognize the letters in his own name on a consistent basis.

Well, to make a long story short, Pokemon was the rage...and his birthday gift of a GameBoy was all it took. He sat in his room for about three days playing furiously..came out for air only to eat...and in those three days he learned to read well enough that the first book he read cover to cover was one about the stock market a few days later. His first required test from our school district placed him in the 99th percentile. All that worry for nothing!


My oldest was a very late reader. (Well, "late" by conventional expectations--he learned to read at exactly the right time for him.) He liked to be read to, but didn't like reading himself. He reads a lot now, but most importantly, he LOVES to read. When he tells me, "This book is soooo good, I can't put it down. I'm going to have to find others by this author." My heart is about ready to burst--there was a time that I never thought I'd hear him speak like that.

Lillian Jones, who owns the Best Homeschooling website, relates:

The eldest of the Colfax boys [see Homeschooling for Excellence] - the first one to get into Harvard, and go on to graduate from their medical department on the Dean's List - didn't read till sometime when he was nine.

Stories like these abound on message boards where parents talk -- mostly anonymously and therefore safely, given the general hostile climate toward such an educational approach -- about eschewing formal reading instruction, and seeing their children hardly looking at books, except to be read to, until they are 11, 12, 13, and then taking off like a rocket. This does not apply only to "special" children. It is not a miracle. It's simply normal. And there are dangers in refusing to recognize that. Paula Harper-Christensen writes,

Child development specialists agree that instruction in reading should begin when the child is developmentally ready. Most reading failures and disabilities could be prevented if children were not taught reading too early. Premature reading instruction is the most common factor in reading problems. There is nothing one can do to accelerate reading readiness, and attempts to force reading can frequently lead to temporary or permanent maladjustment.

Dr. Raymond Moore has stated, “There is research evidence that the brain does not physically mature until the child is eight or ten. Studies on cognition also reveal a readiness for sustained high cortical thought–such abstract thinking as required in mathematics, reading, etc.” We also know that the incidence of myopia (nearsightedness) has increased with early reading instruction. Forcing children to focus on fine print when they are not developmentally ready can cause problems with their physical vision. In addition, it can frustrate the child intellectually and emotionally to the point where he views himself as a failure and never has the opportunity to express his true ability.


The object of education is to prepare young children to educate themselves throughout all of their lives. Some children are developmentally ready to read sooner than others, but the issue of “developmental readiness” is not an issue of intelligence; it is an issue of timing. Trying to teach a child to read early is as futile and potentially damaging as training a baby to walk before he is developmentally (physically, mentally and emotionally) mature. As homeschooling parents, we should be able to enjoy our children's extended childhood and be respectful of their individual style of learning. Mahatma Gandhi said, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.” We should never fear spoiling our children by making them happy. Happiness is the condition in which all that is good grows.

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