The Great Unschooling Experiment

Just after Agnes (now 3) was born, I adopted a more “unschooling” philosophy of home education. At first it was simply born of necessity, having so many very small children and barely managing to keep the baby nursed (a full time job), meals on the table and household members from smelling too offensive. I just couldn’t fit in the time to sit down and do their phonics, etc. However, I always felt I “should” be doing something more with them, and the guilt piled up quite a bit.

In a Mothering magazine article, I first read the term “unschooling” and looked into it with interest, posting about it on my blog and welcoming comments. Most of what I found was of the “radical unschooling” philosophy which I couldn’t get completely on board with, being a Catholic with firm ideas of absolute morality and not being completely averse to the idea of coercion per se. However, the basic tenets really resonated with me, especially the ideas that:

– children learn naturally because they want to. (My kids have always been slightly more curious than my comfort level would normally allow. And they managed to learn to walk and talk without direct instruction.)

– “grades” are artificial constructs that reflect compliance rather than true learning (my own experience – spanning homeschool, private school, college and a graduate degree – bears this out)

– the most important knowledge whether reading, math, science, etc is fully integrated in real life, so why can’t it be learned that way?

Well, it was certainly enough to convince me at the least that earlier is not better in terms of sit-down school (quite a lot due to this book) and I was happy to let go of the guilt.

However, at the time I decided to take this route, my girls were already reading. Sounding out “Hat, Man, Cat” kind of things and going through the short vowel readers in their Sing Spell Read & Write program. The last thing we covered was the “silent ‘e’ words” making a long vowel sound, and the “two vowels walk together” making a long vowel sound. We never got around to all the exceptions. But, even though they quickly progressed in their reading to well above their grade level without any further instruction on my part (they learned solely from context, with a few “hey what does this say’s” thrown in – and internalized the rules without memorizing them), I still felt it was sort of cheating in the unschooling sense because I had done formal learning to get them to that springboard point.

The true experiment has been watching Soren and Christina, who were not yet 2 and 3 at the time. Saying you don’t believe in early education for youngsters, and then sitting back and waiting (nail biting) for your children to start reading, are quite different. 🙂 It was really a test of my philosophy to see Soren zoom right past age 3 and 4 (when my girls happened to start reading) without having sounded out any words yet. However, I kept telling myself that it was too soon for him to “need” to read yet and I was not losing anything by waiting.  It wasn’t all nervousness, either. I could clearly see breakthroughs where he would understand a new concept. Each time this happened it was more exciting to me than if I’d actually been working with him and I have developed a lot of respect for the way children’s minds work during this process.

Well, Soren and Christina have known all their letters and sounds for a couple of years now and I’ve been patiently waiting for them to start putting it all together and reading. Soren turned 5 1/2 last week. Also last week he read a few pages out of an easy reader, for the first time! (Christina, 4 1/2, is still writing random letters and scribbles -representing cursive, I guess- and telling me what it says. And she memorizes books and pretends to read them, saying the correct words as she turns each page.)

Well, you can imagine my excitement when Dave showed me this latest drawing that his son lovingly and painstakingly crafted for him (and sounded out all by himself):

We think the bottom truck is supposed to say “Fed Ex.” 🙂

It’s remarkable to me how closely this resembles the examples of normal phonetic awareness development that Jane Healy documents in the book I linked above!

Also, I searched in vain for an hour to find my blog post when the girls gave Dave a similar promotion to “pope” (phonetic sounding out of papi) but could not find it. 😦 At least Soren drew his on paper!

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3 Responses to The Great Unschooling Experiment

  1. Jessica says:

    It sounds like your doing an awesome job! I firmly believe that every family has to do what is best for them. My boys would not enjoy unschooling- they thrive on the structure that our classical curriculum brings. Isaac was already seven before he really started reading. He could sound out words for about two years, but didn’t enjoy it and it never really “clicked.” Now he loves to read. But I know what you mean about patience- James read at four and a half and it took two and a half years longer for Isaac.

  2. Katherine Lauer says:

    That is so neat! And here I am gearing up to try some formal stuff with John now at 4-1/2 . . .

  3. Sheila says:

    That’s great. I learned to read when I was four, like almost all of my family did. But after hearing about a book called “Better Late Than Early” which my mom had read, I’ve started to question the idea of trying to get my son to read that soon. I come of a family of bookworms, and most of us don’t like going outside or doing any kind of sport. I’d like my son to spend more time playing and less time reading while he’s very young!

    And I really don’t think it does any harm to wait and let kids figure things out. My husband didn’t learn to read till he was eight, because he was in public school till seven. His mom had to “un-teach” him everything he thought he knew and start all over. But now he’s got a BA in English, he was a journalist, and he’s got a 4.0 average in his masters in library science program so far. WHEN he learned to read was not nearly as important as the fact that he learned to love reading when he was ready for it.

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