My newly-minted six-year-old daughter is beginning to read. Like her older sister and brother, she has not received formal reading instruction, but has simply been surrounded by literacy since birth. We have mountains of books in our home, read to our children and alongside them often, take frequent trips to the library. But perhaps the biggest way that we have created a literacy-rich environment for our children is by including them in the tools and technology that we grown-ups use to communicate and share and learn.
My older daughter was an "early" reader, learning to read at age four and quickly becoming proficient. These children who learn to read before traditional school-age are often called "precocious" readers. I only half-joke that my daughter, now 10, learned to read because I eventually tired of reading her the Rainbow Fairies book series that she adored so she had to start reading it herself. My daughter always loved books and writing and other behaviors we would think of as "school-ish."
My son, on the other hand, showed no direct interest in reading, other than enjoying being read to often. There were times when I would give him a Dick and Jane book or a Bob book and plead with him to read me just a few words. He would usually resist, often saying a defiant no. So I would swallow my pride and back off. And try to trust some more. Dick and Jane wasn't going to do it for him. There was no interest, no meaning in those words.
When he was six, he was passionate about music, especially Classic Rock. He would listen to music for hours on my husband's old smartphone, and gradually asked us to help him find the lyrics of some of his favorite songs. His phone also led him to become much more interested in technology and applications, and he would play around with customizing his device's interface. Then, when he was six, he started texting his grandparents and aunt and uncle.
As I watched his interests, and saw how technology and the Internet--our modern culture's most important tools--propelled his literacy, I added further proof to Boston College psychology professor, Dr. Peter Gray's theory that children teach themselves to read when they are good and ready. Gray writes: "Each child knows exactly what his or her own learning style is, knows exactly what he or she is ready for, and will learn to read in his or her own unique way, at his or her unique schedule." Dr. Gray goes on to assert, based on his research, that "attempts to push reading can backfire." I saw that possibility in those doubtful-mama moments when I lost trust in natural learning and thought I needed to teach. If I had kept pushing, kept doubting, I could have easily destroyed my son's natural reading instincts.
By restoring my trust in the natural ways in which children learn and discover and use the tools of their culture, I was able to allow my now eight-year-old son to learn to read on his own time, in his own way, using his own interest-driven platforms. There was no Dick and Jane for him. He prefers to read newspaper and magazine articles about technology and innovation. And he learned to read in exactly the same way as so-called "precocious" readers do: in a whole-language, all-of-a-sudden-reading-The-New-York-Times kind of way.
Now, with my younger daughter learning to read I see a hybrid of my older daughter and son's literacy progression. While she has the "school-ish" personality of my older daughter and loves to just sit and flip through books at length independently, she also loves technology and practical application of knowledge. Her grandmother recently gave her an old smartphone she had lying around, and since then, my younger daughter has been texting up a storm. She texts me and Dad, she texts her grandparents and aunt and uncle, she texts with her older siblings. All of this texting is leading to an explosion in her literacy, not only in the drive (the necessity, really) to read in order to communicate effectively with others, but also in her need to write effectively in order to be understood. It's really incredible to witness.
The power of technology and the Internet to propel literacy and learning is documented in extensive research by Sugata Mitra and his colleagues. In one study of their "hole in the wall" experiments, Mitra, et al (2005) present compelling findings on how children from disadvantaged backgrounds in 17 urban slum and rural areas across India used publicly available computers to gain literacy and computing skills on their own, without any adult interference or instruction. The children, ranging in age from six to 14 years, acquired these skills at rates comparable to children in control groups who were taught in formal, teacher-directed, classroom settings. Mitra and his colleagues define this self-education as “minimally-invasive education,” or MIE. In further studies, Mitra and his colleagues revealed that these same poor, formerly illiterate children also taught themselves English and learned to read simply by having access to computers and the Internet in safe, public spaces within their villages. If you haven't watched Mitra's powerful, award-winning 2013 Ted Talk about his "hole in the wall" experiments and findings, you really should. It's amazing.
The point that Dr. Gray and Dr. Mitra and other researchers make, and that I now have triple proof of, is that all children are precocious readers. The vast majority of children will learn to read in their own way, on their own time, when surrounded by literacy and the tools of their culture, and allowed to pursue their own passions and interests. They may not read until they are 11 or 12, which could be hard for some parents and educators to grapple with, but they do learn to read. In his article, "The Reading Wars: Why Natural Reading Fails in Classrooms," Gray writes about his research on unschooled children, stating:
"In sum, these children seem to learn to read in essentially the same ways that precocious readers learn, but at a wide variety of ages. They learn when and because they are interested in reading, and they use whatever information is available to help them, including information provided by people who already know how to read. They are not systematically taught, and the people who help them generally have no training or expertise in the teaching of reading."
Gray goes on to explain why natural reading cannot work within the context of institutional schooling:
"No matter how liberal-minded the teacher is, real, prolonged self-direction and self-motivation is not possible in the classroom. In this setting, children must suppress their own interests, not follow them. While children out of school learn what and because they want to, children in school must learn or go through the motions of learning what the teacher wants them to learn in the way the teacher wants them to do it. The result is slow, tedious, shallow learning that is about procedure, not meaning, regardless of the teacher’s intent."
If we can trust children and provide them with access to the important tools of their culture, then we will witness how humans' innate desire to explore the world leads to skillful mastery of these tools and skills in distinct ways, and on distinct, individual, interest-driven timetables.