My Hands-Off Approach to Teaching Reading

Image courtesy of AKARAKINGDOMS /
Image courtesy of AKARAKINGDOMS /

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Today I’m back to answering readers’ questions again. Teaching reading can be a scary thing with any homeschooling method, let alone unschooling, which prompts this next question…

– Now, for my big question: In your opinion, how do you continue unschooling your young children while still teaching them some of the basic necessities (reading, math, grammar)

That’s a great question. I really don’t know. 😉 I’m only half-joking here because this is only the third month I’ve actually been unschooling, although I do think I can help here since my method of teaching reading relaxed more and more as I continued to homeschool.

When I first started to homeschool, I went all out with every subject and got a book for EVERYTHING. It was so excited to imagine all of our glorious future days of sitting around the table having our own little school at home. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite like that. My children soon- like, immediately- tired of completing book after book with no end in sight. And reading? Well, that became one of their most dreaded subjects because learning to read can be overwhelming enough without completing five worksheets for a four-page story.

Next, I ditched the reading workbooks and turned to Saxon readers. Everyday I would sit with London and read her they same story for one week. I would read it once, then she would attempt to read it. If you would go by school standards, London was a slow reader and would probably have been put in special education. This kept weighing on my mind as we were reading these books, and every time she would have a hard time reading something, I would get so frustrated because I love reading, and I just couldn’t grasp how hard it is for some children. I would get frustrated, and she would cry almost everyday. Until I read the book Learning All The Time by John Holt. He surmised that the best way to teach children to read is to let them teach themselves! This seemed almost too good to be true, but I was so frazzled over the whole situation that I decided to give it a try. I stopped making her read to me and only read to her when she asked me to. After a couple of weeks, she had taught herself how to read all those books she had been having trouble with because it was something she wanted to do, and the pressure from me was gone. I can’t recommend this book to you enough.

Another year rolled around, and it was Bailey’s turn to learn to read. You would think I would have learned from my mistakes, but no, those phonics books just looked too alluring, so I bought them for London, Bailey, and Luke, and I started going down the same path a different way. Instead of using readers, I forced phonics on them, which they LOATHED. Bailey was great at memorizing sight words but just couldn’t get the hang of sounding things out, so, before the frustration returned, we stopped the phonics books, and I just read to them- a lot. Bailey can now read books that I’ve never read to him before with words in it that he was never taught. He figured it out on his own. And you want to know why those phonics books didn’t help him? Apparently, he’s a whole language learner. If I would have made him continue his phonics lessons, it probably would have taken him longer to learn how to read.

One thing that I’ve learned in all this is that you have to go with the flow. Luke is five, and, so far, isn’t interested in reading at all. He likes to be read to, but right now that’s sufficient for him. Ireland is four, and she is the one asking me, “What’s that say?” “What letter is that?” “How do I spell Easter?” They’re two different kids and have two different learning styles. Am I worried? Not at this time. Children develop at different rates- they’re not robots. While Ireland may eventually surpass Luke in reading skills, Luke’s a mean skateboarder- something Ireland can’t do. And honestly, what does it really matter at what age a child starts to read? As far as I know, no one’s been turned down for a job because they were a late reader. When you’re all grown up, no one cares.

Reading isn’t essential for learning. If all you use is books, then, yes, it’s an asset, but don’t be discouraged if your child seems to be taking a while. Learning can happen in so many different ways- with or without reading. Look at babies. Their illiteracy certainly doesn’t seem to hinder them, does it?

Since standardized testing does begin in 3rd grade where I live, I do have a plan in place. I’ve heard so many great things about a book called Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. While I haven’t personally used this book, I have heard nothing but good things about it from people I absolutely trust. In the event that one of my kids still needs help by 3rd grade, this is what I’ll be using. The lessons are short and sweet, and it’s easy on the parent, too.

I’ve spent a lot of time on reading, so I’ll keep grammar and math short and sweet. There are a lot of fun ways to teach grammar, such as Mad Libs. My children also like to write their own stories, so this is a great way to teach them about proofreading for grammatical errors and incorrect punctuation. In PA, homeschoolers are subject to standardized testing in 3rd, 5th, and 8th grades. This year Dillon is the only one who falls into that category, so today I just started having him complete Daily Grams: Guided Review Aiding Mastery Skills JR/SR High worksheets. These are really nice because they only take about five minutes, but they cover a wide variety of grammar and punctuation rules.

Math is something we still do everyday because I’m just not comfortable without a curriculum for this subject. I’ve recently gotten the Life of Fred Elementary Series Complete 10 Book Set (Life of Fred), Life of Fred Kidneys (INTERMEDIATE SERIES), Life of Fred Fractions to Pre-Algebra 5-Book Set : Fractions, Decimals and Percents, Elementary Physics, Pre-Algebra 1 with Biology, and Pre-Algebra with Economics, and Life of Fred Advanced Algebra Expanded Edition. Devin is the only one who actually hasn’t tried these books yet, but everyone else loves it! These math books are literature based, so they make the subject much more interesting than the standard instruct and drill methods. This series also presents the subject matter in a comical way that my kids really enjoy. Perhaps the best thing about this series is that it presents math in real-life situations, so that the reader will actually know why he/she needs to know this stuff. I will point out that I don’t plan on formally introducing math until 3rd grade, unless one of them desires to learn it earlier.

I know I’ve been rather long-winded in this post, so let me just finish by saying that, in my experience, the best way to learn is to learn naturally without outside pressure. It’s that simple.

How have you taught your children to read?

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Author: Shelly Sangrey

I'm Shelly, a Christ-following, homeschooling Mom of eleven children ( okay, not ALL children. My oldest is 23.) I met my husband right after graduation, and we've been together ever since. Though my life can be hectic at times... okay, ALL the time, I wouldn't change it for anything.

22 thoughts on “My Hands-Off Approach to Teaching Reading”

  1. Wow thanks a lot for this. My partner and I are planning to unschool our one-year-old daughter but it’s a whole new concept in our country and I’m pretty scared about it, actually, being an achiever (academically) when I was younger. We do teach her a few things though such as sign language when she asks for milk and so on. My partner also reads her books almost every day and I think she’s pretty interested in reading herself (shouldn’t be surprising since her parents both love reading). The partner said she could spend at least half an hour looking through her books and sometimes I think she pretends she could read and mumbles to herself. I’d like to think this unschooling path should not be too hard on us as long as we kept encouraging her to have a love for learning. 🙂


    1. You’re exactly right. The book by John Holt that I mentioned actually talks about the same thing you’ve just brought up. Children that are exposed a lot to the written word and see others reading have a very good start. They instinctively know that letters make words, and words actually mean something. It sounds like your daughter is already beginning to understand this concept. I’m glad you enjoyed my post!


  2. I have only taught two children to read so far, but they’ve both been very different. Hudson learned when he was little, and I taught him the basic phonics, like three-letter words, then blends. After that, he taught himself. Now, at 6, he is completely fluent. Cragg was different. I taught him the same basic phonics, and he could do it, but never really seemed to get that he was reading. Then I got him a glitzy computer-based phonics curriculum, and suddenly he’s reading everything! He’s gone from Kindergarten to mid-grade 1 in just the past month! Oh, and by the way, I love Life of Fred! We use them as our summertime Math curriculum. In our History class, Hudson just read a book about Archimedes, and he just loved it. It’s very similar to Life of Fred in that it presents Math concepts in a really fun way, and it ties in Science, History, Math & Literature all together. I highly recommend it. There are others in the same series, about other historical thinkers. I plan to get some more of these books. If you are interested, the author is Jeanne Bendick.


  3. Great post. My kids have all been good readers- but our homeschool journey will begin in the fall, so I wonder how different it will be when I am primarily responsible for helping them to become even better. The curriculum I am looking at using it literature-based- so I really like your math curriculum suggestions! I am going to check that out!
    Joining you from the Mommy Moments blog hop. 🙂


  4. We’re using The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading as a guide while we play with magnetic letters. I’ll switch to Phonics Pathways once we have the letter sounds down and continue to play with the magnetic letters. I used Phonics Pathways with my older children and have fond memories of sitting down with them.

    My 4 year old prefers playing with the magnetic letters so we’ll continue that as long as possible. It’s rather fun to have her come and practice her sounds with me while I’m cooking dinner. Currently she’s trying to make her own words using the letters.

    Thanks for the post! I enjoy reading about how other families teach reading. 🙂


  5. Thanks for sharing this post with me! I seem more aligned with the “unschooling” train of thought when it comes to educating my children and have read books by John Holt as well, but I worry! I worry that if I really just wait for them to teach themselves they’ll be “behind” or whatever. Because, it’s this “start them early” mentality that so many preschool programs/educators/society pressures us and our kids.


    1. Trust me. I worry too- a lot. But I keep reminding myself that when our children are adults: 1. Nobody will care how old they were when they learned certain skills and 2. Our children are getting practice in independent learning- a great skill to have as an adult and need or want to learn new things. It’s all about trust. I trust that, being the curious little creatures they are, they will learn. I do make suggestions to them about certain topics, and I do choose our readalouds according to areas I think they might want to spend more time on.


  6. It’s wonderful when a child enjoys looking at books – even before he/she can read. I think taking the stress and pressure away was the best thing. It’s neat to read how each child is different too. I’m glad you got help with “Learning All the Time.” I haven’t read it, but it sounds like an excellent resource. I have a colorful picture book in rhyme that teaches fractions giveaway on my blog. Visiting from the Book Nook! Tina from Amanda’s Books and More ~ Goo and Spot: Under the Orange Tree giveaway at

    Liked by 1 person

  7. My husband uses Life of Fred for his Calculus students (in public school!) and it really seems to help some of them. I have a friend who’s worried because her 5 1/2-yr-old still hasn’t shown any interest in reading and I keep reassuring her it will be okay. She keeps asking what I’m doing with my almost-3-yr-old, because my daughter can “practically read already” (she can’t, but I’m pretty sure she could, if I tried to teach her – which I won’t). I just keep telling her to keep reading to her kids, have plenty of books around the house, and let them see her reading. Her daughter might not ever be a bookworm (she’s REALLY into dramatic play and social stuff), but that’s okay because not everybody has to be – and she will still read! I’m bummed my library doesn’t have that Holt book – I’d thought I’d read everything of his, but that one doesn’t sound familiar. Maybe I can get it ILL…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that most parents have gotten so used to hearing the constant emphasis on early learning that they’ve forgotten that every child is different. Whenever I talk to moms who are worried that their very young children aren’t reading yet, I tell them, “When your child grows up and goes for job interviews, do you honestly think one of the question will be, ‘How old were you when you learned to read?'” That usually helps them put things in a proper perspective. As for that book, they do have it on Amazon, and it’s very inexpensive. It’s definitely worth it.


  8. I think you are so right to tailor your learning to each child. What worked with teaching my son to read did not work for my daughter, yet they are both reading now! Thanks for sharing at the #LMMLinkup.

    Liked by 1 person

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