“I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.” ~Anna Quindlen, “Enough Bookshelves”
During my graduate studies (in Reading Specialist) at Ball State University, I did a master’s thesis about children who learn to read without any reading instruction. That is, the kids just suddenly started reading books without ever having phonics lessons, basal readers, or other “formal instruction.” It was a challenging thesis simply because there is so little data about it because of our “early school attendance age.” Seldom does a child learn to read “naturally” before age six or seven, and with kids going to school at age five (and often beginning reading instruction in kindergarten), the research was sparse concerning these “instruction-less” readers.
I did find enough, however, and I was also blessed to find a family who had a natural reader to compare the printed data with. My observations, coupled with the studies in teaching journals, etc., led me to find what I called the “environment” in which natural readers are raised. This led me to other lines of thinking—if a child can learn to read with absolutely no instruction in a literary-saturated environment, wouldn’t this environment be conducive to helping those who DO receive instruction learn to read better, more easily, and more naturally?
The answer, of course, was yes. Study after study shows the type of environment that causes kids to learn better. Duplicating the “natural reader’s” environment can only help our kids learn better. Maybe our creating this “literary atmosphere” will not automatically make our six year old pick up a book and begin reading, but if it makes the learning process (actually any/all learning processes) easier, more enjoyable, and less stressful, why wouldn’t we want to duplicate it in our homes for all of our kids?
So what were the commonalities I found in studying the environment of “natural readers”?
Common Characteristics of Natural Readers
1. Interaction with adults—these kids were with adults a lot—and definitely not around peers more than adults. They had adults on hand to discuss things with, to answer their questions, and to provide examples of proper speech patterns, etc.
2. Much book handling by the child—these children were surrounded with books that they were permitted to interact with. They were often found at very young ages with stacks of books around them, just looking at the pictures, making stories in their minds from the pictures, etc.
3. Print abounds and interest in print is evident by itself—not only did the homes of natural readers contain books themselves, but they also contained all type of print. The parents of these children read magazines, journals, newspapers, etc. I think the “interest in print” part probably began with something like a parent saying, “Honey, look at this whale they found beached on the coast of Florida,” as he or she brought the little one up on to her lap to see the picture that was provided with the article in today’s newspaper, etc. This type of activity causes a child to become interested in print.
4. Audios and books are used—This is the reason why I began using book and tape sets a few times a week for my preschoolers and elementary children—and why we have used audios (talking books, radio dramas, etc.) every week of our lives since our oldest was one year old. Audios and books show our children the benefits and “fun” that reading provides.
5. Memorization takes place—these natural readers often followed a certain pattern—they memorized a picture book (usually many), then through the memorization, they began making print-sound-word connections. That is, when they turned the page and recited, “If you give a mouse a cookie,” they began to understand that i-f says if and y-o-u says you. Natural readers were experts at memorizing large portions of text.
6. Interest in writing words and “language experience” activities—many years ago, there was a movement in education to replace phonics instruction with “language experience” activities (also called a “whole language approach”). Phonics proponents everywhere were up in arms at the thought of “activities” of writing what the child said (dictation) for him, making little homemade books, etc. taking the place of phonics instruction. While I am a strong phonics proponent, I believe that these “language experiences” and “whole language” activities augment reading instruction greatly. And, of course, the natural readers in the research were exposed to these types of activities early and often. These kids were the ones who dictated thank-you notes to Mom to go to grandparents and colored a picture to send along with it; they were the ones who had a chalk board in the kitchen in which Mom or Dad wrote the day of the week each morning; they were those who “said” stories aloud and parents copied it in little “journal” books for the child. And on and on. Why wouldn’t these types of experiences and activities increase a child’s relationship with print and love for learning?
7. Experiences related to literacy and books—these obviously include the types of activities listed in number six, but these kids knew from birth that books and reading were important. They were the ones in a double stroller at the library lawn sale as toddlers—child in front seat with back seat full of picture books. They were the ones who had their own “book basket” in the corner of the nursery almost from birth. In other words, they were immersed in literacy and books from an early age.
8. Self-regulated behavior and risk taking—This characteristic related to how they “organize” their little lives. These kids would pull all of the Curious George books off the shelf and stack them up to look at after lunch. They often had little learning systems in place at ages four and five. And they were not afraid to be wrong. This, of course, stems from not being talked down to or made fun of when they did ask questions. These kids were risk takers because taking risks in learning (“Mommy, is this word (dapper) ‘Daddy’?”) yielded information that helped them in their quest to learn. The questions did not yield put downs or “you should already know this.”
9. Read to often—Obviously, a link has to be made from the squiggles on the page to the sounds that those squiggles make in order for a young child to teach himself to read. Thus, a child must be read to (or follow along with books and tapes) in order to learn to read without formal instruction. Now, this is not to say that a child who is read to will automatically learn to read early and on his own. I read aloud to our first three kids three to five hours everyday for years and years—and not one of the three was a natural, or early, reader! But it certainly created a love for print and learning in my children!
Children who learn to read naturally, without reading instruction, are raised in an environment that is conducive to learning to read naturally—an environment that creates a love for learning and a very perceived need to learn.
While I have never had a natural reader myself, I tried all throughout my children’s learning days to create this type of environment. It has created outstanding learners and avid readers in the Reish home.
One of the “rules” that Ray and I had for our children’s early education was that if something could be taught informally (and painlessly), we would teach it that way (as opposed to using workbooks or “curriculum” for something that can just as easily be learned while driving down the road or snuggling on the sofa).
That is one thing that I truly loved about the “natural reader learning environment.” Why get a workbook to teach capital letters when you can teach them while you are running errands (from all of the store signs)? Why get a program for rhyming words when nursery rhymes, silly songs, and I spy games on the road can do the job without the stress? The “natural reader learning environment” fit how we thought young children should be taught—regardless of whether our kids truly became natural readers or not.
Here are just a few of the skills that the research on natural readers indicated are learned/enjoyed by kids in this environment:
1. Contact with print
2. Thinking skills
3. Comprehension (especially when a wide variety of materials is presented and discussion follows)
4. Expanded vocabulary
5. Enunciation and pronunciation
6. Love of and need for reading
7. Sentence patterns
8. Relationship between parent and child—the most important one of all, of course!
Create a “natural reader learning environment” in your home—regardless of your kids’ ages….and watch the interaction with print increase; the love for learning grow; and the positive relationships bloom.
Whether you have a five year old who taught herself to read or an eight year old still struggling with primers, I encourage you to create a reading environment–and build life-long readers and learners! Blessings on your teaching and children!
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