Please note: this post may contain affiliate links. For more information please see my affiliate statement page.
I want to let you in on another little secret about education, and it has nothing to do with schools, but everything to do with actual learning:
There’s no such thing as a late reader.
Despite the fact that 80-95% of children were not reading at the end of Kindergarten, the hot shots in charge of writing the common core standards for Kindergarten went ahead and made reading at the end of Kindergarten an actual standard for 100% of children. See for yourself.
However, if you are reading this, you probably already know about this bogus standard because you probably have a child, like mine, who technically “failed” Kindergarten due to an inability to read at the end of Kindergarten. (Again, despite the fact that 10 years ago, they would be in the supermajority of children who were unable to do so.) Because that’s what we do now, make it so kids can actually fail Kindergarten. Or even if we don’t actually fail them, we set them up for failure. See also.
Brace yourselves for what will likely end up being long form article because we have a lot of ground to cover here. For the purposes of mental preparation & fair warning, I propose to cover the following topics:
I. Reading isn’t the sine qua non for learning
II. Reading is merely a means to an end
III. All children who are capable of reading will read, when they are ready
IV. Some strategies to try when it’s time
V. Evidence: my right on time reader
VI. Assessments aren’t everything
Reading isn’t the sine qua non for learning
See, when your children attend school, the ability to read becomes critical. Why? Because reading is the gateway to independent learning. If we are going to expect teachers to have to wrangle 20-36 students of different instructional abilities, we need to have children that are able to sit still and cooperate for varying lengths of time. This is a basic requirement for classroom management, especially as the children get older, the stakes get higher, and play is literally squeezed out of the curriculum (and likely the daily schedule.)
What’s sad about the obsession with reading (and test scores proving reading), is that it’s actually only one type of intelligence.
Howard Gardner proposed a different way of thinking about intelligences by suggesting a series of different modalities or abilities that individuals may have.
In 2009, he suggested that moral & existential intelligences should be considered as well. (Source: wikipedia bc time. My Constitutional Law professor who clerked for Justice Thomas would tell us to “wiki it” so this is a totally legit method. Better source: my Early Childhood Education text that I don’t feel like digging out or basically unlimited alternative options, seriously. You should research this yourself. You will probably feel much differently about your child.)
Traditional methods of reading, which are most often employed in the classroom, such as when a student is assigned a text, then expected to provide answers to a set of questions, falls within one of those categories. While individual teachers may offer opportunities to develop or demonstrate those other categories (I’m looking especially at the teachers on Instagram that go above and beyond in designing lesson plans & activities for their kids), these intelligence are not easily testable, and likely do not even grace the common core standards. Annual testing typically focuses on Math & Language Arts almost exclusively in the K-8 space, with some states testing in Science at certain intervals.
What does this mean for your kid? It means (1) nothing is wrong with the fact that they aren’t reading yet. Reading isn’t all that there is. (2) The main reason them not reading likely causes you stress is because of school. If your kid didn’t have to go to school where they and you were constantly reminded of their inability to read, it really wouldn’t be that big of a deal.
Kids who can’t read are friends with or related to people who can read, and read things for them when it needs to be done. There are also various apps and things that read digital information to them, if they want those tools for the sake of their independence.
Reading is not all there is to life. I encourage you to study the other kinds of intelligence and identify what your kid is a rockstar at, and celebrate that instead of worrying about this. (Which, by the way, is impossible to do. Even when you finish reading this article, you will still worry and be stressed. I know we were. But they will eventually learn to read (as we will discuss below), and there are positives to be celebrated upon during this time, even if it’s hard to focus on those instead.)
(7/22/20 Edit: The founder of IKEA was Dyslexic. He began selling matches at age 6, various wares from his bike by age 10, and was one of the richest men in the world when he died in 2018. The IKEA product naming system is a direct result of him having been Dyslexic. Looks like things worked out for him, eh?)
Reading is a means to an end.
Relatedly to reading not being the sine qua non, reading is merely a means to an end. What is the end? Information.
We read to gather information.
Are there other ways to gather information? Yes. Many. There are also other ways to transmit information.
For example, we have already discussed having access to people who can read on behalf of others.
There are also apps that dictate passages to people, or that write things down for children who are creating their own documents. Many professionals, including doctors and lawyers, use digital recording devices to dictate letters to themselves or their hired assistants to compose correspondence. Justice Sotomayor pretended to not know how to type so that she wouldn’t be unnecessarily bogged down with secretarial work while she was an associate at a prestigious law firm. (Again, I highly recommend her autobiography if you haven’t read it yet!)
When we move past the fear that we may be harming our children in some way by allowing them to use tools that actually are an option for them, we empower them to do things in a way that’s best for them right now.
How can you support your kid’s desire to know with their current skill set, without unnecessarily dwelling on their inabilities? How can you empower them with what they are capable of?
All children who are capable of reading will read, when they are ready
It’s the truth.
And they cannot be rushed.
The harder you try to force a kid who isn’t ready to learn to read, the more they will push back. Trust me, I’ve lived it. My kid said to me, “I don’t want to learn to read.” You can imagine the worst case scenarios that rushed into my mind.
(Additionally, I want to reiterate that reading is not sine qua non. Some kids will not be able to learn to read, and like I previously mentioned, we should stop pretending that reading is anything more than a means to an end.)
Learning to read is no different than learning to walk. It will happen when the kid is ready for it to happen.
BUT, I want to make one small disclaimer here. While I mentioned in my previous post that things such as Dyslexia are widely over discussed, there are absolutely reasons why a kid may be struggling to learn to read, and the older your kid gets (9+) the more reason you should consider whether some of those things ought to be ruled out. Susan Wise Bauer has a whole chapter, or more, in her new book (Rethinking School) where she lists all sorts of potential causes of learning challenges. I highly recommend reading her book & investigating at least some of those potential causes.
Here are some of the things that happened with our kid:
- Teacher repeatedly suggested she had Dyslexia, despite zero evidence
- Reading tutoring was completely ineffective, attending weekly tutoring with two credentialed teachers for 6 months, made zero progress (not their fault, they were super sweet and did all sorts of wonderful strategies)
- Reading assessment performed for $100 (center wouldn’t release results due to their high stakes sales tactics that result in financing contracts of $10,000-$17,000 to teach your child to read, despite holding no secrets to the process. I have contacted the center repeatedly, and will likely need to send them a letter from my law office to recoup our $100)
- Visual examination was inconclusive. I believed that perhaps my child could not see. That must surely be the problem. She also got intermittent headaches, which supported my hypothesis, or so I thought. We did a full exam, shelled out a few hundred for her glasses, only for literally nothing to change. Her pediatrician later told me that the headaches may be due to seasonal allergies, which I tend to agree with. (kid does not wear the glasses.)
- I worried about everything. Every time I signed her up for any activity, I worried if other kids would tease her or how they would treat her if they found out she couldn’t read. My worries never came to fruition.
- She was a super awesome kid. She stood up for a disabled child when nobody was watching. Causing me & the dad of the kid to totally cry.
- She learned to play violin. Zero reading required. (But guess what, she still hasn’t learned to read music, and it’s fine!)
- She improved at soccer & made lots of friends. Despite being a reserved person, she made a lot of friends on her soccer team and in other places. She earned the nickname “flex” due to her intensity on the field.
- She improved her entrepreneurial skills. She convinced my mother in law to buy her a cotton candy machine, and she will set it up at random places and sell to her friends. She sells her legos to her brothers & pays her sister to organize her side of the room.
- She got super into baking. She’s seen every episode of Master Chef Jr., Sugar Rush, Nailed it, etc.
The most important thing I did for my kid during this time? I let go. You have to let go.
My oldest son didn’t walk until he was 18 months old. It was weird, right? I consulted the pediatrician about it. There were no physical or cognitive reasons. He just wasn’t ready. Then one day he was. READING IS NO DIFFERENT.
You can find a lot of information about learning to read naturally here. Homeschooling circles are full of stories of children who didn’t learn to read until they were 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, etc. (See earlier sections of this article if you are having heart palpitations.) It doesn’t make it that much easier while you’re in it, but you should at least acknowledge the truth.
Not all kids learn to read in Kindergarten, remember the very first thing we discussed? Only 5-15% of kids could read at the end of Kindergarten, as recent as 10 years ago!
Your child will read when they’re good and ready.
Some strategies to try
First, another disclaimer: I am not an expert. I am simply a mom. I do have a bachelor’s degree & a law degree, and I am licensed to practice law, but I am not an expert in teaching reading. I do not have a degree in teaching reading or even in education. But, I do have 4 elementary aged children that I have personally taught to read, and the next section of this article will contain graphs that prove my competence as such, I believe.
Books & Websites
ReadWorks— if you take nothing else away from my strategies, write this one down. This site offers a ridiculous amount of articles on all sorts of topics by lexile level. Why does this matter? Because the older your child is, the more likely they are to have been affected by the stress/anxiety they have experienced that has been put on them by everyone else (and maybe even themselves) for not yet reading.
You’re going to want to focus on building up their confidence by giving them passages to read that they can actually read. And they aren’t going to sit for any cat mat sat nonsense. They’re going to want to read something that may actually be interesting. So, find stuff that they would like to read and that they will be able to read, easily. Then, once they become more confident and their skills improve, level up.
Do you remember the formula I laid out in my prior post about teaching reading?
Reading = (exposure + practice) over a period of time.
That’s no different here. The only difference is that you’re going to have to work harder to find passages that don’t patronize your older kids.
Another excellent resource for older kids is this book:
It is literally filled with different strategies. If it’s out of your price range, see if any of your facebook friends or teacher friends will let you borrow a copy, or check if a local library or even your school (??) carries one. It is pure gold.
Audiobooks — just do it. As much as possible. Get them any and every book they want (that’s appropriate, etc.) We bought a Kindle Paperwhite (like this one I think?!) the lowest cost one I could find that was enabled with audible. Then we started getting alllll the audiobooks. She would listen constantly.
Now that I’m older & wiser (a whole 2 years), I know that many of the same titles you can borrow for free from the library! Depending on what your system uses, common options include Overdrive, RB Digital & Hoopla. If you can’t figure out what your library offers, feel free to contact me using the contact form and I will help you sort it out!
Please note that you do not need any special device to access these audiobooks! These can be accessed through wherever you normally access the internet, including a computer, laptop, tablet, or smart phone. Let’s find a way to make it work for your kid!
Large print or illustrated books
Your kid likes stuff. What stuff do they like? What kind of books capture their interest or imagination? Get those books. Even if they can’t read them yet. Maybe they just want to flip through the pages, or maybe you can use them in tandem with one of the strategies in the Reading Strategies book listed above. Do not filter books by what you think your kid is capable of reading, that demoralizes them and limits their learning. You never know when their breakthrough will happen, and there is nothing wrong with them checking out books they can’t technically read yet.
My kid really wanted in on the Harry Potter magic. So, in addition to getting the audiobooks, I also got this illustrated version for her. I believe there is one for every book. What matters is what your kid loves. If your kid loves it, they will be more intrinsically motivated to read it, at their own pace.
If you don’t believe me, check out this book, which I happened to stumble across at our library book store one day. It’s called What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing Research-Based Programs, and, spoiler alert, what really matters is them actually reading. And context too, but if you’re exposing them to all sorts of language and media, they will absorb context, in a way that is approachable to them.
This program was HUGE for my kid. I will show you the progress she made in the charts section. It incorporates the points, levels, badges thing-y style of motivation. (I want to say this is an aspect game theory but I’m not sure if that is a technically true characterization.)
She particularly like the competition options, which included, spelling, grammar, usage, and vocabulary. She also liked the library section, where she could have the computer read the books to her, or she could turn the sound off and read them herself (especially a she became a more fluent reader). Later, she obsessively read books and took comprehension tests. I never assigned anything to her, I just asked her to please practice for 30 minutes a day (after she had said she was ready to learn how to read. If I had tried to implement this before she consented it would have been a bit fat fail blow up disaster.)
Cloze passages are another great way to teach older students reading, because they will likely be able to use predictive strategies, even if they cannot yet read whatever the word is. You will also be using writing skills, which are one half of the literacy equation. Bonus: cloze passages are commonly used in various aptitude tests for employment.
If you want to see an example of a cloze passage, you can google cloze passage + [insert grade or lexile level] Teachers Pay Teachers also has about a gazillion. I think education.com also has them. Once you’re familiar with how they work, you could even do them yourself, based on books your child is familiar with, etc. (Brave Writer uses this strategy, but she calls it something else. I would tell you except that I can’t remember! lol. will come back and update when I can!)
Reading Comprehension Exercises
In addition to the exercises on Reading Eggspress, we would do her Studies Weeklies together. I would read her the articles, and she would answer the questions to complete the crossword activity. I would tell her how to spell the words, but she had a mind like a steel trap, and remembered the answers with much greater acuity than my advanced reader child who is one grade higher than she is.
Play games with your kid. Scrabble is a favorite. I’ve been meaning to try out bananagrams. Scaffold your child’s abilities. Allow them to break the rules & use their invented spelling. As they gain fluency, then start enforcing proper spelling. Don’t worry about keeping track of points or using proper words, play for fun and for the exposure to words.
Buy them a book light
Allow your kid to stay up as long as they are reading. This was a huge one for our kid. Whether they need a book light because of younger siblings, or a flashlight under the covers because fun, or you let them keep the actual light on, whatever. This works better for homeschooling families because the kids don’t have to wake up early the next day, but other families can make it work too. Maybe give an extra hour for reading if you are worried your kid will stay up too late.
There are other ways. This list is not exhaustive. Many unschooled children learn to read through playing interactive videogames, or through forum discussions online, or even texting. There’s also email and letter writing. Be creative. Find what works for your kid!
I suspect some of you may have scrolled straight down to this section first. Which is understandable. You want to see the proof that the strategies I’m suggesting & shift in thinking I offer is preferable for your kid. You want to see the proof of outcome, and I’m here for you.
We changed charter programs due largely to the Dyslexia accusing teacher, and I was very nervous about how our new charter would handle a 4th grader that could not read a single word.
I was upfront with our teacher. I let her know about all the things we had tried (see above) and that I believed that our child was not ready, and further that I would not force her to try anything until she was ready and willing.
She took her first assessment on i-Ready (the charter’s preferred means of assessment) on October 1, 2018. The assessment gave me a warning suggesting that the kid may have rushed through, so she retook the assessment the next day.
As you can see below, she scored in about the middle of the first grade range, the 14th percentile. Her November assessment was likely a fluke, with some stead progress being made in February.
And then, her progress exploded.
This is the detailed report from her June 2019 (end of 4th grade) assessment:
You can see from the report that it wasn’t only her ability to decode, but also her comprehension for both literature and information text.
And guess what, she kept on going:
Yep, you read that right. My kid is now a full grade level ahead in reading. She started reading in February of 2019, a little over a year ago, and she has not only caught up with her peers, she has surpassed them (from a numerical measurement perspective).
All because we waited on her.
And guess what? Her analytical skills are on point. Long before she was able to read, she had a rich vocabulary and was able to draw inferences based on things she had heard or “read” before. Everything she was doing before she technically learned to read was preparing her for being a kick ass reader, and I bet that’s true for your kid too.
VI. Assessments aren’t everything
You’ll notice in the prior section, I was alerted that probably 2 of the assessments my kid took were probably an inaccurate assessment of her actual abilities. Because I am a home educator, I am able to have my kid re-take assessments when necessary. This is not practicable in a school setting, and it certainly isn’t a possibility for annual state testing. Your kid is not only merely a test score, they may have not even done their best. Testing is a bad way to measure learning.
Additionally, in preparing to write this article, I came across this article: Why iReady is Dangerous. I can tell you that my older child took the iReady assessment for Math at the beginning and end of the year, and the results were that she was on grade level at the beginning of the year, and at the end of the year she scored a full grade level below where she had been, as in the assessment would have us believe she was now incapable of doing the things she nailed several months prior.
All of this which is to say, don’t sweat the assessments too much. Remember everything we have discussed thus far & reflect on how awesome your kid is.
If your kid expresses the willingness, try some of the strategies I have listed out. My kid was not a phonetic reader, that’s why the basic strategies I discussed in my other post did not pan out. Maybe that’s the thing with your kid too?
Feel free to let me know if any of this works for you. I hope this brings you a sense of relief to know that not only is nothing wrong with your kid, but also you are not alone. If most kids couldn’t read 10 years ago at xyz age, it is unlikely that they are suddenly all able to read just because the law says that they have to.
Final disclaimer: I did not have time to proofread this post upon publication. I will circle back and clean it up when I can if necessary!
There’s a great article about teaching reading that discusses the necessity of context. Carol Black had posted it on twitter several years ago, and I had a great discussion with her. If any of you know what I’m talking about, will you please post it in the comments or send it to me? Thank you in advance!!