The Worry. The Fight.
Many parents who are homeschooling/unschooling kids from hard places, kids with extra needs, or other amazing outside-the-box kids probably run into some of the same anxieties that I do:
“I want my child to keep getting better at reading and writing. But they might have some learning/processing differences. They are full of stories but don’t have the writing/spelling skills to write their own stories. They’re only interested in stories way beyond their actual reading level. They feel embarrassed or ashamed when they try, easier things feel babyish, it’s VERY hard work for them, so they get frustrated and angry. I don’t want reading or writing to be a fight, I want it to be creative and fun and a portal to imagination. Because BOOKS!!!!”
Cue: parents getting heart-eyes about books and our kids run screaming from the pressure.
I Tried These. They Didn’t Work.
- Forcing the kid: (“Read 20 minutes every day and write something once a week, whatever you want, honey! Won’t that be fun?!” with a manic forced smile) Yeah… forcing doesn’t work, it’s just us exerting our adult-will on a child and dismissing their wants, needs and the root of their feelings. Our kids may resentfully cooperate for a while, but they’re not learning to love words and stories. They’re just doing what we tell them because we’re bigger or out of fear. Or, our kids may become defiant, angry or meltdown because we aren’t showing that we understand how they feel embarrassed or ashamed when they have to read/write.
- Bribing the kid: Reading for cookies/screentime/whatever. Yeah… Bribes don’t make people love reading, they just love the cookies/screentime/whatever. And, c’mon parents, we all know bribes are really just one-time solutions anyway.
- Resentfully ignoring: Parents get frustrated and “letting kids get away with not reading/writing.” We think we’re letting it go because we’re not talking about it, but damn that frustration reads all over our faces! Our kids are smart, they know! Yeah… Nothing like silent resentment to make us all bitter.
So. I take a breath. Back it up. Let it go for real. Say aloud: “It’s okay if my kid doesn’t want to read/write right now. They will when they’re ready.”
Unschooling & A Love of Words and Story
What do I really want my child to remember about her childhood? Being loved, feeling precious and important, being given opportunities to try hard (fail or succeed), being surrounded by creativity and imagination, exploring the world with her own hands. …And being snuggled up with me and a book. I want to nurture a love of words and story in her childhood: whether she writes/types the words herself or not, whether she reads them herself or not.
Parenting can be an illusion of control: because we cannot really control our kids. They are their own people with their own wants, needs, challenges and motivations. So we are the safety net, the guard rails, the guide and coach. One of the guiding concepts behind unschooling that keeps me centered each day is: Kids do things when they’re ready, when they can, and when they have a desire/need to. So we just keep creating an environment that is nurturing of play, learning, creativity and growth.
So in this season of play, attachment and imagination: I’m taking the pressure off of my Sweetpea.
13 Ways to Nurture a Love of Words & Story
PS: I capture every single one of these in my unschooling Evernote notebook as a meaningful language arts experience when they happen. Because they are meaningful learning!
- Read aloud to kid(s) every day. This is a cornerstone of our daily family rhythm: I read aloud for at least 30 minutes during “fill your belly” before bed while my Sweetpea eats a snack. Then I continue reading while she’s getting in bed and falling asleep. 45-60 minutes of reading aloud a day, and there is never a single attempt to get her to be the reader. We do this for babies and toddlers, but older kids get JUST as much out of being read aloud to. She just snuggles, listens, watches my face, follows my finger along the words, and imagines the story in her head. And she has one important job: she is the story-chooser. We plow through picture books and chapter books; we read and re-read her favorites; we read Captain Underpants. It is not a time where I try to gently guide us towards “literature” or books I want. This is all about the stories SHE wants to hear me read. Want more inspiration? Check out the Read Aloud Revival! I have also found that my girl consistently picks books that represent HER, so our current favorite series for my 8yo are: “Sugar Plum Ballerinas” series and “Nikki and Deja” series.
Jot it down: narrated stories. When I first considered homeschooling (with curriculum), I found the lovely Brave Writer by Julie Bogart. Some of the concepts stuck and have been meaningful for us (although a daily curriculum of writing isn’t us right now). One is a way to encourage reluctant writers to author stories and be proud: the child narrates and the parent transcribes (writes/types) the story verbatim. I just wait until my kid is naturally starting to tell me a story, and I’ll offer “Want me to type it for you while you tell me?” and she’ll say yes or no. My Sweetpea has narrated at least half a dozen stories to me, that I typed exactly as she said them. She then picked out fonts and colors, we printed the pages, hole punched them, and added them to a binder. Some she chose to illustrate. She is proud of “her book of stories” – full of her friend’s names, cute expressions she uses, and plot twists that are all “her”. Our kids have stories inside them, some just need us to do the mechanics of capturing the stories. Consider this: parents of kids with dysgraphia can ask for their child’s public school 504 to include voice-to-text software. If we make accommodations like these for kids in school, we should wholly embrace them in home-based learning!
- Audiobooks. Our public library has a wealth of e-books and audiobooks available through the OverDrive app. And we use Audible when we absolutely MUST listen to something and can’t wait for a library hold to be ready. When we’re driving around doing errands or going to the pool, we’re also working our way through a classic children’s novel or contemporary chapter book. We also bought a box set of Junie B Jones audiobooks on CD for the house, which my Sweetpea loves to play while painting or play-doh. Sometimes the narrators have accents, or different voice actors for different characters. It’s a way for my kiddo to watch the landscape go by, while she gazes out and imagines the book in her mind. That kind of connection to a story is hard to get when you’re doing Very Hard Work trying to read (especially when a kid’s interest level far surpasses their reading level).
- Book vs movie. Recently we listened to the audiobook of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and then watched the movie on the day we finished the book. While it was all fresh in our minds, we watched the movie to see what was different. We also did the same with “A Wrinkle in Time” (Mrs. Beast, where are you?!?!?!).
- Poetry teatime. This was another Brave Writer concept that we love (there’s a Poetry Teatime website). Make hot herbal tea or hot cocoa, invite some friends over, pull out Shel Silverstein or any other fun book of poems, and take turns reading the silliest ones you can find! Here’s a post by a mom-of-boys who shares how her underwear-throwing boys have grown to fall in love with the fun, the rhyme, and the rhythm of poetry.
- Word games. Our family has taken bananagrams to our favorite Chinese restaurant. We play Scrabble with teams (so it doesn’t feel like we’re secretly trying to make her do spelling, but just fun exposure to playing with words).
- Madlibs. Yes, they’ll say “poop” for every field for the first 10 madlibs. Still. Madlibs are a hilarious way to bring even very-reluctant-readers/writers into the creative fray!
- “Story Pirates” Podcast. Kids write stories and send them to Story Pirates. A hilarious team of comedy actors make songs and sketch comedy out of the stories. The podcast is so funny that I laugh aloud every time. It’s a great way to spark kids imaginations to write and submit their own stories.
- Lexile Levels. If your kid does read some, but is prone to randomly picking out books and then being frustrated by that particular book being above their capacity, check out Lexile Levels. Each book is assigned a number for the degree of difficulty and examples are given of the hardest words in that book. If there’s a book your kid can read successfully and feel accomplished, find out the lexile level and then look for more books around that level.
- Read to the dog / dolls / other people who aren’t parents. You know who doesn’t correct you when you read? Dogs. Barbies. Cats. Stuffed animals. You know who doesn’t give off any “stressed parent vibes about how I’m reading or the fact that I’m reading”? The babysitter. The parent who works out-of-the-house and isn’t part of the homeschool day. Family friends who come over to play.
- Magazines of your kid’s interests. Our kiddo is the family mail-checker and holy cow does she get excited when there is mail with HER name on it. She currently gets Kazoo magazine (for girls who aren’t afraid to make some noise! It’s brilliant) and Nat Geo Kids (because animals). These magazines create lots of opportunities for her to try reading little bits on her own – less commitment because it’s not a book but snippets on a page – and bringing me longer articles or stories to read aloud to her.
- Rotate the books lying around. I might leave the children’s animal encyclopedia lying open on the breakfast table. I’ll swap out the pile of picture books by her bed. I shift around the books visible in the living room. Kids notice what’s new and have a high “novelty factor”. Some unschool parents call this “strewing”… leaving something out to see if it piques anyone’s interest. Sometimes that can feel a little manipulative if the parent is trying to covertly create a “lesson”. I just figure that we paid for those books… might as well see them! And if my kid happens to flip around and ask about the snow leopard page, bonus.
- Be a reader yourself. Build a family value of loving words and stories. If they ask what you’re reading, just start reading aloud wherever you’re at. Talk about what you’re reading at the dinner table. Compliment kids on their awesome vocabulary when you notice them using a new big word. When you finish reading a book aloud to a kid and know they enjoyed it, say simple things like “You loved that book!” Point out when a family movie night choice was originally a book. Once we had a solid library of audiobooks under our belt, my kiddo no longer felt like these comments were pressures to read that book herself. Instead she’d ask me if we could find the audiobook of it.
What does your family do to nurture a love of words and stories, without pressuring kids to read/write before they’re ready? I’d love to hear in the comments!