Unschooling Language Arts: How My Unschooler Learned to Read

Wondering how unschoolers learn to read, write and spell?

As a former elementary school teacher turned homeschooling mom, I was struggling to teach my child how to read. Tried and true strategies that I used for years in my classroom weren’t working in my home. After some researching (and plenty of late-night soul-searching) here is what I discovered instead.

By unschooling language arts, or allowing the learner to discover letters, words, and stories in a natural, unforced manner, we can promote literacy and develop life-long readers, writers, and spellers.

Learning to Read, the “Old School” Way

When we first began homeschooling, I was trying to check off all of the boxes and approach this task as I did with several hundred other people’s children in my traditional primary classroom.

By this point, I had been a primary teacher for 14 years. Teaching reading was my jam! I loved it, which is why I was so confident when we first began kindergarten at home.

In the classroom, I taught language arts with primarily a phonics-based approach. When I had been gifted a kindergarten “Letter People” program for my homeschool that my traditional school was updating, I was in Heaven! I just knew that this would be the perfect start.

Nope. Not even close.

What worked in a traditional school like a charm, left my homeschooling child in a full-blown tantrum. (And me crying in the laundry room!)

So I backed off. I went off-script. Instead of following the structured procedure outlined in the curriculum, we read the books, used Play-Doh to create letters, and skipped the worksheets and the flashcards. We reviewed letter sounds using our dart guns and the cardboard letter stands that came with the program.

Unschooling Language Arts with Letter People

And it worked pretty well.

But then came first grade. We had had fun in kindergarten, but (in my mind) first grade meant business.

No more games. No more goofing off. Time to be a real student.

I broke out the basal reader and skills workbook. I resurrected the flashcards and the timed fluency cards.

And that is when I failed again.

The tantrums returned. The tears and the struggles resurfaced. I felt defeated.

Changing Course From “Old School” to “Unschool”

After living the above for two years, you would think that I would have immediately sought out a better approach. Let me tell you, that educational training runs DEEP.

I kept thinking, “Maybe he is just too immature yet. He’s just being a boy. It’s because I am his mom. He wouldn’t act like this in real school.”

These were all reasons (excuses?) that I had heard from others….either as a teacher or a parent.

So I just kept pressing on in my ingrained ways. There was a bit of a nagging, pulling on my heart though as I kept searching for answers.

When I initially discovered the term unschooling, I was fairly put off by it. I didn’t understand it. It went against everything that I had logically understood about education.

I was at a loss. We were spinning our wheels and getting nowhere. I was convinced I could not teach my child.

But as the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

So when all looked bleak, I decided to go ALL IN on this thing called “unschooling”. By this point, I had read several books and listened to podcasts and success stories. I was ready to give it a try.

But I was still skeptical. Since I wasn’t getting anywhere with my “old school” approach, I figured I had nothing to lose.

Once again, I ditched all of the curriculum and we officially began unschooling language arts.

And we never looked back.

8 Ways to Promote Reading While Unschooling Language Arts

Shifting from teaching reading in the way that I had learned to unschooling language arts took a real mind shift on my part. Below are 8 ways that we promoted literacy in our home.

  1. Create a literature-rich environment. I love books, especially children’s books. Mostly because of my teaching days, I have a MASSIVE children’s library in my home. I organized those books and displayed specific ones for various holidays and special events. Since my son was used to me reading to him, he would often select one and ask me to read it with him or even take a look at it himself.
  2. Modeling. As I said before, I love reading. I began to allow my son to see me doing that more often in the hopes that he would model this behavior.
  3. We baked together. Reading a recipe is a great way to teach children basic reading skills, comprehension, and vocabulary in a fun, non-threatening way. Not to mention the math and science skills that one can also explore. And, if you’re lucky, it will end in a tasty treat!
  4. Play board games together. This is one of my absolute favorites! Board games are full of language, math, and critical thinking skills.
  5. Use the subtitles on the television. Subtitles are a great way for kids to track words while reading along to the dialogue. Once while following the subtitles I heard my son exclaim, “Oh THAT is how you spell that word?!” So subtitles can even improve spelling!
  6. JOKE BOOKS! Joke books are a great way to engage kids in reading AND make your sides ache with laughter!
  7. Video games. If you have read my post on Unschooling Maths, you know how I feel about video games as educational tools. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE them! I stand by the fact that wanting to play a certain video game was the catalyst that led my son to learn how to read!
  8. Read-alouds. I can’t praise read-alouds enough. From the time my son was a newborn to about 11 years of age, I read aloud to him every day. What started as enjoying picture books together, continued to include trade books, both fiction and non-fiction, through the preteen years. This practice allowed us the chance to talk about historical events, and story plots, and use strategies like inferencing, comparing and contrasting, and identifying main ideas and details…to name a few. Additionally, we were able to build his vocabulary, as well as model smooth prosody, fluency, and correct grammar.

What About Writing?

The skill of writing includes both grammar and mechanics. It involves organizing and developing ideas as well as communicating them effectively. This is often referred to as creative writing.

It also includes the physical act of using a writing instrument like a pen or pencil or what we call, handwriting. (Though I do wonder if this part may go away eventually. Technology, you know?)

Let’s first take a look at creative writing.

You may be surprised to know that your child does NOT first need to be instructed in handwriting to begin creative writing.

Creative writing is all about ideas and expressing them in an organized way. This can begin orally or within a picture or drawing.

When my son was just a little tike, every night when I put him to bed, I would create a story for him. Usually, he was the main character! These stories were only about 4-6 sentences long and never complicated. But he LOVED them! He would giggle nearly every night at the crazy, funny things his character did.

One night he surprised me with his own story. It went like this…

One day an inchworm was crawling over somebody's face.  It measured 5 inches! In the morning, somebody SQUISHED it!  The End  

At about 4 years old my son had just “written” his first story, yet he never once touched a pencil! (You better believe that I ran downstairs and wrote that story down before I forgot it!)

The creative writing process begins with ideas, words, and excitement. He had heard me model countless stories for him and now, he was ready to “write” his own. We had begun unschooling language arts before I even knew such a thing existed!

The second aspect of writing is handwriting.

Learning the physical act of writing (barring any physical or learning challenges) can be easy to do in an interest-led way.

Painting, drawing, coloring, and creating letters with clay, are all fun ways to begin to introduce the use of writing utensils. Moving from these tools to pens and pencils is generally a smooth transition.

I grew up in a traditional school using handwriting books. And yes, that is also how I started with my son as this was before we discovered unschooling. But you do NOT need a textbook for this. (Though if you do use one, I highly recommend Handwriting Without Tears.)

Generally, when your child becomes interested in writing he or she will begin by asking about letters, probably those in his or her name. Introduce them when asked. Never pressure or force this. Trust them. They will eventually want to know.

In the meantime, create a rich writing environment.

  • Set out magnetic letters.
  • Get small trays and fill them with salt or sand. Allow your child to play in salt. Draw pictures in it. Write in it.
  • Squirt some shaving cream on the table and write or draw in that together.
  • Allow them to see you writing.
  • Make lists.
  • Play Mad Libs (This is excellent for grammar too!)
  • Write emails/ texts
  • Provide them with a notebook to write/ draw whatever they like

The possibilities are endless!

Learning to Spell Without Memorizing Lists

Unschooling language arts also includes spelling. For many years, I would bark at my son saying, “Sound it out!” when he would ask me how to spell a word. Or I would break it into parts for him and force him to tell me that sound. All of that effort succeeded at one thing…..getting him to turn his nose up at spelling!

There is a better way!

You do not need a spelling curriculum, but that is an option, especially if your child asks for one.

Your child does NOT need to memorize list upon list of words and be tested on them to learn how to spell!

***Newsflash.....this rarely works in teaching children how to spell.  Take it from a former primary teacher.  Even in traditional school settings students can ace a spelling test and then NOT transfer that knowledge in their everyday writing.  I witnessed it COUNTLESS times. 

Here is another option….just spell the word when they ask.

Over time, particularly as they delve more into reading and writing, the spelling will naturally come. And most likely, they will do what we adults do when we need help spelling a word, ” Hey, Google” or “Alexa, spell…..” And that is perfectly okay!

Unschooling Language Arts: Key Takeaways

Learning how to read, write, and spell can be done naturally and organically without using a specialized curriculum. All you need to do is create a literate environment at home and let your child explore at his or her own pace. Remember, there is no timeline!