Emerging literacy

The unschooling diaries: weeks thirty-two and thirty-three

Arthur hasn’t been exposed to anything yet that might constitute formal literacy teaching. And that’s totally as it should be in my opinion – he is after all not yet four, and both my instincts and my research tell me that he is far too young for his ever-expanding conception of his world to be constrained by the often clumsy rules of language we inflict upon it.

There are though still times when my conviction wavers: when I see children his age and younger already trained to write shaky letters and even words, or hear others confidently identify the majority of the alphabet.

I know that he will master these things when he’s ready, that in the meantime his overflowing imagination and fascination with the universe is more than enough to both demonstrate and drive his learning. But I have wondered whether there is more I could be doing to help him along.

Except actually, in the past few weeks, he’s been helping himself.

It started with Alphabites, milk-drenched letters held up from his breakfast bowl as he asked me what they were. We named them, and explored their sounds – finding different words he could apply them to.

Then there is ‘I Spy’. We’ve actually sort of played it for months, but recently he’s really started to get it. We’ll use the sound of letters rather than naming them, and it’s a brilliant way to pass the time on long journeys or when we’re out and about.

He’s started expressing an interest in the phonics apps on his iPad too, carefully tracing letters to win fireflies.


Through his app, and through various ‘ABC’ books we have floating around, we’ve begun to explore the notion of capitals and lower case. He wouldn’t believe me at first, that ‘a’ was actually ‘A’. But he’s starting to get it, and we’ve had interesting discussions about the ways that the different versions of each letter are similar and different.

Of course alongside this the most important influence on his emerging literacy is reading. We love to read together, and we are never far from a book when we’re at home. He picked one of Leigh’s up last week and said he wanted to be able to read it – not to have it read to him, but to read it on his own. So we talked about the process that might get him there, how all the games and activities he was exploring would help him break the code, but that there really was no rush.

And actually reading is about way more than decoding anyway, and he’s learning all the stuff that goes around that without us even trying.

On a rainy day at the weekend, stuck in the campervan to escape the relentless drizzle, his friend picked up one of Arthur’s Star Wars books (a current fave), and Arthur offered to read it to him. They sat side by side as Arthur told him the story from a combination of memory  and interpreting the images. His friend asked him questions about characters and plot, and Arthur answered. It was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.



It’s good to reflect on how much of this more ‘formal’ learning Arthur is managing to discover for himself, and I am way more excited about him finding his own path to reading through fascination and wonder than about navigating the thorny and often irrational world of synthetic phonics to force him there before he’s ready.

Forcing learning is after all a bit of an oxymoron, and I have no doubt that there is way more going on beneath the surface than I will ever really know.

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