3 kids, 3 journeys to reading

3 kids, 3 journeys to reading
Jamie Martin, editor of Simple Homeschool, also blogs about motherhood at Steady Mom

Learning to read. It’s a big deal, isn’t it?

I know it often feels HUGE to us as homeschooling parents. It’s kind of the first thing we don’t want to mess up, ya know? But in our eagerness to prove ourselves, we sometimes end up rushing these little people we love more than anything.

I thought it might be helpful if I shared the way my three children learned (& are learning) to read. It amazes me that with three kids, the process has been different every time.

That’s why a cookie cutter approach to education just won’t work. We need to treat our kids like individuals–because they are!

Here’s what the road to the written word has looked like in our home.



My daughter spent the first years of her life in an Indian orphanage, joining our family at the age of four with global delays and a visual impairment.

We had decided to try homeschooling, mainly because we wanted time to bond. Reading instruction was not a priority, but a culture of reading was. Picture books galore, magnetic letters on the fridge, talking about sounds. Just life.

So when at the age of five she looked up at me, book in hand and said, “Will you teach me how to read this?” my heart soared and I scooped her up in a big hug.

Unschooling works!” I thought to myself.

We started with BOB books, not a curriculum. One word at a time, I would sound out, then have her follow. A few minutes here and there, nothing extraordinary.

After a while her interest faded, so I let it go. (Though I was petrified she might never learn to read, I was secretly thankful to have a break from “MMMMM-AAAAAA-T” sounding out process.)


Over the next year or two, we’d pick back up here and there–with Dick and Jane, Dr. Seuss, and games for reading–like writing a word on a white board and then “solving it.”

Then sometime between age seven and eight, everything clicked. Nothing monumental or structured made it happen–just readiness. After a few weeks of a break, we’d sit down with the early readers and she’d zoom through them.

She was off. Today at age eleven, she spends hours each day writing (and of course reading!) her own stories. She has a Kindle so she can read books in large print. And as a child who loves to draw, she still enjoys picture books.



Jonathan walked a different road to reading. I’d heard that boys develop more slowly when it comes to these milestones, so I had prepared myself for a longer process.

We followed the same natural process we’d done with Trishna (minus the BOB books since he hadn’t shown interest in them). We also put captions on the television when they watched videos (a tip I’d read in The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease.)

Then one morning at age six, on our morning stroll around the block, he paused in front of a sign in someone’s yard.

“Look, Mommy! It says SLOW. KIDS AT PLAY.”

Uh, excuse me?! What just happened here?


It wasn’t an overnight switch, but gradually that year (between age six and seven) Jonathan became a reader. Today, at age ten, he spends hours in his room (the one with the NO TRESPASSING sign on the door!) reading every day.


Elijah joined our family at the age of six months and grew up in the same culture of words and books. He listened to hours of stories and sat beside his brother and sister as they began to read (only 22 months separate all three kids.)

Every once in a while after age seven, we’d pick up a BOB book or Dick and Jane and read a few words–but when interest faded, back on the shelf it would go.

What a blessing that Elijah is my youngest–that I had already experienced how the process of reading can come together naturally. It gave me courage to wait.

Together Steve and I decided to give him until after the age of eight before pursuing any kind of structured plan.

EK reading

“Focus on Core Phase,” I reminded myself again and again, when panic would rise.

A few months after age eight arrived, I sat down alone with Elijah during our morning school time.

I made him a cup of tea, snuggled him on my lap, and read one of his favorite books (about airplanes) aloud. Afterwards I talked about how cool it would be when he could read his airplane books by himself. Then I invited him to begin reading lessons with me.

He said yes.

Last fall (in 2013) we used Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, a book with rave reviews that many have used successfully. We seemed to be on our way–he worked hard and learned a ton. But afterwards, his new knowledge didn’t transfer to “real life” reading.

As you can imagine, this was disheartening. I began to research dyslexia and other issues. But none of the descriptions completely fit him either, and again I was led back to readiness. It wasn’t there. Other delays in speech, fine motor, and emotional maturity helped me to see that he was maturing on a different track.

I continued to look for a resource that would help us, and several months ago signed up for a year’s subscription to Reading Eggs (which I briefly mentioned in my curriculum post last week.)

I would recommend it for ages 6 and up (definitely not ages 3&4 as mentioned on the site). The games in each lesson teach basic phonics and sight word skills.

Elijah liked it. I told him that the whole family would support his reading experience, and that after dinner he could either work his body (by helping clean up, his usual duty) or work his mind (by choosing Reading Eggs.)

If he chose to read, I explained, the rest of the family would do the extra cleaning to support and bless him.

Almost every evening, we ask “Do you want to clean up or do Reading Eggs?” 90% of the time he chooses reading. The program hasn’t been a silver bullet, but it has allowed him to continue making progress.

This child adores books, and that’s always been my main goal. (For example, he’s the one who shouted “Oh, goody!” when I explained I had downloaded Two Gentlemen of Verona by Shakespeare for him to listen to on audio. He proceeded to listen for an hour and a half straight.)


We’ve given Elijah a gift–the gift of time.

At age nine, he’s a delayed reader who doesn’t feel delayed. There’s been no stigma, no comparison. He knows and believes (& is regularly told) that he is smart, capable–that he has an incredible purpose in life.

And hallelujah, he has not lost his love of learning in the process. I am so thankful for the ability to homeschool, allowing us to tailor our kids’ journeys to reading in individual ways.

3 children, 3 journeys to reading.

Each pathway unique and beautiful. Like each one of my little people.

“I remember the first day that words on a page had meaning to me…Mr. Falker had reached into the most lonely darkness and pulled me into bright sunlight and sat me on a shooting star.” 
~ author Patricia Polacco wrote Thank You, Mr Falker to honor the teacher who helped her finally learn to read (in the 5th grade)

About Jamie Martin

Jamie is a mama to three cute kids born on three different continents. She is the co-founder and editor of Simple Homeschool, where she writes about mindful parenting, intentional education, and the joy found in a pile of books. Jamie is also the author of a handful of titles, including her newest release, Give Your Child the World.


  1. Jamie, I so appreciate your encouragement to be patient and proceed gently with our children when it comes to teaching them. I have found this method to work wonderfully with my three children as well, particularly in the areas of reading and math. It really does require us to place a lot of trust in the child to know when he or she is ready; it’s hard to have that trust sometimes. But when I do muster up the courage to trust and wait, the results have been worth waiting for!

  2. THANK YOU!!!! This is just what I needed to hear! My sweet 6 year old daughter may be dyslexic (according to the private school we pulled her from) and STRUGGLES with phonics. After coming home everyday for 4 months crying that she wasn’t smart like everyone, we decided to homeschool this year. I have not pushed reading on her but we read together a ton. Occasionally she will throw out a word she knows and this encourages me. Guilt has been slowly creeping in that I haven’t been pushing the reading issue. Thank you, I will relax and not force her into reading yet. I want her to love reading as much as I do!

    • My kids start reading backward if I push them too hard, too early. I then stop making them read for a few months and just read aloud. Then we try again. I have a brother who physically could not read until he was 11, so sometimes it just takes time.

    • Bless you, Lyndsy! Yes, let those relationships and self-esteem heal after a challenging time at school. Focus on what she’s really good at, because that is what will fill her with confidence again. Then the reading can follow when she’s ready!

  3. This is an issue near and dear to my heart. Right now I’m teaching 3 kids to read–my 5 year old, my 3 year old, and a 4 year old neighbor I’m babysitting. So far, the 3 year old reads best of all of them. I’ve been using Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, as well as Bob’s Books. My 7 year old son I taught with one of Ruth Beechick’s little primers, and he reads everything. I’m wondering if I should try that with the other three! Patience is hard. We do read aloud a lot.

    • I wouldn’t really recommend teaching a three or four year-old to read in a structured, lesson way. If they are participating, then it should be because it is fun to them and they are enjoying it–because a three and four-year-old’s main job is to play. If there’s any push back or frustration involved, I would drop it immediately. Just focus on planting the seed of a love of books, not trying to rush the growth and pick the harvest all at once!

  4. Reading is cardio for the brain! I firmly believe that TV-deprivation accelerates the reading process. After all, their imaginations naturally crave an outlet…
    HomeschoolDad’s latest post: My 9-Year Old Chimney Sweep

    • I agree with that, but I don’t necessarily think limiting TV/screens means that kids will never be late readers. We’ve had quite modest screen exposure for our kids, but they are still definitely on their own inner timetables!

  5. What a beautiful, insightful post on reading and how each child is unique. This was inspiring to me! I have three ‘children’, but two are grown and their wings have taken flight. I have a precious 10-year-old whom I have the GREAT privilege to homeschool. I will include your blog on my site and thank you for your inspirational words!

  6. Why wouldn’t you recommend reading eggs for 3 & 4 year olds? I have looked into it a couple times, but so far it seemed like unnecessary screen time for us. Do you think it actually wouldn’t be useful for a young reader or just that it isn’t needed? In my experience most kids who read before they are 5 pick it up without much help, so I guess it makes sense that tutoring would seem silly in that case.

    • “I have looked into it a couple times, but so far it seemed like unnecessary screen time for us.”

      Yes, that’s the main reason why I wouldn’t recommend it. Personally we tried to keep screen time to a real minimum in the early years, and I don’t actually think it’s necessary for a three- or four-year-old to be reading anyway, unless they pick it up on their own.

  7. Thanks so much for sharing your kid’s different journeys into reading. This is such an encouragement and I think it helps all us take a deep breath and relax. And I absolutely love the way the whole family is supporting Elijah’s reading by taking over his chores if he chooses to exercise his mind. Brilliant idea!
    Steph’s latest post: What I’m Into (September 2014)

  8. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the idea of work your body or work your brain after dinner. What a terrific way to have everyone support him. We have three VERY different readers as well. They all learned differently and they still are very different readers as far as book interests/types. The one united thing is that like your family, they all love books and stories and the written word! Audiobook are blessing for all three of them too!
    Sharon’s latest post: Nature Study and Outdoor Education for Exciting Adnevtures

  9. Tracy Alsterlund says:

    Hi Jamie, I love your post as I too have two very different readers who love books and have come to their reading skills very differently. As you search for answers for Elijah, I want to mention vision development. My husband is a developmental optometrist who evaluates and treats learning related vision problems. Tracking, eye teaming, focusing and visual perceptual skills are developed and so can be trained. There are some developmental optometrists who are very much in line with a Waldorf philosophy and the gift of waiting to learn to read. The College of Optometrists in Vision Development is an organization with education for parents, symptoms checklists, and lists of optometrists with special credentials to treat learning related vision issues. COVD.org. I know that my husband has treated several adopted children as for many their beginnings even prenatal can effect the development of vision, which is more than the 20/20 eyesight that most doctors test. Blessings on your reading journey. It is such a wonderful gift to give each child what they need and enjoy at their own pace.

  10. I loved this article, but I do wonder whether there is such a thing as true learning dissabilities/delays that can and should be remediated.
    My oldest (10) is dyslexic. It took 8 months of intensive Orton-Gillingham teaching to get him to read. It was hard and frustrating some days, and we talked about that, but he was very perseverant and took off reading on his own when he was about 7 and a half. He loves reading !
    My second boy (almost 9) does not have the same dyslexia symptoms as his brother but struggles a lot. After 4 years of trying to teach him, he is far from reading. I delayed going the testing route because I thought he just needed time. Finally I decided to have him tested. The orthophonist who tested him said he would need further testing, but that is going to be costly and take probably over a year to get him an appointment for more testing. I asked her if it could simply be a maturity thing and that we needed to be patient. She said it could be BUT if there is a serious learning dissability keeping him from learning to read, then we need to do something about it. Apparantly, when a child reaches 11-12 years old, his brain is not as malleable and some problem will never get fixed past that point. That tends to scare me. What do you think about that ?
    By the way, my daughters are doing great with reading. My seven year old learn to read in just a few months without any difficulty and is nox fairly fluent. Her sister (5) is very self-motivated and not far behind her…

    • Hi Rebecca. I think it’s definitely true that each child is unique and therefore will need different things. I do believe that certain kids need special help, but I think it’s a far lower percentage than what our typical system tends to recommend. And I think each parent, being the expert on their own child, will have the intuition and knowing about when to look for help and when to pause and just wait. I also know that I want to proceed with my kids in faith, so anytime I read or see something that “scares” me, like you mention, I wait to make the decision until I can proceed without the fear as my main motivator. I hope that helps a little!

      Actually teaching reading in a more structured way, like we’re now doing with Elijah, is very different than what we did with our older two. We could still be just waiting for him to naturally learn on his own, but this is what has felt right for him, so that’s why we’re trying to follow it. No formulas, unfortunately!

  11. The thing that struck me most about your post is that your youngest isn’t experiencing comparisons or stigma about his reading. I have homeschooled five kids – some born into my family and some not. My youngest, at 7, is not yet a reader, although she works at it happily and diligently. She has had significant challenges in her short life and it is a true blessing that because she is at home and isn’t being “pulled out” of a classroom in front of her peers she is able to learn at her own pace and in her own time without feeling deficient or “behind.” Will she ever read fluently? I don’t know. Will I seek help if she isn’t reading by age (fill in the blank)? I don’t know. What I do know is that right now she loves being read to, loves to look at picture books, feels pride and accomishment when she is able to sound out a word here or there and most of all finds joy in books. Homeschool for the win 🙂

    • “She has had significant challenges in her short life and it is a true blessing that because she is at home and isn’t being “pulled out” of a classroom in front of her peers she is able to learn at her own pace and in her own time without feeling deficient or “behind.”

      Absolutely, Leslie! One of my good friends is a reading specialist in the public system and she encouraged me to just keep on keeping on with Elijah. It’s definitely not unheard of to have kids with a similar challenge in the system, but I do believe Elijah doesn’t have the lack of self-esteem that can be associated with that, for which I’m so thankful.

  12. I really love how you invited your son to practice reading more. I think I remember you inviting your kids to bake, too? Anyway, I love this terminology and the what it means. I’m going to be using this in our unschooling journey. Thank you, Jamie!
    Amy’s latest post: Finding Our Rhythm

  13. “He knows and believes (& is regularly told) that he is smart …”

    So glad to hear that you are not afraid to tell your children that they are smart!

  14. Thank you so much for this post. My son is six and we are struggling with his reading journey. Thanks for letting us know that each journey is different and we are to grace him with time and understanding. What timing for your post. Thanks so much.

  15. Thank you for sharing these experiences with your kids! It’s very helpful now that we’re getting into reading with my almost 6 year old. I only sit down to sound out words in little reader books when I feel she’s open to it, never forced. Cannot wait for her to read on her own, she already loves thumbing through picture books for hours, she loves illustration.
    Anastasia @ eco-babyz’s latest post: Being a Small Business Owner and Homeschooling Mom: Dream vs. Reality

  16. My 7 year old(2nd grader) is now a fluent reader. We used Phonics Pathways with much success. It just took time. He was in foster care for the first 3 years of his life so he didn’t have the reading atmosphere since birth like our daughters who are 13 and 15 had. They were both reading before kindergarten(always homeschooled). With my son it was not until May of kindergarten, he started to read and it wasn’t until December of 1st grade he really took off. At home there is no stigma, no special reading groups, no labels, no feelings of stupidity. If he was in school he would have experienced that. But we have time and love.

  17. I very much needed this today. Currently attempting to teach reading to my new 6 year old son and only letters/sounds to my four year old son. Both seem to hate structured “lesson time” of reading but both can sit for one hour straight while I read to them with or without pictures. They also love audio books but as soon as I say “reading lesson” they sulk and whine and I never know what to do. My six year old has no interest in learning to read but begs me to read instead. Is it laziness? Is it a struggle? Is it lack of motivation? He probably doesn’t see the need for it yet. Thanks for your encouragement. Would you suggest more reading games and wait on teaching it or continue to press on?

    • Everyone has to make that decision for themselves, Mandy. You are the expert on your own family! For us, we wanted to focus on the love of learning FIRST and then let the skills follow later. Sometimes the first never comes when we focus on the latter prematurely. I think my post on Core Phase might be some good food for thought if you haven’t read it before: http://simplehomeschool.net/core-phase/ It sounds like you’re on the right track if you have a four-year-old who will listen to you read for an hour – mine never had that kind of attention span at that age!

  18. Jamie,

    Your posts are always a blessing to me. I have one 8 year old boy that I have homeschooled for a year. He has ADD, is strong willed, and Is very competetive. I feel defeated that I struggle with homeschooling when I have just one and I see others with many more and doing a great job. My son had motor skills delays and speech delays from the beginning, but he is active and a fun, happy boy.

    It really helps to read your blogs as I don’t feel so alone. My son is not reading chapter books and I don’t want to pressure him. If its up to me I would take my time with reading and let him enjoy it. I want him to love reading. I went to catholic school from 1st – 12th and read because I had to. We were not taught to love reading. We were all taught and punished if we did bad. I want a completely different experience for my son. I am constantly praying for patience and strength. I was called to homeschool last year while my husband was very ill and is still not completely better. I have since come down with some health problems which have made homeschooling difficult. I know this is what I want for him, I just want it to be fun and for him to say he loves it. Again, thank you for your honesty and for sharing. I am going to look into the Reading Eggs. I have not heard about them. And also get some audio books from the library. :O)

  19. I love this! My younger brother and I were homeschooled and had very different paths to reading. I was an early talker and reading by preschool without any lessons. My brother on the other hand had no desire to read. My mom tried several reading programs but he didn’t like any of them so she focused on instilling a love of learning and waited until he was ready. It wasn’t until he was almost 10 years old that he started reading. My mom had bought some cowboy easy reader books that he loved to listen to. One day he was so excited to read a new one she had just bought he picked it up and started sounding out the words all on his own! I will never forget the first night he read to all of us at dinner – he was dressed for the part with his cowboy hat, boots and the biggest smile bursting with pride. Within months he was reading chapter books and has never lost his love of reading. Now at 29 years old he reads anything and everything. Currently he is reading a psychology textbook “just for fun.”

  20. Thanks for this encouragement! Reading is such a big deal to me, I think especially because I love reading so much and I want my kids to be able to also. My son spells really well for his age without any coercion but has really struggled with reading even though he’s asked me to teach him (alarms go off in my head: “Learning disability?!”) This reminder that he will read in his own time and his own way is so helpful.
    Robin’s latest post: To Label My Child

    • I know exactly what you mean, Robin! When we are book lovers ourselves we so badly want that for our kids, and it will come…in their own time. There are times when our kids may need specialized help as well, but I think we will all have the inner guidance about that – so it will be driven by the right motivation and not just fear. Thank you for reading!

  21. I am homeschooling four and like yours, they’ve all had a different path to reading, and like in your home, there was never any pressure, just a love of learning instilled and lots of books everywhere. I was surprised when one of mine did end up having dyslexia. She started reading like the others, except that after the initial blending of sounds in three-letter words and words with simple blends, she couldn’t get further. Vowel teams and any other complex phonics stumped her and she never could develop any fluency, reading word by word and sounding out the same word every time she came to it. After months of this, she began to get stressed and didn’t like reading anymore. I was stumped, even though before I had children of my own, I’d taught first grade for 9 years. (Teachers aren’t taught much about dyslexia)

    I know you said you did research dyslexia. There are different levels of it. In milder cases kids can learn a little bit of reading, and then get stumped, and in more profound cases, they can’t read at all without a lot of intervention. I ended up buying All About Reading Level 2, which is written by a reading expert. The All About Learning company has the best customer service around, and if you contact them and tell them what your son can do and what you have done thus far, Marie Rippel will tell you her expert opinion about what could be going on, if anything at all–even if you have no intention of buying her product. She just cares about kids and about them learning to read. Please don’t take offense to my comment…I am only leaving it because I am seeing this year how long it takes to remediate dyslexia. The Orton Gillingham method is not a curriculum, but a method of teaching that uses a very systematic approach involving a lot of repetition, and a lot of emphasis on the skills of reading–one skill at a time…the parts as opposed to the whole. This counters everything some of us (me included) feel about how kids learn to read best–that you instill love of the written word and stories, play with letters and words…and then WOW they get it!

    With dyslexics, it is a grueling process. As I go through this method with my daughter, I am seeing how much she needs it done this way, and I am so grateful to Marie for writing this program and making the Orton-Gillingham method so easy for homeschoolers to access for their children, but I also grieve just a little that my little girl (now almost 8) needs to fight so hard to learn to read. God in his wisdom has a plan and purpose. His ways are not my ways and I trust Him. There are gifts to dyslexia too, of course. Marie Rippel writes a blog you can access from her All About Learning site, http://www.allaboutlearningpress.com/ and I also learned a lot from this site: http://homeschoolingwithdyslexia.com/

    Even if this doesn’t apply at all to your son, maybe it will help someone. Blessings to you. I thought your post very beautiful!

  22. renee @ FIMBY says:

    I’m so happy I’m through this stage with my kids and have the gift of hindsight. Of knowing, for sure, that it all works out 🙂

    There is so much pressure in our information society and culture to read early and the corresponding feeling like our kids will be lifelong failures if they don’t. With late readers you need to *simply refuse to have those attitudes and values seep into your family and homeschool culture*.

    You need to stand guard at the door of your children’s hearts and keep their love of learning pulsing strong with audio books, family read-alouds, a culture of books, instruction as they seek it, and affirmations about who they are and the future hope of the good works they will do in the world (their mission). And if you can also seek training for yourself if needed in how to more effectively teach a delayed learner.

    It hurts my heart to see parents and their kids struggle with this because if we give it time and gentle instruction (supplementing with specialized instruction when they are ready, which might not be till the double digits -10, 11, 12), if we meet our kids where they are at and keep the learning environment positive and joyful, it will work out, without all the angst of a “delayed” learner label.

    ~ A mother with a 15 yr old strong early reader, 13 yr old dyslexic middle son who only in the last year started reading at “grade” level, and an “average” 11 year old daughter who enjoys all kinds of reading for pleasure and learning.

    • Renee, how fun to have a comment from you again in this space now that you’re back home!!

      Couldn’t agree more, and I just might need you to remind me of it from time to time as we journey this through with Elijah!

  23. Jaime Scharf says:

    Thanks once again for a great post, Jamie. I have had such a time with my son who is now 7.5. I started with a structured program (one that I think is really excellent), but he has fought tooth and nail with me on it for over a year. I keep coming back to the thought he just isn’t ready, but cave to the internal pressures I put on myself “he SHOULD be able to!” So then I’m back to formal lessons off and on with lots of hair pulling. I have read so much about relaxing and letting them gradually pick it up, but stress over the idea. I pray and pray and the Lord has repeatedly led me to the philosophies contained in unschooling and delaying formal instruction until he is 8-10, but I cave in my moments of fear and push him again. That said, today, I am having a happy unschooling moment and we have read books, cuddled, done nature journals and the boys are having their supper outside in an intimate picnic. Some days I get it and other days… Your posts are always an encouragement and good to hear your different kids’ learning journeys.

  24. Thank you for sharing your story! I have an 8 year old who still sounds out even simple short words. I still haven’t pinpointed what is going on. I really feel like I pushed her too hard too soon. My son, on the other hand, is almost 7 and things just recently clicked for him! He was behind but lately has been reading MUCH faster and closer to being fluent. It is very encouraging to me to read and hear about stories from other people who had “struggling” readers.

  25. Thank you for sharing this. Last year my then 4 year old wanted to learn to read. We started our in Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. I think we made it to lesson 15 when I realized it wasn’t working for her. Next we worked with word families. Again, not a lot of progress… She couldn’t recognize the pattern. I took a break because I wasn’t a big fan of phonics. We would read together, but pretty much abandoned teaching reading. A few months later while I was miserably sick with the flu, my daughter crawled up on my bed and read a book to me… one she’d never read before (therefore hasn’t had the chance to memorize). She read to me for over an hour that day.

  26. I am homeschooling a mildly dyslexic 9 yr old boy, and there are no truer words than “the gift of time.” No school, public or private can give your child this gift. Without pushing or prodding or incessant lessons, my boy has blossomed on his own schedule! I have noticed that he seems to go long periods where you think nothing is happening, and then, presto, there it is, lol! The gift of time — nothing compares! Enjoyed your column!

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