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De-centering literacy

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One of the most controversial opinions I have is that decentering literacy is essential in our quest for a thriving childhood for all children.

Unlike quite a few of my opinions, which I often come to quickly using a combo of research and wisdom, this one has been years in the making.

I feel like, over the years, I might have read any study ever done on reading acquisition 😅

I am drawn to jot down my thoughts because my eldest daughter, Ramona, is eleven and just moving out of the decade of deep childhood – those years lost in magical worlds of imagination and play. Each week that passes we observe her moving more and more into the rational brain that is going to serve her for the rest of her life. It’s obvious that her brain is now mechanically ready to do a whole bunch of the things that were expected of her (from society) when she was still ill-prepared for them. One of which, is reading.


De-centering literacy isn’t undervaluing it

Yes, reading is a doorway to wonder and knowledge. I read on average 15 hours a week. A life without books to me is incomprehensible. My literal *favourite place* is a library, the local library has been my treasured haunt since I was 20. 

Beginning with that feels important! Reading and books are to be TREASURED. 

They are such a gift and such an intrinsic part of how society operates that we can TRUST in their power. 

To teach a child to read before they are ready and before they want to learn is like forcing a child to drink water- something we don’t need to do because we trust their thirst and water’s ability to quench it.

De-centering literacy, allowing it to exist in equal worth to creative expression, social skills, emotional intelligence, athleticism, engineerial skills etc, would help us to:

1-  take the pressure off the children that read later (ironically easing the pressure makes it more likely that they’ll read for pleasure)

2- value the other vital skills that a child is acquiring

3- create a less colonised model of human worth (much of the skills we value as Western Societies are a legacy of colonisation- skills that have furthered a white man’s bid for power and progress, rather than skills that enrich our communities and deepens our relationship with the living world) 

4 – allow children to keep developing the areas they *need* rather than what adults want for them (is it possible that by rushing kids into reading before they are ready we stunt their development of empathy/ collaboration/ imagination/ memory/ creative problem solving) 

Teaching children to learn to read before they are ready makes them believe reading is hard, painful, boring or that they are too stupid for it. 

By de-centering literacy we as a society will create a web of trust in our kids and the fact that literacy is inevitable (I say this with faith- in all studies of self directed learners both in a home setting or in a consent based school setting: ALL eventually learn to read) – giving us the patience to let them read when they are ready.

Three subtle shifts in thinking about literacy that have helped me decenter literacy:

1– Natural reading readiness – like puberty, it can happen within a large age range, but it’s when you are developmentally ready. This explains why in some unschooling families some kids learnt to read at four while their brother might learn to read at 13. I’m grateful to Trudy Kessels for this metaphor about puberty. No one rampages around asking why fifteen year olds haven’t started menstruating yet, we trust that when their bodies are ready they will begin.

2- Always learning the skills most needed – rather than “not reading” – a child is using their brain power to pick up multitude of other competencies. We can rest in the idea that humans cannot NOT be learning. Our brains are always engaged picking things up, figuring things out – even when we are asleep we are doing the integration side of learning! A child who isn’t reading yet is not in deficit, but in abundance – just focusing on something you aren’t valuing.

I love this from Naomi Aldort “Imagine raising a non-reading human being: What contribution would he make with a different brain wiring that is free of dependency on the written word? (We could write what he teaches us!) What are we missing by interrupting the child’s ways of perceiving the world, with our cerebral focus on letters? Indeed, it would be amazing if we could prevent even one child form learning to read. I have no doubt that such a person, living in modern society, will become knowing and aware in ways we don’t know possible and come up with ideas no reading human could conceive off.”

3- We are raising children in communities of literacy  and reading is a cultural practice instead of a cognitive skill  This was an idea I loved in Harriet Pattison’s PhD who interviewed 200 families without formal reading education. You can see the whole thesis here (it’s fascinating! And long!)

She says:

Taken to its logical conclusion, viewing families as communities of literacy practice recasts reading, not as a cognitive skill to be addressed through the metaphors of personal acquisition, but as a social practice that is carried out and is meaningful within a particular social and cultural setting. Considering families as communities of practice is a way of contextualising learning at home so that children can be seen as becoming participants in the literate world that already exists around them.”

De-centering literacy helps us to honour and celebrate the competencies our children are working on, rather than hovering around them, constantly wondering when they are going to tick the “reading” box. By de-centering literacy we create a foundation of trust in our kids and the fact that literacy is inevitable (I say this with faith- in all studies of self directed learners both in a home setting or in a consent based school setting: ALL eventually learn to read) – giving us the patience to let them read when they are ready.

Our kids will have multiple decades of reading in their life, but only ONE where they are able to drop into deep imagination play.

Let’s protect that for all it’s worth and not rush them out of it so us parents can feel better about ourselves.

Fun reads:


Prize winning authors who were late readers

28 kids that self-directed their reading acquisition

Summerhill – forty years of no coerced literacy and not one illiterate human

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