Making Curiosity Your Curriculum: Unschooling Literacy


He’s two. He plays with a copy of Goodnight Moon in the car, practicing turning the pages and finding the mouse in the pictures. The symbols on the pages mean nothing to him, yet, but someday he will make sense of them. Just two years ago, he was still inside of me, listening to my voice and not comprehending the words. Now he points at the page with a chubby finger: “Night-night moon! Where’s mouse?” He’ll make sense of the written word the same way he made sense of the spoken word. By soaking it up from the big people around him.

His sister is seven. She looks up from a copy of The Neverending Story that rests in her lap, and helps him find the mouse on the page.

“How long till we’re there, Mamma?”

I point out the next sign. More symbols. Reading is as useful as talking, if the world around you is full of words. I try to make sure my children’s world is full of words. I help them make sense of those words when they ask. That’s my curriculum.

It’s the same one my mother followed, back when “Unschooling” was barely a term. I learned to read leaning up against the soft cushion of her arm, scanning the words as she read them. I don’t remember many lessons. I do remember hours upon hours of adventuring through stories together. She read whether we were sitting still or not. She read as we rolled around on the floor, and hung upside-down on the sofa.

I learned to write because I had stories bursting out of my veins, and parents who took joy in them. The first time I decided I wanted to be published, I was nine. Instead of treating me like a child, as adults are prone to doing, she helped me write out an admission letter and send it off.

My daughter presses her nose against the window. She’s always been my early riser. When she was two I used to set her up a little “nest” next to the heater, with pillows and books and a cup of cereal, so that when she woke early she could sit quietly and look at the pictures. She’d make up the stories as she turned the pages.

At age four she enjoyed phonics workbooks, occassionally. Words were fascinating to her, and she desperately wanted to puzzle them out.

Never listen to someone who says an Unschooler can’t use a workbook. Learning by choice means using any tool you choose. Provide lots of tools. Let kids pick and choose the ones that work for them. Unschooling isn’t about “can’t”. About what you don’t do. It’s about following curiousity wherever it leads.

Make curiosity your curriculum.

And if the workbook doesn’t work, if the child doesn’t choose it, if it’s like a wet towel on their curiosity instead of fanning the flame…then toss it. Leave it on the shelf. Stick it in the burn bin. A tool is only helpful if it works.

Mostly she just looked at books alot. We used to joke that you could find her by the trail of books she left behind her. And I read to her a lot. I remember when suddenly around age three she made the connection that the symbols on the page were what I was deriving the story from, and wanting me to show her what each word said.

When she was almost six, her Farmor came to visit from Stockholm and brought her an abridged copy of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Nights Dream. The pictures of dancing faeries sent her over the edge. For weeks she carried that book everywhere she went, reading paragraphs over and over and over until she had them memorized. By the time she’d puzzled out that book, she could officially read. Her own strong desire to know the story had taken her from sounding out short, three letter words, to reading Shakespeare. Since then, she has gobbled up books like candy, bringing stacks home from the library every week.

Books are the resevior of human knowledge. Through the written word, we discover pieces of history and walk the trails of human ideas. To read is to be empowered to teach oneself anything one wants to know. To read is to join in the human conversation.

Spelling and grammar and punctuation and writing have all followed naturally. Mostly she picks it up from what she’s read, but she’ll also ask how to spell things. Usually in the car, when she’s writing in her journal about where we’re going. “Listen to this mama: ‘April 2, we are going to the greenhouse to get more seeds and some fruit trees.’ Is that how you spell fruit? F-R-O-O-T?”

This is my curriculum: Be available when questions are asked.

Sometimes we are the teachers, but usually we are the facilitators.

She likes to write letters to grandparents and cousins. I make sure she is stocked in stationary and stamps. I write down all of the addresses for her to copy. She likes to staple paper together and write stories. I sort through broken crayons and stacks of paper scraps.

Right now she is working on a story for her daddy’s birthday “Everything you have taught me about trees”. Her last pen runs out of ink on the third page. Pens is becoming a permanent item on my grocery list. Better teach this kid how to type so I’m not sending gazillions of plastic pens to land on a beach somewhere.

“Mommy, look! I got a high score!” This one is five. He holds up his iPad in the back seat for me to see. Playing games on the touch screen has really helped him develop his fine motor skills.

Screens are just tools. Use the tools that work.

Until recently this guy didn’t have much interest in letters. He preferred his sister reading to him. He could never seem to grip the pencil properly and make it cooperate, and his hand quickly became tired. As his motor skills have improved on the iPad, he has suddenly developed an intense desire to master letters. He asks me or his dad or his sister to write out the alphabet for him, and he copies it. He likes it when I quiz him on what the letters are, or what sounds they make. A couple of weeks ago he copied the word “toad” out of a book.

This boy is frog and toad crazy. There’s never a day in the spring that you won’t find some bucket or other on the porch, filled with pets that he’s collected. So it’s fitting that he’d choose “toad” as his first independently written word.

The second word he mastered was “butt”. Which you know is also fitting, if you’ve ever met a 5-yr-old boy.

He’s gone back to his game. There are symbols on the screen, too. I know it won’t be long before he puzzles these out, because they are relevant to him. Learning happens when there is context. Skills “taught” out of context can feel like a burden. Skills mastered, in context, are thrilling and joyful.

Do only what is joyful. That is my curriculum.

Look for where the learning is happening, and do more of that. Be present. Answer questions. And if you hope a child will develop a love of the written word, then pick up a book (or two, or ten), and read it where they can see.

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