Friday, February 18, 2011

How I Learned to Write (It Involved a Lot of Reading!)

Some of what I learned in my early childhood (when we were very relaxed homeschoolers), I remember clearly, involved at least some formal lessons or schoolbooks.  There was a reading program I started, though when I decided I had no interest in continuing it, no one minded (my mother was always of the opinion that children will learn to read, without being taught, when they're ready too).  Math definitely involved workbooks (until I hated it enough at 11 or so that I put a stop to it).  But one thing I can say with absolute certainty: I have never had anything even close to a formal lesson on how to write.  And I'm not talking handwriting here, but actual writing: the thing I'm doing right now to create this post.

I like this fact, because I get to tell it to people who've read some of my stuff but are skeptical of unschooling, and watch the look of surprise and disbelief on their face.  I feel like it's a good and simple way to prove my point (my point being that children can learn without being forced to, or even taught how).

So, how did I learn to write?  Well, actually, I suppose I was writing to some small extent before I could even read.

Our house has always been full of books.  There's at least one bookcase in every single room of our house, except for the bathroom (which has only a small pile of books instead of a whole bookcase!).  The small library my family owns was collected over many years and from many different sources (book catalogs, stores, garage sales, library sales...).  My parents are big into readers!  Because of that, from the time I was in the womb, I was read to.  And having always heard stories, as a young child I think it was fairly natural that I'd want to create some of my own stories as well.  So I'd simply dictate them to my mother, who would very kindly write them down for me.

Our living room bookshelves...

Later, when I started reading myself, I jumped headlong into the world of fiction.  I read countless novels: sometimes as much as three books in one day (people are sometimes skeptical when I tell them I've read thousands of books, but I always assure them that really, I have)!  Historical fiction, teen contemporary fiction, mysteries, the supernatural...  And of course, always fantasy.  Where my interest in other genres has waxed and waned over time, fantasy has remained a constant (if you ever want good recommendations, just ask me.  I'll happily geek out about fantasy novels anytime!).  I love fiction, and have loved it for many years.  The way whole stories, characters, places can become so very real in the pages of a book is just...incredible.  I love reading stories.

And when I try and think of how I actually did learn to write, that's really where I trace it all back to: all the reading I did (and do).  Even being an unschooler and believing that children will learn naturally, I find myself marveling at how much I absorbed about the structure and rules of language simply from reading.  It was never a struggle when I started writing more myself.  I knew where commas went, how long was too long when it came to writing sentences, how to structure a paragraph, and similar intricacies of the written language.  Obviously, I've improved a lot since then (and will continue to grow and improve), but from the time I really started writing in earnest I had a very strong grasp of how to write.  I just needed practice.  Even when it came to spelling, the closest to "formal" learning I ever did was play a game, for fun and by choice, with my sister, where my mother would say a word, and my sister and I would try and get the correct spelling first.  Yes, both of us have always been writing/language nerds!

I almost wish I could place an exact time and moment when I started really writing, the same way I can with reading (the whole Harry Potter spurring me to read on my own is an anecdote I've told many times), but really, I don't think there's any moment I can pinpoint.  I learned to write from stories told or read to me over many years, then from reading dozens, hundreds of books myself.

Sometimes the way I learned growing up seems surreal to me, when I compare it to how most others spent their childhood.  Like I lived in a different world, despite my physical proximity to everyone else.  Sometimes (often), I still feel that way!  It's such a radically different way of living than that of the mainstream that it's hard to reconcile the two.  And I find myself frequently just really, really not getting why anyone thinks the traditional way of teaching small children is a good thing!  Learning can be so simple, so flowing, and so much fun, if only parents and educators would relax, sit back, be ready to help if wanted, but mainly just let it happen.  Children are remarkably good at learning!  As the great John Holt said:

"We do not need to motivate children into learning by wheedling, bribing or bullying. We do not need to keep picking away at their minds to make sure they are learning. What we need to do, and all we need to do, is bring as much of the world as we can (to them); give children as much help and guidance as they ask for; listen respectfully when they feel like talking; and then get out of the way. We can trust them to do the rest."


  1. I learned to write in school, but I love to write. I cannot do the grammer thing well and spelling is a pain because I have dyslexia but other than that my writing is understandable and all that.

  2. I went to public school all through school K-12, but I do not credit my schooling with learning how to write. I learned how to write because I loved to read. All of the "rules" and terminology never really meant anything to me. It was frustrating to have to put words to something that was so natural for me.

  3. All you say is SSSSOOOOOO true ! My sons and I learned to read and write the same way. Naturally, by ourselves. Thanks Idzie.

    The epidemic of dyslexia is born with the teaching of reading to children too young. That's what I read in an article written by a French specialist of the subject, there are about a dozen years.

  4. What a great post! I went to a State School myself and most people I knew struggled with basic English grammar, which just wasn't considered important enough to concentrate on in school. What I learned about writing almost solely from all the reading I did in my spare time (and during class when I wasn't supposed to be, and late at night while I was supposed to be sleeping, in the bath, on the bus, and while walking to school etc. etc.). I learned from seeing how professional writers did it.

  5. Hi Idzie, I'm always glad to see the work of others who have learned to write despite the clamoring of those old-school teachers who keep trying to cram prescriptive grammar down our throats. I was a lousy student, and got thrown out of English class for belching (see the full story, I also keep trying to reach middle level students with the critical message that students will need to write well when they enter the workplace, be they police officers, nurses or professors.
    And now is a good time to start, when students are starting to develop their own creative minds. I saw your post in the current issue of Otherways. I'm there, too, in one of Sandra's reviews. Lee Woods, Cocoa, Florida