The power of words: Unschooling language arts

Unschooling language arts

In our family, we don’t “do” subject areas. We don’t really do tests, quizzes, essays or worksheets.

We’re radical unschoolers, and we believe that learning happens all the time, and for us, it rarely happens in tightly defined areas like “social studies” and “grammar.”

That said, I get a lot of questions from people who are unfamiliar with unschooling and wonder, “But how do you teach math?” (Or any other subject!)

That’s why I agreed to take part in the iHomeschool Network’s “5 days of…” Hopscotch series this week, in which I’m joining a bunch of my fellow bloggers to share how we “teach” language arts, math, science, history and fine arts.

It’s a little bit of a trick… because I’m not going to talk about teaching at all.

Instead, I’m glad to share how we learn, radical unschooling, eighth-grade-ish daughter style!

If you wonder how our learning happens “beyond the curriculum,” read on. Today, we’re tackling unschooling language arts – the ways things like reading, writing, spelling, comprehension, grammar and all that good stuff happen in our lives.

Unschooling and reading

I’m cheating, a little bit. I’m starting with the most obvious example of how learning happens in unschooling, and that’s by reading.

We read constantly. Every night before bed, we all get together in Ashar’s room or mine and read aloud to each other, or read in companionable silence, depending on what’s up.

In fact, this is such a big thing that we have a Family Reading Roundup series of posts that we update most months, sharing our current books.

Unschooling reading is an awful lot like public-school reading, or reading in more formal homeschool methodologies. We read from a variety of genres, both fiction and nonfiction, across all sorts of levels, from “simple” to college textbooks.

The biggest key is that we believe – and have found – that we don’t have to direct or require any particular type of reading in order to achieve this balance. It happens naturally out of Ashar’s own interests when we’re engaged with her in her learning.

Let me say that again, because that’s a key theme throughout this week’s series. Unschooling requires engagement. When I’m not engaged in what Ashar’s interested in, she either doesn’t read at all, or reads the same books for weeks. That’s fine – and it certainly happens – but that isn’t me being an unschooling mom at my best.

How we facilitate and learn reading skills:

  • By strewing books related to Ashar’s current interests. (Read more about strewing from my friend Aadel here!)
  • By making reading a family activity, both by reading the same things together and by modeling a love of reading in our own free time.
  • By going to places that have lots of books! We love used bookstores, new bookstores and libraries.
  • By talking about the things we read, and using them as a springboard to other types of learning, like movies, TV shows and trips.

Unschooling and writing

Let me be honest here and say that while reading comes naturally in our family, writing is not a passion of Ashar’s.

Or, more accurately, writing in a prescribed format is not.

We write all the time, just like we read. You can see a few of our “writing projects” here. But let’s be clear: When I say that we do not give assignments or require particular projects, it should be easy to guess that Ashar doesn’t just then randomly sit down and write research reports or essays for fun.

Oh, but wait. When a two-page informative paper was required for the 4-H project Ashar chose to participate in, she had no problem coming up with it. Why? Because while we don’t require the “proof of concept” of an essay in day-to-day life, Ashar has read tons, seen me write them for classes, proofread them for me, and generally become familiar enough with the expectations to do as serviceable of a job as I ever did at her age!

How we facilitate and learn writing skills:

  • By reading. There is NO better way to be sure you know how to write in a particular style (if needed) than to read as many examples of it as possible. This holds for thesis papers, friendly letters, Facebook statuses and emails.
  • By talking about the writing process. Since Chris and I both write for a living, well, that’s easier for us than in many families, I think! It’s been great to expose Ashar to all parts of the process and to lots of professional writers.
  • By encouraging the kind of writing that DOES come naturally – especially the kinds that Ashar will be mostly likely to need as an adult, which are digitally focused.

Unschooling and spelling

Remember how much we love video-game learning?

Video games are almost completely responsible for the massive growth in Ashar’s spelling ability in the past two years. Some of it is direct – the need to type in commands, spelled correctly, for instance. In other cases, Skyping while playing Minecraft and talking to friends has led to the natural consequence of better spelling, because Ashar wants to be understood.

Oh, and then there are all the ways in which we encourage and model – but do not force – correct spelling in day-to-day stuff, like grocery lists and texts and emails.

How we facilitate and learn spelling skills:

  • By reading and writing. Notice how these things build on each other in life learning? I would attribute the fact that I’ve always been a good speller to the matching fact that I’ve always been a heavy reader, and Ashar is no different. Once she’s read a word several times, she adopts the correct spelling!
  • By using correct spelling in our writing to Sarah. It’s super-easy for me to lapse into textspeak, even in emails and handwritten notes, and that does happen at times. But more often than not, I’m making sure to write clearly and spell well.
  • By interacting in writing! This means Skype chats, texts, emails, handwritten letters, grocery lists, you name it. In our family, there’s a lot of writing that goes on, and spelling flows naturally from that.
  • By focusing on words that Ashar most needs. We don’t do spelling lists by a long shot. Sometimes, Ashar still misspells words like February. (Yes, working on that. More next month than this one.) But she can spell lots of crazy words for parts of the alpaca, most of the elements, even the weird ones, and so on. When it matters TO HER, she learns!)

The rest of the series

Today: The power of words: Unschooling and “language arts”
Tuesday: It’s not all about numbers: Unschooling and “math”
Wednesday: Exploring the world and how it works: Unschooling and “science”
Thursday: You can’t escape the past: Unschooling and “history”
Friday: There’s beauty in everything: Unschooling and “fine arts”

You can read all the posts here!

More five-day fun

This post is part of the iHomeschool Network’s January 2014 “5 days of…” Hopscotch series.

iHomeschool Network January 2014 hopscotchYou can see how some of my fellow bloggers are spending their five days here.

Many of us are sharing on how we teach or learn in these subject areas, from a variety of styles and perspectives! We sure are an eclectic group – I hope you’ll check out more!

And if you’re into the things we do in our radical unschooling family, check out my two previous “5 days of…” series, 5 days of real-world math and 5 days of video-game learning.

Finally, this post is part of the How to Teach Without a Curriculum linkup through the iHomeschool Network. Click the image below to read more posts on teaching without formal curriculum!


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14 thoughts on “The power of words: Unschooling language arts

    • Phyllis, I really appreciate what you guys do too! It is so fun to see the things you’re working on. You do a lot more than I do to incorporate projects and experiments… Sarah would enjoy those, but I admit I just am not good about making them happen and I am trying to do more of that!

  1. I am so glad I followed the links from iHN to you … we educate our kiddos in similar ways. We are pretty laid back as well. I loved reading how you unschool spelling and writing. It sounds just like us! 🙂

  2. We should definitely do another Family Reading Roundup post soon, because all three of us are reading such cool things these days! I have been really impressed with Sarah’s recent plunge into reading adult-sized paperback novels, which was not really prompted by either one of us. In fact, we have Picard, Data and Worf to thank for Sarah’s decision that she wanted to read Star Trek novels. After she got the first one and dove into it, she enjoyed seeking out additional volumes at local used-book stores. She has a whole plan for the order in which she’s going to read the rest of her novels about the likes of Kirk, Picard and more. And, from there, now she’s very keen on reading some World of Warcraft novelizations, spurred by her love of the online video game. Now, Star Trek and Warcraft aren’t Hemingway and Dickens. But one point is that she really hadn’t tried to tackle long novels on her own as recently as six months ago, so this is a fabulous start. Once she has acquired that skill, she’ll be able to confidently dive into longer books on any topic that interests here — science, castles, art, animals, history, World War II, etc. … Also, an interesting note regarding her learning to write and spell through video games is that a day doesn’t go by where she doesn’t ask someone how to spell a particular word, so that she can get it right when messaging her friends in the game. She *wants* to do things correctly and is finding ways, with our help, to achieve those goals in the course of doing what interests her.

  3. Thank you for this post. We’ve been homeschooling for 6 years now. We have a 12 year old who hates school and a 7 year old. I’m trying to slowly let go of the concept that homeschool needs to be like public school and follow a curriculum. It seems like that is the “easy” way to do it… it’s also a safety net. Over the last few weeks I’ve really been considering what skills do my children need to eventually live on their own and be an active member of society. In changing the way I think and do “school” I hoping to see a change in my kids attitude for learning as well.

    • Kelley, that’s great! I think you’re very right that a curriculum can be a safety net, and I’m sure there are times and places where that makes the most sense. But in our family, with Sarah already hating school at 11 when we pulled her out of public middle school, we just knew we needed to try something different. Glad you stopped by and commented!

  4. Yes, I have to echo kelly’s comment. I’ve been home schooling my daughter since first grade, she hates doing anything that is school. But she likes projects as long as shes interested in th subject. Now-I just found your blog on pinterest, I m really interested in learning more. Is there a monthly or yearly subscription fee? Please contact me.
    Deb Daniels

    • Deb, I’m so glad you found us! No subscription fee – the only money we make is through things like affiliate links and so on. I do have a newsletter you can subscribe to, to keep up with when we post new things, but that is also free!

  5. I see that this is an older article but I wanted to comment on how much I needed to read this today. We try to be full time unschoolers but then my doubts creep in and I try to add in some curriculum thinking my kids aren’t getting “enough”. Then comes the *smacks forehead* and I relax a little…. or a lot 🙂 reading this article today saved my kids from my own personal doubts. Thank you!

    • Chelsea, that’s AWESOME to hear. And I totally get it – I have my moments too where I just think “But shouldn’t we just do a LITTLE school…” and then I get my own headsmacks and it’s like, ohhhh, right. You made my day with your comment. I’m so happy for you and your kids and your unschooling life!

  6. Finding your blog has been a great thing for me and my family!! This year has been pretty tumultuous and I would like to re-tweak our schooling to make it fun for all of us. We have done two different types of schooling that were sufficient for their time and now it is time to move forward towards a more unknown. Many things you do we employ naturally in our learning world. It is as you said that learning is everywhere all the time. I am looking to loosen the walls to venture outside the box. I am a bit fearful as I have at least 5 children under my wing. I am also excited as I myself need to expand beyond the ‘normal’ boundaries.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to do all this documentation in regards to the unschooling. It is a great help for myself who loves examples for a more thorough understanding of application. I do have a curious question, You are also educating the rest in the same manner or …???

    • I am so glad you found us! Sarah is my only child, so we don’t have to worry about unschooling with multiple children. The adults in our family (there are four adults in our house as well as Sarah, who is 17 now) also learn a lot through the same methods, though!

      Best wishes to you and your family. I hope you will come back and check in and let us know how things are going for you!

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