Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Learning to read "late" - does it matter?

Many autonomously educated children are famously late in learning to read. The parents of such children laughingly admit that their children of eleven, twelve or thirteen are unable to read. It is suggested that when they do start reading, they quickly catch up with those who learned at a younger age. It may well be the case that functional literacy can be acquired fairly swiftly in the teenage years. The same thing can happen with illiterate adults who are taught to read. The problem is that while such people may quickly learn enough of the reading process to decode the label on a tin of beans or the instructions on a computer game, they seldom take to reading for pleasure. This is purely anecdotal and I would be glad to hear of any properly conducted research which tends to disprove this hypothesis.

My own belief is that just as there is a critical period when a child learning to talk can pick up two languages at once and be fluent in both, so too is there a critical period for the acquisition of literacy. When a child learns to read very young, reading becomes a kind of "second language". Those who learn it after this critical period will never be able to use it as fluently. There is a huge difference between children who read for enjoyment and those who only read because they are made to do so at school. I have an idea that it may be a little like those three dimensional pictures which are apparently a random collection of dots. Once you have the knack, you can quickly turn these dots into a vivid picture which stands out from the page. Fluent readers, those who read for fun, perform I think a similar trick. They look at the words and yet somehow beyond them. Those who read a lot of novels often seem to see through the page into the world created by the author. Halting readers and also, I suspect, those who do not learn to read until puberty, see only the forest of print which they must build laboriously into words and sentences.

Mike Fortune-Wood, a well known advocate of autonomous education once said something very revealing, which I think casts a little light on how a lot of autonomous educators see reading. He asked in apparent amazement, "Why would a child of six need to read?" The thought that a child of six might actually enjoy the act of reading a book had plainly never occurred to him. Perhaps when autonomously educating parents talk about "reading" they are more likely to mean functional literacy rather than the sort of pleasurable activity that many of us mean by the word.


  1. I home educate two boys [10 and 12] and this is one of your comments I, as parent would agree with.
    This idea that a child who reads late will somehow catch up with a child who’s been reading since an early age is wrong. As you say they are able to interpret the words but they won’t see the magic behind the words. I suppose you could argue do you need to see the magic, I would say “Yes” for one when you study further certain texts will have hidden meanings, the context of a sentence might mean something different depending on how words are spelt.
    I can give a classic example of an autonomous education: The boys invited a friend out for the day, while a lovely lad his education is very limited, while out there was an activity that required name address telephone number and doctors name. He could fill the name part in but the rest he could not understand or even fill in .. This shocked me.
    While I semi-agree to autonomous education there still needs to be the structure of the basics in the way of the 3R’s.

  2. Well this partly depends on what you class as reading for pleasure, of course. My reply assumes that you mean that they choose to read novels or non-fiction (biographies, travel, etc) for pleasure. Only annecdotal evidence to add to yours I'm afraid (I'm assuming you've seen the research by Thomas, Rothermel, etc), but I know 3 late readers (13, 12, 13 who are now 17, 18 and 19) and 1 early reader (5, now aged 17), all autonomously educated. Of these, two of the late readers read for pleasure and the other two read textbooks for study, computer games, complete forms, MSN, magazines, etc but not books. The two that do not choose to read for pleasure are functionally literate - they have passed English exams or tests at GCSE or equivalent and can read well enough to read for pleasure if they should choose to take part in that hobby at any point in the future.

    Maybe Mike FW made his comment ("Why would a child of six need to read?") because he assumed that if an autonomously educated child wants to read they will learnt to read, either by themselves or by asking their parent to teach them. This has certainly been my experience. My late readers were perfectly happy for me to read to them as necessary! Yes, they were unable to fill in forms at around 12/13, and this was one of the spurs to learn to read/write. However, it didn't stop them learning.

    Think of all the time wasted by school children who don't learn to read until they are 12/13. I know a school child who learnt to read at 12 from computer games at home. Untill then he was set the same work and tests at school as his reading peers and obviously failed as a result. How much do you think he learnt and what did he learn about himself and his place in the world? Some children really aren't ready to read until they are older thant the supposed 'norm'.

    There is research that shows that autonomous education works though of course it falls foul of accusations of self selection. The only way to get around this currently (as far as I can see), would be for all 16-25 year olds who have undergone autonomous home education to be compelled to take part in a study with comparison to a control group. Obviously this isn't going to happen. ContactPoint might increase the chances of this happening sometime in the future, but the current plans will effectively prevent this. Many forms of autonomous education will be impossible if the current plans go forward. I've had inspections (before we moved to a new area) and know that my approach to education changed radically as a result. Obviously I believe these were negative changes but luckily we didn't live in that area long. If the visits had continued we would not have educated autonomously. These changes will effectively kill autonomous education in this country before it can be measured and tested to the levels that seem to be required by Badman and yourself.

    BTW, Your comments appear to work for IE but not Firefox, which may explain the inability of some to post.

  3. PS some options don't work in IE either. It eventually worked for me by selecting the Name/URL option from the drop down box (you can leave the URL box blank). I think you need to check you settings, - I don't experience this type of issue with other blogspot blogs.

  4. Yes, this site is a bit broken for Firefox.

    I found if I wanted to cut & paste, I had to right click on the comments box, click "This frame" and choose "Open frame in new tab" or "Open frame in new window". Once I'd got it in a separate window or tab, it became usable. I still couldn't use a keyboard shortcut to paste, but had to right-click to get a Paste option.


  5. Do you have any evidence to support your theory that there is a critical period for learning to read so that one reads for pleasure? I've had a quick look and think this book, may offer some insight if you are interested in learning more. According to the Literacy Trust web site (http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/research/Reading%20for%20pleasure.pdf):

    "Although the cornerstone for lifelong reading is laid in the early years, we also know that it is never too late to start reading for pleasure" (Sheldrick-Ross, McKechnie & Rothbauer, 2005).

    Sheldrick-Ross, C., McCechnie, L. & Rothbauer, P.M. (2005). Reading Matters: What the research reveals about reading, libraries and community. Oxford: Libraries Unlimited.

    PS Jennifer, thanks for the tip! Posted via Firefox with copy & paste.

  6. Dear Sharon, I don't doubt for a moment that it is perfectly possible for an autonomously educated child to learn to read without any adult intervention. I am also sure that some people who did not learn to read until adolescence go on to read for pleasure as adults. Similarly, some children who are taught intensively at school take ages to "get it" and many children leave school and never read for pleasure. The question really is what method is most likely to give good results when used with hundreds of thousands of children, in other words the method or methods with the greatest chance of producing fluent readers. Naturally, all the large scale research has been done in schools. Since they teach reading in a structured and methodical way, the research tends to focus upon the difference in efficacy between one structured method and another. For example between "Look and Say" and phonics. The closest thing to autonomous learning that was used on a large scale was the "Real Books" method. This was popular in the late eighties and nineties. The idea was that if children were provided with ordinary books rather than say a simplified reading scheme like Peter and Jane, that they would just pick up reading by osmosis. The results were not encouraging.This is why this method was dropped and replaced by straightforward teaching. A lot of children who went through the "Real Books" system did not seem to make the same progress as those taught conventionally. This looks to me like evidence that reading to learn autonomously is not a brilliant scheme when used with large numbers of children, although it might of course work for some individuals.

  7. A few points in response to your comment. I doubt any child learns to read without adult help - how do you imagine that would happen? Autonomous education does not equate to no adult assistance, why would you think that? Autonomous education may include reading to the child, answering questions about what words say whilst out and about, playing eye-spy, singing along with alphabet songs in the car, watching Sesame Street (and similar programs) together, trying a few methods when a child asks for help to learn to read, etc. Choosing to educate autonomously doesn't mean you can't suggest activities or put tapes on in the car, you just have to listen and respond if they ask you to stop or are obviously unhappy with your singing!

    You say the question is 'what method is most likely to give good results when used with hundreds of thousands of children'. The only way we will find out then (according to you) is if autonomous education is allowed to grow and flourish so that enough adults educated by this method can be studied. If the current recommendations go ahead, autonomous education as I recognise it will end so we will never know, at least in this country.

    I disagree that 'Look and Say" or the "Real Books" method is the closest thing to autonomous learning. My autonomously educated children have all used phonics to varying degrees. One is currently working through the Toe by Toe book with my assistance and by his own choice, for example. When one of my children tried school for a term they used the Oxford Reading tree (and we also have some at home) which is based on the child memorising the story and eventually linking the memorised words to the written words, not unlike the Look and Say approach. I don't think you can claim that autonomous equals Look and Say and school equals phonics, many methods are used alongside each other in school (and can be offered to autonomously educated children) to give a child the best chance of learning to read.

    I would guess that even children that supposedly learn through Look and Say make use of phonics just as a result of linking sounds to to parts of words, especially initial and end sounds. I was taught through Look and Say and have gradually taught myself phonics through experience and then more thoroughly whilst helping my children use the method if it suited them.

  8. Well, some children do more or less teach themselves to read.I can give you only anecdotal evidence for this. Small children in homes where there is no reading matter at all can learn to recognise the names of, say, breakfast cereals from the packets. I have then tested these children by printing the name out in a different font and seeing if they recognise it out of context. They do sometimes. Even more intriguing, the then began breaking it down into its separate parts. I pre-school child who knows the word Kellogs, might perhaps see the letter K and start shouting, "Kuh, kuh,kuh..." Haave you never seen this happen?

    I'm sorry if I somehow gave the impression that I thought that "Look and Say" was anything like autonomous education! It is of course a highly structured system. The reason that I would not be keen to see the large scale testing of whether reading being acquired autonomously is a good scheme is that it has, in effect, been done already. I refer to the "Real Books" way of teaching or not teaching as the case may be. I shall be putting up an article about this shortly. I am not in general in favour of experiments in reading being introduced into schools. remeber the Initial teaching Alphabet?

  9. Simon,

    I need look no further than the next room to bust your theory about late reading. My DS didn't learn to read until he was nearly 9. He went from reading "Sam I Am" to adult reading level in under a year, but didn't read much other than Star Wars Manuals, Rune Scape quests and techie mags until this year when, aged 12, he has suddenly started reading novels. He has just read eight of these in rapid succession, all adult level, all between 700 - 1000 pages long, in a FAR shorter time than I could have managed, (and I started reading aged 4) and with huge enjoyment.

    He is not the only one. All his autonomously educated mates of around his age (bar one who seems to be engrossed in other stuff) have formed a sort of spontaneous book club, passing these huge tomes around between them, and discussing them whenever they meet.

    One of these young people didn't start reading at all until she was 11, and yet I am honestly slightly worried that she might be now developing a sloped shoulder as she is almost never to be seen without some brick of a book in one hand.

    Please note, that at the same time, NONE of his schooled friends are doing this. They look with absolute shock and horror at the idea of reading so much, and all of these children were encouraged to read from a young age.

    This window of learning theory *may* stand up for some areas of knowledge acquisition, though I am not completely sure about that either, as one sees adults learning new languages when they are immersed in it, but I have definitively seen that it doesn't stand up with regard to acquisition of literacy, at least for the narrow window of opportunity that you and many others seem to imagine.

    Oh yes, Jennifer's right. Your site is doesn't work with Firefox.

  10. Well, to be fair Carlotta I wasn't really putting forward a theory. I said that this was purely anecdotal and that I would be glad to hear evidence, such as yours, which contradicts my ideas. You are quite right about your son's reading group, I cannot imagine any school children doing such a thing, at least not without a teacher organising it!

    You certainly do see adults learning new languages by immersion. I probably did not make myself clear about that. When a child is very small she can acquire two or three languages absolutely fluently. They will all be spoken as native languages with no other accent than that of the parents or neighbours. This ability has a definite cut-off point. It can happen at four or five, but certainly not at fifteen or sixteen. Past puberty at the latest, anybody learning a foreign language will never sound like a native speaker of that language, no matter how fluent they become. I was saying that I think it at least possible that something similar happens with reading. This is only a wierd idea of mine that I tossed out for discussion. It is neither dogma nor carefully formulated hypothesis.

  11. Some random thoughts on critical periods and reading!

    A critical period has been defined as, a "limited time in which an event can occur...If the organism does not receive the appropriate stimulus during this "critical period", it may be difficult, ultimately less successful, or even impossible, to develop some functions later in life." If this were true for 'reading for pleasure' you would expect to find none or very, very, few late readers who read for pleasure and this is obviously not the case. Plenty of late reading autonomously educated children read for pleasure and the same is true of people who learn to read as adults.


    "John Corcoran graduated from college and taught high school for 17 years without being able to read, write or spell."

    His book, viewable on Google books (http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=fMD06_sdZkIC&printsec=frontcover&dq=john+Corcoran&lr=#v=onepage&q=&f=false), makes it clear that he reads for pleasure. He describes a conversation with his grandchild after being told that good readers see a movie in their head when reading. He asked his little grandaughter if she had this experience and she replied, "Of course, Grandpa". He goes on to say that now, when he reads for pleasure, he sees the movie in his head.

    I also read a series of case studies about adults learning to read where they went on to read for pleasure (it was the reason for learning to read for some), though typically I can't find it now! If anyone were more likely to fail to learn well enough to read for pleasure I would put my money on people who have failed to learn to read through school (with all the difficulties of failure and personal image problems this involves) rather than children who choose to learn to read late in a supportive environment, so if these adults can eventually read for pleasure, I'm sure AE children can.

    I know there are critical periods for things like learning to speak. If the critical period is missed, the person never acquires full language use and are limited to single words rather than sentences if I recall correctly. My understanding though is that critical periods relate to evolutionary needs such as basic vision, first language learning (and debatable second language), categorisation, number sense, time sense, deception and social relations. Our brain has not evolved to manifest writing, algebra, astronomical understanding, breeding of animals, etc. these are all behaviours that can be learnt at any age and I believe reading fits more naturally into this group.

    If a child has been read to frequently they have an understanding of written grammar in much the same way as a child hearing language learns spoken grammar (and those that don't hear it, fail). All that remains then is the decoding of the written word, matching sounds to symbols, and learning punctuation, etc; skills that will improve with practice in much the same way as algebra, etc. So even if there is a critical period for reading I would suggest that the act of reading to a child would fulfil the need. It's possible that even hearing the grammar of speech is enough to facilitate the transition to written grammar.

  12. Maybe it's not a coincidence that many AE children begin reading at adolescence? Recent research suggests that adolescence is an important time for brain growth and development. Here's an interesting article, http://www.nea.org/tools/16653.htm. I've quoted a few bits that struck me as significant.

    "Adolescence is a critical time for brain growth (see interview with neuroscientist Jay Giedd). Significant intellectual processes are emerging. Adolescents are moving from concrete to abstract thinking and to the beginnings of metacognition (the active monitoring and regulation of thinking processes). They are developing skills in deductive reasoning, problem solving, and generalizing."

    Decoding the written word seem a perfect example of abstract thinking and certainly involves deduction and problem solving, so maybe for some children, adolescence is the perfect time to learn to read.

    "Provide lessons that are varied, with lots of involvement and hands-on activities. Brain stimulus and pathways are created and made stronger and with less resistance if they are reinforced with a variety of stimuli. (Create projects; use art, music, and visual resources; bring guest visitors into the classroom.)"

    Sounds like the descriptions of AE in practice that I've heard, including the one on EOs web site that you were so disparaging about.

    "the school holidays mean friends round, late nights and sleepovers....Their days are often filled with television and LOTS of play. Particular favourites are role-playing games. They may have seen something on TV that sparks off an interest e.g. playing World War 2, orphans, survivors, etc. Along with this play comes making things, writing, asking questions.... They really are learning all the time. Yesterday I stood and watched joyfully as they showed me the boats they had made from leaves and sticks on a mud river at the park where we spend MANY a sunny day."

  13. The reason whole book reading didn't work in schools, is probably because there was very limited access to decent books and very little time for the children to just pick up and look at a book whenever they wanted. They probably had to use those books when they were ordered to, and not at their liberty. This is hugely different to a child at home, surrounded by text of different forms and on different subjects, who is often read to.

    However, having said that, reading was the one area that I was not able to be autonomous in. There was no way I was going to have a child who couldn't read. It was one of those 'signs of success' if you like that I was doing a good job as a home educator, and something I was not prepared to put to chance. But that's just me.

    I do know that leaving children to learn to read in their own time does work, because I've seen it with other home educating children I know, but equally, I find it slightly disturbing knowing that some other friends of mine can't read aged 10.

    However, there is this idea, stated by some autonomous educators, that if a child is taught to read, that they'll never enjoy books because it was forced. This is as untrue as the idea that late readers can't go on to enjoy reading at advanced levels as stated by some structured educators.

    Both systems have their merit, and instead of dividing and conquering, we should embrace diversity.