Last week I suggested that there was a need for a new Internet list for home educators, one where parents could get accurate and objective advice from professionals as well as other parents. I said that some of the current lists tend to perpetuate myths, half truths and old wives tales. The title of this post is a thread on the HE-UK list which perfectly illustrates this point.
A mother started this thread, saying that she did not teach her child to write and that he has spontaneously begun to do so. This is heartening. It is indisputable that some children will learn to read and write without instruction, although I doubt it is particularly common. At any rate, this was one such child. The theory behind this type of education was neatly expressed by Paul Goodman in his book Compulsory Miseducation , published in 1962. He said;
"....the puzzle is not how to teach reading, but why some children fail to learn to read. Given the amount of exposure that any urban child gets, any normal animal should spontaneously catch on to the code. What prevents? It is almost demonstrable that, for many children, it is precisely going to school that prevents - because of the school's alien style, banning of spontaneous interest, extrinsic rewards and punishments."
The suspicion must be that this is a pretty hit and miss affair and that many children learn to read and write despite this treatment, rather than because of it. Be that as it may, after the mother had posted her success story, another parent posted sadly, explaining that her son was now thirteen and could only write one word - his own name. I found this shocking, that a child's education could have been so neglected that he was wholly unable to write as a teenager, but not so some others on the list. Here is one response;
"I know of children far older than 13 who don't write, but it hasn't stopped them being successful. Why are you worried about him not writing? "
This leaves me almost breathless with horror. Just to remind ourselves again, this child cannot even form the letters of the alphabet. He can write his own name slowly in capital letters and that is the limit of his writing ability. It is true that many children leave school with poor literacy skills, but I would be surprised to hear of a thirteen year old in a mainstream school who could only write one word. Here is another comment from a helpful mother;
"My son is also 13 and only learnt to read when 10/11. His dad is trying to get him to write but I am convinced that he will do so when it is important to him. He finds it difficult as he has dyslexia and can't spell so has to think very hard to write anything."
This is awful. The child's dyslexia may of course be unconnected with the fact that he did not learn to read until he was ten or eleven and is still unable to write. On the other hand an inability to spell might very well have been caused by, or at the very least exacerbated by this bizarre educational method. It is writing words down and thinking of the correct order of letters which helps young children to spell. They need a lot of practice at this from an early age and if they don't get it, they are apt to be poor spellers as they get older. Even using a keyboard does not help sometimes, especially if they have no idea at all how to spell the words they wish to type. I have seen children like this. The spellchecker hasn't got a clue what they are trying to type and the result is complete gibberish.
Being unable to write is a devastating handicap in later life. Why any parent would set out to inflict this upon a child is a complete and utter mystery to me. One of my uncles was a Gypsy who was unable even to write his own name; he had to sign for his wages with a cross. He had never been to school and his family were also illiterate and so had not taught him to read. Funny really, you'd think that the whole bunch of them would just have picked it up automatically from the printed text which surrounds us, but it didn't happen. I cannot tell readers what menial jobs this restricted him to.
It is quite possible that some children will learn to read and write if given no formal instruction. It is equally certain that many will not. What ails these parents that they would deliberately play Russian Roulette with their children's future prospects in this fashion, I really could not say. And still, some people are puzzled that the DCSF and local authorities wish to check that children are actually learning to read and write.......