Those who are sceptical about the benefits of autonomous education often read with raised eyebrows the accounts of children learning to read spontaneously and acquiring other skills without being taught. Still, it is usually impossible to prove or disprove such claims. Once in a while though, a case crops up where the evidence and records are so extensive that one can see exactly what has been going on and how a child has actually been learning. Usually, when one is able to examine the evidence in this way, a very different picture emerges from that which is first presented. We looked yesterday at an eight year-old boy called Christopher. The suggestion was made that he had been autonomously educated and I want to look at one particular aspect of his education, to see if we can gain some insight into what really happens when children pick up skills like reading and mathematics, supposedly without being taught them by an adult.
Let us consider reading. Some home educating parents, as well as one or two academics like Alan Thomas, believe that it is possible to learn to read simply from the experience of being surrounded by print in society. In other words, a child might acquire this skill without any explicit teaching from anybody. He might just 'pick it up', particularly when he found that it was necessary for some interest or other. This claim, that a child has learned to read without being taught, is not an uncommon one in the world of autonomous education. The child featured in the clip from a BBC programme yesterday apparently learned in this way. At the same time that this programme was broadcast, the family were featured in a local newspaper. Here is the article;
This contains the standard legend of the autonomous learning of reading. We read that;
'he didn't want to start learning to read until he was six, and has rejected the system of phonics which is used in many schools.'
'Kit was not forced to read, but instead started to pick it up when he realised it would be useful for him to learn about other things.'
I have asked a large number of people what they understood this to mean and without exception they said that they took it to mean that the child was not taught, but picked up reading at the age of six because he found he needed it for things which interested him. It is hard to see what other construction could be put upon the words used. So far, so good. A fairly typical sort of claim from an autonomously educating family. Sounds a bit fishy, but I suppose we'll just have to take their word for it! After all, we can't really know whether they taught him or not or if he just 'picked it up'.
Actually, this is where things get really intriguing. In this case, we are able to check up on how this child began to read. We can even listen to him learning to read! Let us begin when he is two years and four months old. Listen to this;
This recording was made on January 29th, 2004. We can hear Christopher's mother showing him a series of flashcards, some of which are pictures and others numbers. Five days later, on February 3rd, she is teaching him to read individual letters;
The mystery of the child who at the age of six seemingly 'started to pick it up when he realised it would be useful for him to learn about other things.' is now solved. Far from 'picking it up' at the age of six, he was taught to read by an adult at the age of two. In addition to this, he attended a playgroup where the children were taught to read in preparation for school. This is precisely as I suspected. In every single case of early reading like this which I have been able to investigate, the child concerned has been taught. This is exactly the sort of work with flashcards which I undertook with my own daughter. It is what some people call 'hothousing'.
The real mystery here is why some parents wish to teach their children systematically and then claim that their children have learned the skills without assistance. This is a matter of psychology and tomorrow I shall be looking at what prompts people to perpetuate these myths. If the type of thing which I have described above were rare, then it would hardly be worth drawing attention to, but it is not at all rare. Far from being an isolated case, the home educating parent who works hard to teach her child to read and then denies having done any such thing is actually a stock figure in the world of British home education; one encounters them frequently. These ideas can cause great harm to gullible parents who do not understand what is really involved in learning to read. We shall end by reading a very sad account by a mother who has swallowed such stories unhesitatingly and is waiting patiently for her children to teach themselves to read;
Some parents like this have a very long wait, because they have been misled into thinking it likely that their children will somehow 'pick up' reading of their own accord.
It may seem to some unfair to focus on one family in this way, but I do not think so. The number of parents not sending their children to school is increasing and newspaper articles and television programmes like this are encouraging such parents to believe that their children can just 'pick up' reading without being taught. This is a dangerous idea and one which needs, for the children's sake, to be challenged.