Every so often, home educating parents in this country come across a piece of research which seems to confirm that they are doing the right thing in not teaching their kids how to read and write. Many people regard this approach as a form of educational Russian Roulette but, as I say, once in a while something crops up which apparently suggest otherwise. The latest such is a blogpost by a semi-retired professor of psychology at Boston College in the USA. It may be found here;
It is certainly interesting, but repays a little closer attention. It puts me in mind rather of the research from Otago in New Zealand that was being touted on home education Internet lists some time ago as proof positive that the teaching of reading is unnecessary. Just as with that case, there is a little more to this than meets the eye.
To begin with, the conclusions which Peter Grey draws in this piece, radically different it must be said from almost every other educationalist in the western world, is that reading may simply be picked up in much the same way that oral language is acquired. So far, so good. It is not exactly an original thesis, but one followed as dogma by many home educators. He bases this belief upon work carried out by a couple of students at one school involving sixteen children. This is such an incredibly small sample, that already one cannot help but be a little dubious about being able to extrapolate from those sixteen children to a general principle in the teaching, or not, of reading. There is more though. These children were all pupils at Sudbury Valley School, a kind of American Summerhill. Grey forgets to mention in the article that he has been a trustee of this school since 1984; he sent his own son there. This at once tends to indicate a certain lack of objectivity about the methods being used at Sudbury Valley. It is a private, fee paying school, which at once means that only a certain type of family will be sending their child there. We know that a professor of psychology sent his son to the school; are there many other children of academics there? Are the children there from prosperous homes where there are many books? What is the ethnic background? Many questions of this sort occur to one immediately. How fair a sample is this? Sixteen children from one private school.
True, Grey then goes on to bolster his argument by citing another eighteen cases. Unfortunately, these are all anonymous people who commented on his blog! Come on guys, I am sure that we can all see the nature of the problem with that approach. Looking at this blog, we have some people commenting who are frankly barking mad. Would I be prepared to base a new theory of education upon the testimony of some of the types who come on here and comment? Probably not.
It would be interesting in the extreme to see a large-scale piece of research conducted into this business. Nobody doubts for a moment that some children acquire literacy informally; the question to ask is how frequent this is and what the common factors are in the lives of such children. Parents are notoriously unreliable witnesses when it comes to describing their children's attainments and most of us cannot remember clearly the process whereby we ourselves learned to read. There is, it seems to me, scope here for a properly conducted piece of work among home educating parents. We have of course see one or two attempts in this country at such a thing, most notably Paula Rothermel's twelve years ago. Unfortunately, she only carried out five tests of reading ability herself, an even smaller sample than that at Sudbury Valley. For the time being, we must enter a verdict of 'Not proven' on this question and hope for some work to be carried out in the future.