Friday, 7 January 2011

Researching into the acquisition of literacy

In my local newspaper this week is the story of a woman who has just celebrated her hundredth birthday. She is a lifelong smoker and attributes her longevity in part to this habit. This reminds me somewhat of those home educating parents who claim that their children did not start reading until they were fifteen and yet still went to university. The point being of course that the hundred year old woman did not live that long because of, but in spite of her smoking. There is no doubt that some home educated children do not learn to read until quite late by school standards, but whether this is a desirable state of affairs or helped contribute to their later success is debatable.

Part of the problem when discussing home educated children in this country and how and when they learned to read is that almost no research has been done on the subject. That which has been done is based upon grotesquely small, self-selected samples and the results of each such piece of research often contradict all that which has gone before. I mentioned yesterday Paula Rothermel's testing of five children using the NLS tests and this irritated somebody who commented here. Let us look at two pieces of work carried out in this country about the reading abilities of home educated children.

Writing in his book How Children learn at Home (Continuum, 2007), Alan Thomas had this to say;

'Some children did learn to read early by school standards, but many were spread out in the seven to twelve age range and a few were even older than this'

This is, I will not say the standard view in British home education, nothing is that, but it is certainly a commonly held view. The idea being that if children are not made to learn formally at the age of five or six, they might acquire literacy a little later, but are not at all disadvantaged by this. We see this opinion expressed pretty regularly. We turn now to another piece of work which indicated precisely the opposite of this. In February 1997 Paula Rothermel, a student at Durham University, sent out 2500 questionnaires to home educators belonging to Education Otherwise. The following year she sent out the same number again and a small number to Local Education Authorities and a few other places. She received over a thousand responses. This work was carried out as part of her studies and subsequently formed the subject of her PhD thesis. One claim which emerged from this work was that home educated children scored far higher on standard tests of literacy than children of similar age at school. 'Far higher' is understating the case. Using the assessments for literacy which Rothermel did, one would expect to find 16% of children in the top band. According to Rothermel, no fewer than 94% of home educated six year olds were in this band.

In other words, according to Thomas and many home educating parents, it is common for children educated at home to be a little later than school children in learning to read. Rothermel claimed however that over 90% of the children she tested were doing brilliantly at reading at a very early age. It has not been possible to replicate these results; a fatal flaw in any sort of research.

Interestingly, a lot of the research in this field is carried out by students. The Otago work from New Zealand was by a student, as was the work on the sixteen pupils at Sudbury Valley which I discussed yesterday. Paula Rothermel's work too was that of a student. It would be very good to see a properly designed survey carried out of a large group of home educated children in this country, looking at the methods used and the long term results; ie, after the age of sixteen. Until this is done, we must really keep an open mind on the matter; the evidence so far being scrappy and unreliable.


  1. Apart from being used to refute or support the claims of some home-educating parents, I can't see much point in researching home-education per se. What would be more useful is research into the strategies used by children and adults in effective learning, whatever the setting.

    What it would show, I suspect, is that successful strategies depend very much on what is being learned and that different strategies suit different children and teachers.

    As for the long-term outcomes, people's career-paths, for want of a better word, are influenced by so many factors it's unlikely that a clear correlation between home-education and school education would emerge. What happens after the age of 25 or 40 might be a better indicator of a long-term outcome than what happens after 16.

  2. "It would be very good to see a properly designed survey carried out of a large group of home educated children in this country, looking at the methods used and the long term results; ie, after the age of sixteen."

    Why does it need to be in this country if the methods used are similar?

  3. 'Why does it need to be in this country if the methods used are similar?'

    Most of the large scale research comes from the USA. This indicates the primary motive for home education in that country is that parents feel that they are able to provide a better education for their children than what is on offer at the local school. The situation is slightly different in the UK, where family relationships appear to be seen as at least as important as education. As Alan Thomas said, after looking at many home educating families both here and in Australia:
    Many parents point out that their reasons for home educating have as
    much to do with social and personal development as with academic
    progress... This aspect of home education may turn out to be very
    Also in this country, bullying and special educational needs which are not being catered for are both very common reasons for home education. This means that we need to look particularly at British home education, rather than simply extrapolating from the American experience.

  4. There must be a large overlap of reasons though. Looking at the reasons given in the 2009 US study (copied below) they don't look that different to the reasons given in the UK. So whilst some caution should always be exercised when looking at research from a different country the results are still significant and they found that the style of HE (parent-led v. child-led) made no difference to outcomes.

    "The most common reasons given for homeschooling are the following:

    · customize or individualize the curriculum and learning environment for each child,

    · accomplish more academically than in schools,

    · use pedagogical approaches other than those typical in institutional schools,

    · enhance family relationships between children and parents and among siblings,

    · provide guided and reasoned social interactions with youthful peers and adults,

    · provide a safer environment for children and youth, because of physical violence, drugs and alcohol, psychological abuse, and improper and unhealthy sexuality associated with institutional schools, and

    · teach and impart a particular set of values, beliefs, and worldview to children and youth."

  5. "Also in this country, bullying and special educational needs which are not being catered for are both very common reasons for home education."

    Part of the reason behind removing a bullied child from school (apart from the obvious protection) is to enable the child to gain an education (how much would they be learning in that environment) and this is even more so the case with SEN. Quality of education is likely to be very significant for parents who give bullying and SEN as reasons for HE.