An integral part of the mythos surrounding home education in this country that it does not really matter if a child learns to read far later than is usual at school. Mothers talk of their children not reading until eleven, twelve or even later and the claim is made that they quickly catch up with those children who learnt to read at six or seven. On the face of it, this seems implausible. It is generally the case that the earlier we acquire some skill, whether it is riding a bicycle, swimming or reading; the easier it is and the more proficient we are likely to be at it when we are teenagers. Still, let us look at the evidence objectively and see what it suggests.
We come now to a problem. There is no evidence at all for the assertion that learning to read at twelve has no ill effects upon a child's educational prospects. There is much evidence from schools that the opposite is true and that the educational prospects of a child who is illiterate when starting secondary school are very poor. Still, it might be argued, school and home education are two very different things. Just because an illiterate child in a secondary school is set for failure, that does not mean that the same is true of a child who is being educated at home. I would put the case differently and say that illiteracy will harm a child's education at the age of eleven, but for a child who is not being educated, it won't make any difference. This hypothesis seems to me to make at least as much sense as claiming that illiterate home educated eleven or twelve year-olds are not held back by their inability to read.
Now I can only find two pieces of research on this subject and those are the work of Paula Rothermel and Alan Thomas. These are both small scale pieces of work and their conclusions are diametrically opposed to each other, which is not promising to begin with. Paula Rothemel said that the home educated six year-olds whom she looked at were very advanced in their reading ability, with 94% of them in the top band for reading. In the school population, one would expect only 16% to be this good at reading. Unfortunately, this was based on a tiny sample of seventeen children, only one of whom she tested herself. This is such a small sample that we can really not take it seriously. Alan Thomas noted that quite a few home educated children were late in reading, but that their parents said that this did not matter and that they soon caught up when they did start reading. These children were not tested and so it is impossible to know whether or not their reading ability really was on a par in their teenage years with those who learnt to read at six or seven.
This would be a very fruitful area for research, if home educating parents were at all keen on having their children's abilities tested; which many of them are not. The best that one can say is that the jury is still out on this question. Some parents claim that it has not harmed their children to be illiterate until their teenage years and this might conceivably be true. This does remind one though of those people who deny that smoking is harmful by citing some ninety year-old uncle who smoked eighty a day and died of some illness wholly unrelated to smoking! Such a claim, even if true, does not affect the fact that smoking is in general bad for people. This may very well be the case with learning to read and write later than is common in schools. It may from time to time happen that a child learns to read at the age of twelve and that this does not harm his educational prospects. It is hard to see though, how this can be an advantage. In other words, it might just be the case that it did not cause any particular harm, but it is not easy to see why it should have been a good thing for the acquisition of literacy to be delayed until this age. As I said earlier, the evidence from schools suggests strongly that the prognosis is poor for those starting secondary school unable to read and write. If the case is really different for home educated children, then a little evidence might not come amiss.