Whenever I write here about the idea that reading can be acquired with no teaching at all, just picked up as it were, I am sure to be denounced as perpetrating a wicked calumny upon autonomous home educators. This is strange, because most of my own personal experience of this theory has been not with home educators at all, but in schools. The notion that it was possible to 'catch' reading, like a cold, through being surrounded with the written word was for some years the mainstream orthodoxy in quite a few schools.
I will not weary readers with all the background to this business. It is enough to say that during the eighties and nineties, the idea became common among teachers that children could essentially learn to read for themselves just by being exposed to good books. It was thought wrong to correct a child's spelling and damaging to point out if she had read a word wrongly. The reasoning behind this was that reading is all about reconstructing meaning; not just speaking words out loud, which was called by some 'barking at print' and was thought to be a bad thing. Far better that the child gained the sense of a text by guesswork, even if he could not actually read the words. These children were thought of as 'apprentice' readers and the teacher was no longer a teacher but a mentor or facilitator. This might result in the sentence, 'The lion sprang at the antelope' being read out loud by the child, basing his guesses upon the accompanying picture, as, 'A lion jumped on a deer'. Many teachers would smile enthusiastically at this and accept that the child was accurately reconstructing the author's meaning. As readers might guess, this approach did not in general produce good readers.
Some home educators, who often seem to be about ten or fifteen years behind the educational times, still cling on to this style of learning for their children. They are supported by one or two academics who believe that it is indeed possible and desirable for children to learn to read without being taught. Paul Goodman, for example, says in Compulsory Miseducation;
' ...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
This is music to some home educating parents' ears. Alan Thomas too talks of a similar process. Those following closely the debates on some home education internet lists will see no shortage of parents who feel that they must wait for their children to ask about literacy or express a wish to learn rather than the parents actively promoting the learning of reading and writing. The year before last, I had a couple of pieces on home education published in national newspapers. For the piece in the Independent, I looked at the Education Otherwise website on the section headed, 'How People Home Educate'. I found there a perfect little description of the cultivation of illiteracy by a mother whose seven and ten year-old children were 'night owls', had no bedtimes and got up 'later than I would like'. We are told that, 'Their days are often filled with television and lots of play' What an advertisement for home edcuation; a seven year-old 'night owl' whose days are filled with television and play! Little wonder that neither of these singularly unfortunate children can read, although their mother says that, 'They will read one day and will do so because they want to, not because somebody tells them to.' 'They will read one day'; one wonders upon what this optimism is founded.
Without entering into the question of whether this is a good technique to ensure literacy in children, it certainly demonstrates that the mother who simply waits for her children to decide if and when they will learn to read is not a figment of my imagination. She is alive and well and living in Home Education Land with a number of like-minded compatriots. Incidentally, I can no longer find this particular gem on the EO site. I think that they might have removed it after the bit in the Independent. Perhaps it gave the game away or provided ammunition for those opposed to this type of pedagogy. I noticed that the same thing happened when I analysed Paula Rothermel's PhD thesis which was once on her website. Three days after I mentioned it here, it was taken down from the site. One suspects that some home educators are not wholly in favour of the light of day shining too brightly upon certain of their more outlandish ideas.