Sunday, 27 February 2011

Waiting for children to learn to read

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.


  1. Good lord..I'm waiting to see what others have to say on this. Suffice it to say..I'm with you whole heartedly. And I am sure to gain an ear bashing or two for saying that. :p

  2. Unfortunately, as you say, the EO article is no longer available on the EO web site, but it was available for at least a year after your article because it has been discussed on you blog since so I doubt that its disappearance had anything to do with you. Again you are selectively quoting and missing out the mother's descriptions of a literacy and learning rich environment. The mother described various learning experiences including the beginnings of reading. I remember that one of the children frequently asked their mother for spellings, for instance. It's very unfair to quote an article without being able to give a link to the whole to allow people to make their own judgements, especially when you are so partial with your quotes.

    The real books method began when well educated parents, with homes full of books, whose children were read to regularly, had shop names pointed out to them and had questions about the meanings of words and so on answered, noticed that their children learnt to read without formal instruction. However, the attempt to transplant this experience to schools failed. I'm sure the reasons for this failure would be obvious to any intelligent person. The school environment is highly unlikely to be as enriched and the children would not have the necessary one to one contact time. The failure in schools however, does not negate the experiences of the original parents or the many HE parents who have had the same experience since.

    Simon wrote,
    "I am sure to be denounced as perpetrating a wicked calumny upon autonomous home educators."

    The calumny you are usually accused of by autonomous home educators is your claim that AE cannot include teaching or that AEers to not believe in teaching. Many autonomous educators teach their children to read using various schemes and workbooks, we used a phonics course and a handwriting workbook for one child, for instance.

    One of our children also learnt just by living in a reading environment but this still involves teaching of a sort, it just doesn't look like the kind of teaching you see in schools. They were read to every day, they watched children's educational TV that included phonics, we pointed out letters in street signs on walks, we played eye-spy, we played tracing shapes and letters in sand trays, answered questions about the words and letters they saw about them every day, etc, etc. They also enjoyed workbooks. They were effectively 'taught' by a mixture of phonics, real books and look and say but it was just part of their normal play. I suspect when the mother in the EO article talks of 'play', it would have included the learning to read type of 'play' I've described.

  3. 'It's very unfair to quote an article without being able to give a link to the whole to allow people to make their own judgements, especially when you are so partial with your quotes.'

    Hardly my fault that the aricle has been removed!


    'The mother described various learning experiences including the beginnings of reading.'

    The mother said that her children brought her things and asked her 'What does this say?' This may be the beginning of reading; it may equally be a person unable to read who is relying upon somebody who can read.

    'Again you are selectively quoting and missing out the mother's descriptions of a literacy and learning rich environment.'

    What is a 'literacy rich environment'? If you mean a place with plenty of books, there was no mention of this in the mother's account.

  4. As I have said many times before on here - home educators generally use whatever methods work best for their own children - so they don't have the same need to look at research evidence as someone might who is devising a programme for a class, a school or a nation!

    I find the fashions in the teaching of reading interesting but they didn't really affect what we did with our own children because we found that what we did worked. So, for my children there was no need to stress about whether phonics or whole word or reading schemes or 'real books' would be the key. They did, indeed, 'pick it up' and that was fine.

    Autonomous education has worked for us - with lots of discussion and support from us as parents. However, I wouldn't actually have been prepared to wait for many years had my younger child not learned to read without structured input. We had decided that we would wait until he was eight and see what happened. We suspected that he would be reading before then as his sister had started to read at just over four - and by the time of his sixth birthday he was reading anything and everything. So I never had to face the scenario of a non-reading older child who chose not to learn.

    I'm not sure how many parents there are who would wait indefinitely for 'spontaneous' reading or for their child to ask to be taught. I suspect not that many. I'm all for autonomy and we try to maximise it in our home education but I would have felt it to be a huge disservice to my children had they reached adulthood illiterate and I wouldn't have let it happen.

  5. I home educated my kids since last year, I'm new to the homeschool retoric. I had meet a lot of lovely people which have introduce me to this world. Something I disagree with them is the idea of natural learning. Learning has very little of natural and a lot of social construcction. My two kids learn to read "alone", but then me and my hubby are both scholars with high grades, lots of books at home, we read them alloud since they were in my womb, books were gifts and toys for them. So it wasn't "natural" it was class reproduction and cultural capital.

  6. ...sorry for my grammar, English is not my native language.

  7. Paul Goodman was right.

    Coercing children to follow poor reading programmes or poorly executed reading programmes is very harmful and probably the most common cause of poor literacy.

    Tools to help children learn to read are so easy to come by now that a HE family can provide a variety and see what suits the child.

    As mentioned AE is not about refusing to teach its about supporting the child's own direction.

    As you know there is stacks of research on the benefits of self direction and the disadvantages of coercion.

  8. "What is a 'literacy rich environment'? If you mean a place with plenty of books, there was no mention of this in the mother's account."

    It's obviously not possible to cover the whole of a child's education in a single article. However, she did say that she answers questions, provides craft materials, writing materials, takes them out and about and is aware that they are learning to read and write through observation of their activities and questions. Nowhere in the article does she state that she will not teach her children to read. Not pushing children to learn to read before they want to is not the same as refusing to teach a child who asks. She also gave links to various articles that covered her style of education in more detail. Here are some quotes from the sites she gave links to:

    "we have a family culture that values games and word play, where phonics awareness sometimes seems to permeate the very air"

    "We played a lot of games - bought games, homemade games, made up on the spot verbal games. I read aloud for hours while she looked at the pages. She asked questions and I answered. I pointed out interesting signs. She pointed out interesting signs. Her dad recorded tapes of him reading her favorite bedtime books so she could listen to them while he was away at sea."

    "At our house, we look at books as being just about as important as food to eat and air to breathe. We get excited over them, we drag them everywhere, we talk about them, we give them as presents, we ooh and aah over the illustrations, we read bits and pieces out loud to each other,"

    "She asked questions about letters and words, she followed along in books as I was reading, she started reading signs, we played rhyming games, she started asking me how to spell words, and, pretty soon, she was reading."

    "Children who are learning to read usually want to create the written word, too, right along with learning to read it. So we provide lots and lots of writing materials. We include good quality colored pencils, crayons, markers, stampers, stickers, stencils, paint, and anything else that might be fun to draw or write with."

  9. ' She also gave links to various articles that covered her style of education in more detail. Here are some quotes from the sites she gave links to:'

    There were no links in the piece from which I quoted. We are obviously talking at cross purposes.

  10. These links were definitely taken from the EO article, I bookmarked them at the time after you quoted the EO article in a previous but similar blog post. I can tell by the way I've filed the bookmarks that they originated from the EO article.

  11. These were the linked articles in case anyone is interested:

  12. Maybe you missed the links if they were at the end of the article rather than in the body?

  13. Funny how HE parents moan about school's letting kids down through bad literacy and math skills and some MPs and others jump on the band wagon too. But some of the HE have kids that can't read until 7yrs-12yrs. That is letting your kids down. The goverment needs to put a stop to it and make ground rules. Yes you have the right to home educate and do this through play, but reading,writing and maths are a basic right of everyone. Get a grip on reality and teach your kids to live in the real world. One that expects your children to read ,write and communicate verbally well.