Thursday, 28 March 2013
The autonomous acquisition of literacy in home educated children
One of the most commonly held beliefs among certain British home educators is that it is unnecessary to teach children to read; that they will somehow just ‘pick it up’ naturally, just like walking and talking. I don’t claim that this is impossible, but I can certainly say that in every such case that I have been able to investigate, there is more to the business than at first meets the eye. I want today to look at a classic example of this sort of thing.
Here is an item from a local newspaper in Cambridgeshire;
Now let us examine what is said here about the way that this child supposedly learned to read. This is, according to the parents, an autonomous education. We are told that:
‘Kit was not forced to read, but instead started to pick it up when he realised it would be useful for him to learn about other things.’
We also read that;
‘he didn't want to start learning to read until he was six, and has rejected the system of phonics which is used in many schools.’
This is fairly typical of the kind of claims made by autonomous home educators about the learning of reading. According to this account, at the age of six this boy started to pick up reading because he realised that it would be useful. He was not forced to learn and had no dealings with phonics; that is to say learning the sounds of individual letters.
Really, if it is this easy, you wonder that anybody bothers teaching children to read at all! Why not just let them pick it up naturally like this, in their own time? All that work in schools on teaching phonics to five and six year-olds and here is a kid who begins to read at the same age as most schoolchildren, without any fuss; he just learns by himself when he is ready. A classic case of the autonomous acquisition of literacy. Except of course, it is all complete nonsense. I happen to know this for a fact. Here is what the child’s mother wrote six years before that newspaper report:
22 December 2003
…has been having a wonderful time of late learning things like numbers and letters. He was transfixed by the Sesame Street DVDs on the subjects, but was restless when I tried to do some alphabet with him today. I wrote letters in his sketchbook and he furiously scribbled them out. We came into the computer room and fired up nickjr.co.uk, which has some lovely games for 2 year olds, in case you never knew. When he knew the very same set of letters in the very same order as Mummy, suddenly it started clicking. Mummy was NOT making this up to be cruel. This is some secret code he needs to learn. As in he thinks he needs to learn it now, not just Mummy thinks he needs to learn it. He's not expert at mouse moving yet, and clicks tend to happen not at all or 30 in a row, but he likes to point to the screen and make choices and have me click on them for him. Today's winners seem to be the letter K and the letter Z. He's always been a big fan of S.
That entry was made when the child was two years and three months of age and as we can see, one of the parents has already begun teaching her son to read. The method that she is using is of course phonics; teaching her son the letters of the alphabet and the sounds that they make. A month later, in January 2004, when the boy was two years and four months, his mother was using flashcards of letters and numbers to teach him. A month after that, her efforts began to pay off, because by February 3rd 2004, the child could recognise every single letter of the alphabet and the associated sounds. Not bad for a boy who is still only two years and five months old.
Now there is nothing at all wrong with any of this; I did exactly the same with my own daughter. It is called teaching a child to read and, just like me, this parent thought that the earlier that you undertake the process, the better. Let us now look at that newspaper report again;
‘he didn't want to start learning to read until he was six…started to pick it up when he realised it would be useful for him to learn about other things’
At best, this is exceedingly misleading; at worst, a complete falsehood. He was being taught to read systematically four years before he was six, by phonics; the same method used in schools. Anybody think that this might have some bearing on his acquisition of literacy?
Tomorrow, we shall be thinking a little about this sort of deception. What motivates home educating parents to teach children to read and then pretend that their children have learned to read without any structured teaching? It is common enough and I know of many such cases. We shall look at why people do this and also consider the ill effects that accounts of such supposedly autonomous learning can have upon gullible parents who are persuaded that if their children are left to their own devices, then they too will somehow just ‘pick up’ the ability to read.