Sunday, 1 December 2013
A little about the acquisition of literacy
Just to remind readers, I am at the moment trying to see why local authorities are so keen on children attending school and why they are made uneasy when they hear of children who are not at school. This is of obvious interest to home educators. I think that we have so far established that it is better to be literate and well-educated than not and that schools are very effective at getting across at least the rudiments of things like literacy and numeracy to practically every pupil by the age of eleven. What would happen, all else being equal, to children who were not being taught at school?
So used are we to universal literacy, that it sometimes seems that acquiring the ability to read and write must be a natural process; a little like walking and talking. In other words, you don’t really need any formal instruction, because children are likely to pick it up more or less by themselves. This is certainly the view of many important ideologues in the world of American home education. As long ago as 1962, Paul Goodman, author of Compulsory Miseducation, said:
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 punishments
So in this version of reality, literacy is not caused by schools at all, but they actually hinder its acquisition. Could this be true? Could universal literacy really be attained without schools? Fortunately, we have a fairly simply way of checking on claims of this sort.
Because literacy is taken for granted today, most of us have never met an illiterate adult. By this, I mean a man or woman who cannot read or write at all. My Uncle Eddie was one of these people. He was a Gypsy who had never attended school and he could not even write his own name. He used to sign for his wages by making a cross. This was rare in the 1960s, but quite common in nineteenth century England.
Here is the sort of urban environment which people like Paul Goodman think can allow a child to catch on spontaneously to reading:
This is London in the 1830s and there is plenty of print on display. You would think that children who didn’t go to school would see all this and learn to read by themselves. Looking now at marriage registers for 1840, we find that a third of men and half of all women, were signing the marriage register with a scrawled mark, such as a cross. In other words, they were unable even to write their own names. By 1900, 97% of both men and women were able to sign their names on the marriage register. I am not being dogmatic about this, but it seems to me likely that the introduction of compulsory education, which in effect meant almost universal schooling, was responsible for this eradication of illiteracy. Had those couples signing the register not attended school; they would have remained illiterate. I am of course open to another explanation for this, if readers wish to offer one.
In other words, sending nearly every child in the country to school, from 1870 onwards, had the effect of giving them the ability to read and write. This was a good thing. Today, the universal literacy which we see in this country is maintained by that same, almost universal custom of sending children to school. We know it works; the results speak for themselves; when did readers last meet somebody who could not sign his or her name?
This then is a problem facing local authorities. Like every other sensible person in the kingdom, they think it good that everybody can read, write and carry out basic arithmetical operations. They know that this happy situation has been brought about by compulsory education and almost universal schooling. They do not know whether the tens of thousands of children who are not at school are also being taught to read, write, perform arithmetic and so on. It is an unknown. Some of them are; others are not. I think that this is as much as we have time for today and in the next few days, we will see what, if anything, local authorities should do about this state of affairs.