The idea has been advanced lately, in the comments on this blog, that if education were not compulsory and also that if children did not go to school, then they would still learn to read and write. It is suggested that this would be a natural process, a by-product if you like, of living in a literate society. Mention is made of libraries, travel and the internet as means by which literacy would be acquired more or less automatically; perhaps with a little gentle encouragement from parents. This is all so fantastic, that I hardly know where to begin!
I think that part of the problem here is that some of those who comment on this blog simply don’t know how millions of children in this country live. These well-meaning people are so used to living in and visiting homes filled with books, newspapers and magazines, environments which are overflowing with print, places where adults read and talk about books; that they cannot imagine the linguistically impoverished backgrounds of the children living in some parts of the country. Learn to read spontaneously? These children don’t really learn to speak, until they start nursery!
Although I am working currently in a school, for many years I used to do home visiting in various capacities. I can tell readers now that an awful lot of children live in homes where there is literally no printed matter. Until they start school, they never see anybody read anything at all. Their homes are filled with flickering screens of various types; four or five televisions, games consoles, DVD players and computers. Reading is not part of their lives in any way at all. They hear almost no conversation. Somebody talked of travel yesterday, as though that were also the sort of thing which would stimulate and encourage literacy. I could introduce readers to five year-old children in east London who have literally never been more than a mile and a half from their home. Their lives are as restricted as medieval peasants. These are children who have never travelled the few miles to central London, never been on a train, never visited a library. On a school trip with a group of seven year-olds from Hackney, I saw children panicking, because they had never seen an escalator before! They were terrified at this strange metal object which threatened to carry them down under ground and we had to take some of them down the fixed stairs. I am not talking here of a few pathological or atypical cases; this sort of life is common on some of the housing estates that I know.
School is a beacon of hope for these children. It is the only hope that they will ever have for being stimulated, for learning, for discovering anything beyond their immediate existence. These kids find it hard enough to learn to read and write as it is. The notion that they would achieve this without school is utterly grotesque.
This is not to say that it is impossible for children to learn to read without direct instruction. Those who see their parents reading a newspaper every day and become curious as to what is going on, those whose parents point out words regularly, saying things like, ‘This sign says exit’ and so on, the ones whose homes are filled with books and other reading matter; these children will be primed to acquire literacy. These are the children whose lives are probably enriched by visits to museums and zoos, those whose parents talk to them all the time and set up activities for them. I don’t personally think this the best way for a child to learn reading and writing, but it certainly happens. There is then a tendency for the parents of such children to say; ’I didn’t teach my child to read and now he is applying for Oxford. That must mean that nobody’s children need to be taught to read.’ This is a grave error and I shall have more to say about it in future posts. We are, incidentally, approaching now the crux of the matter; the main anxiety of local authorities when it comes to home education.