Alan Thomas and How Children Learn at Home

Many home educators are very sensitive about any criticism of the ideologues whose writings underpin their chosen lifestyle and educational methods. I mentioned a few days ago that AS Neill was brought up in Scotland and believed that children should be free to have a sex life; I was promptly accused by one person commenting here of ‘slandering’ him! Many of the more outlandish beliefs and practices of British home educators are justified by them on the grounds of supposed research. Often, claims are made about the academic attainments of home educated children or the acceptability of not teaching them to read formally. These claims are usually supported by reference to the work of Paula Rothermel and Alan Thomas. I have dealt with Rothermel’s research in the past. Time now to look in a little detail at that of Alan Thomas.

A popular belief among those who think that children are able to acquire literacy informally is that although they may be later than school children in learning to read, it does not matter because they will soon catch up when they do start. The only research which supports this contention is that of Alan Thomas. Let us look at what he said. The chapter on reading in the book which he co-authored with Harriet Pattison contains the clearest account of his work in this field (How Children Learn at Home, Thomas and Pattison, Continuum 2007).

The chapter in question, chapter 8 of the book, begins unexceptionally enough by suggesting that there are various ways of teaching reading and that no single method has been found to be the best in all cases. The authors then go on to say that home educating parents are very flexible at moving from one method to another as seems best. This is a little misleading and obviously put in to lull any professionals reading the book into a state of quiescence. The thrust of the rest of the chapter is not that various methods are successful, but that success may be achieved by using no method at all and just relying upon the child to teach herself. On page 94, Thomas and Pattison claim that ’Resistance to being taught and late reading both featured in earlier research’. They mean of course Thomas own research in 1998. Talking of parents teaching their children to read, Thomas and Pattison say:

’the outcome of parents’ best efforts in this direction was rarely successful. Children frequently resisted any form of structured teaching..

They go on to describe how parents gave up on the whole thing. This is very strange. For almost the whole of recorded history, children have been taught to read by their parents. In early 19th Century America, a time when there were few schools, the practice was universal. It was said by a contemporary observer that a child unable to read was, ’as rare as the appearance of a comet’. Many home educating parents today teach their children to read, as do many other parents. I was taught to read by my own parents before starting school. The idea that children commonly resist the teaching of reading is not borne out either by history, any research or common experience. Perhaps the fact that Thomas’ sample here, the twenty six families about whom he is writing in this book, were handpicked and dedicated autonomous educators has some bearing on the matter? At any rate, there is something clearly odd and atypical about these parents if their children are proving so resistant to being taught to read.

After acknowledging that not teaching children to read means that they are likely not to read until later than those who have been taught, which is perhaps not entirely surprising, Thomas says this:

Not only does late reading at home appear to hold no knock on educational disadvantage but it also seems to have no long-term consequences for reading ability’

It is this assertion which has been eagerly seized upon by parents who refuse to teach their children to read. It is of course absolute nonsense. Thomas does not define what he means by ’educational disadvantage’. Nor does he explain how it might be measured, nor by whom the decision was made that it was not present in any of these children. How on earth does he know that there was no ’educational disadvantage’? We are not told; it is sheer waffle. Similarly, his remark about long-term reading ability. Where are his data for making this claim? Were the kids tested? Did he rely upon the parents’ information? Again, we are not told. This much quoted statement may accordingly be ignored.

On page 100 he tries to revive the tired old notion of reading readiness, citing a number of factors which must supposedly be present before a child can learn to read. It is a daunting list, including recognising and being able to name letters, being able to distinguish different sounds in speech and many other things. The implication is that some children will not acquire all this supposedly vital knowledge until a later age. Again, this is nonsense. A child of eighteen months does not need to know the letters of the alphabet, let alone be able to name them, in order to see the word ’cat’ and read it. We do not spell out words letter by letter in that way. One only has to look at Chinese ideograms to see that it is possible to learn to read without synthetic phonics!

The problem with Alan Thomas’ work is that it has been seized upon and his ideas followed slavishly by people who do not really understand what they are doing. This is dangerous, although to be fair to Thomas, it is not really his fault. There are many excellent books available on the subject of learning to read; How Children learn at Home is not one of them.


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