Every so often, somebody commenting on here will say something so fat-headed as to make me reel back in disbelief. Such a comment was made yesterday; I quote it above. Two contentions are regularly made about the informal learning of reading. One is that it does not handicap a child educationally if he or she learns to read much later than is usual in school. The other is that having once learnt to read, the child soon catches up with contemporaries who have been reading for seven or eight years. Both these assertions are counter-intuitive.
A child of twelve who only at that age begins to read, has of course been absorbing a huge amount of information in many other ways throughout his life. This comes from conversation, television, the Internet, real-life experiences and so on. This is of course also the case with the child who began to read a decade earlier at the age of two. However, in addition to all the information gathered by the same methods as the ’late’ reader, the child who learnt to read at two has had the advantage of being able to get information by means of another channel; that of the printed word. So as well as learning through conversation, television and the other methods we talked of above, the child who began to read at two has also spent ten years reading newspapers, books and magazines. One feels instinctively that this additional means of finding things out would give the early reader an educational edge on his illiterate peer, but we are assured that this is not the case. Why not?
When we are asked to accept a proposition which seems to run counter to common sense in this way, it is quite reasonable to ask for evidence which backs up the assertion being made. In this case there is none. Similarly, if one has two children of fourteen, one of whom has been practising the violin for twelve years, since the age of two and the other who only began playing eighteen months ago, one feels instinctively that all else being equal, the one who has been playing for a dozen years is likely to be more skilful. We are assured that this is not the case. Again, this is a strange claim and one which requires something other than people assuring us that it is true.
A few individual cases where this sort of thing may have happened do not really constitute any sort of evidence. The children concerned might be exceptionally intelligent and able to overcome the handicap of not receiving formal teaching in reading. What we need is a fairly large cohort of children, the development of most of whom confirms this hypothesis. It may be true that illiterate twelve year olds somehow gather as much information from the world around them as those who can read, but this is likely to be a compensation for a disadvantage which has been imposed upon them by the lack of teaching; much in the same way that the other senses of a blind person are sharpened to replace sight. It is suggested that this is actually a good thing for the child, but we are singularly lacking in any evidence to show that this is the case! Is a fourteen year-old boy who only began reading eighteen months ago really as good and fluent a reader as a child who began to read at two? It sounds improbable in the extreme, but if we can see a couple of hundred tests conducted on such children and compare them with tests upon a group of early readers, I am quite prepared to believe that it may be so. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and when claims such as this are being made which are in opposition to what most of us would regard as common sense, it is quite reasonable to ask why anybody should subscribe to the theories being offered.