An enduring myth among home educators

We all kid ourselves that we behave rationally and make our choices based upon common sense and logic. Sometimes this is true; often it is not. Our decisions are frequently a product of an accumulation of our prejudices and preconceived ideas which generate reflex actions rather than considered and well ordered thoughts. Somebody mentions the death penalty and we say automatically. ‘Oh, I don’t approve of that’. It may be twenty or thirty years since we actually thought the matter through logically and calmly, but it is so much easier to have a set of opinions and beliefs that we can simply repeat like mantras for any debate which arises.

I am like this just as much as anybody else. Take the question of the teaching of reading, for example. I taught my own child by using the Look and Say method, sometimes known as whole word teaching. I used flashcards, built up a sight vocabulary and so on. Now of course, this worked brilliantly; my child could read numbers and individual words at fifteen months and was reading fluently by two years and three months. The fact that I chose this method has less to do with making a careful study of the evidence and then following where it led and more to do with the fact that I have been familiar with Fred Schonell’s books for forty years and his was the first method of learning to read which I ever encountered. Using this method was a reflex action which entailed little conscious thought. There are better and more effective ways to teach reading. Take synthetic phonics, for instance.

One of the most popular and comforting myths to be found on the British home educating scene is that no method of learning to read is any better than another. According to this idea, 20% of children will struggle with the process, no matter what system is adopted. There is accordingly little point in worrying about the business and if your child is one of that 20%, then pushing him to hard will only create stress and be counter-productive. This old wives’ tale is passed around and used as justification for the autonomous learning of reading; whereby the child himself sets the pace for the learning of reading and is essentially in control of the whole business. Not surprisingly, this results in some children being unable to read until their teenage years. It need not be this way. An Ofsted report published last year showed that in some schools, all children are reading by six. This includes children with special needs and those for whom English is not their first language. These schools use synthetic phonics and they have found that when used systematically and effectively it works every time and that all children learn to read. The report may be found here:

What is interesting about the work with this method of teaching reading is that schools using synthetic phonics intelligently find that there is no such thing as dyslexia; all the children learn to read at the expected age. This suggests strongly that failure to learn to read is due to poor teaching rather than any specific disorder in the child herself. In other words, if children fail to read, then their teachers are at fault. This has profound implications for home education, because we are our children’s teachers. It is hard to escape the conclusion that if our children do not learn to read at six or seven, then this is because the education being offered is somehow defective. This report makes sobering reading, not least for somebody like me; who has always championed Look and Say. If a child of twelve is not reading, it is almost certainly because he has not been taught to read properly.

All this puts advocates of autonomous education in rather a tricky situation. The justification for not undertaking formal instruction in the teaching of reading is that no method is perfect and that 20% or so of children will always have difficulties. The evidence from across the country seems to indicate that this is not true and that any child can be taught to read by six or seven. One must now ask what reason any home educating parents could have for failing to teach their children this useful skill, given that we know that it can be done quickly and effectively at a very early age without any trauma to the child? Ideology alone is not sufficiently good reason for holding back on the teaching of reading.


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