Learning to Read, the autonomous way
Alan Thomas & Harriet Pattison

Amongst the home education community, at least amongst those who adhere to an autonomous way of educating, the idea that children do not need to be taught to read is a piece of community wisdom.  Reading is one of the many skills which children are able to pick up simply through living full and sociable lives as members of their own families; many families know this through their own experiences and through sharing the experiences of others.  Accepted, and embraced, as it is by so many inside the home educating community, the very idea continues to raise eyebrows (to put it mildly) amongst academics and professional educators. Here the response is much more likely to be that only exceptional children might be able to achieve this whilst the vast majority need to be specifically taught and that over a number of years.  Challenging these entrenched views is not easy!  For one thing, explaining just how any child might manage this seemingly colossal achievement without assistance is an area totally untouched by previous academic research. 

Coming to this conference and having so many autonomous educators, so much experience and so much insight in the same room gave us the opportunity to air our own thinking so far and to brain storm the opinions and experiences gathered there.  Once again as people began sharing their experiences and thoughts the most striking and immediate thing was how diverse learning to read autonomously can be. 

Here are some of the many factors which parents at the conference cited as important in their child(ren) learning to read:

-         everyday print – like McDonald’s signs or bus stops

-         the lack of pressure when learning at home

-         the pleasure that parents and  children derive from reading together

-         not having to abide by expected strategies like following words on the page

-         being able to learn just a few words at a time

-         being able to help children in the ways they want to be helped – like doing their writing for them

-         children asking their own questions about reading and writing

-         gender differences

-         being able to write first

-         the inevitability of learning to read in a literate society

-         the importance of individual interests

-         books and reading material at home and readily available

These thoughts echo much that we have already received from parents who replied to the questionnaire on which our current research is based.  One way of looking at these factors that we are exploring now is to categorise them broadly as environmental, social and individual influences. 

Environmental for instance would include books and other materials at home and everyday print outside the home.  Social would include reading together and the kind of atmosphere in which the child is learning: from the responses above this suggests a general attitude that is both unpressurised but also holds a very broad expectation that reading will happen.  Individual includes the child’s own personality and interests; the way that they approach reading themselves – perhaps asking lots of questions, perhaps being more interested in writing, perhaps showing no obvious signs of interest at all. 

In “How Children Learn at Home” we suggest a cultural curriculum which basically consists of the first two categories: environmental and social elements of life which set an agenda of what  a person needs to know and needs to be able to do in order to function easily and successfully in our society.  The social element of this ensures an almost constant and non deliberate demonstration of these skills and this knowledge as others (and maybe most importantly parents) go about their business in the company and view of their child.  The social element extends further in that it encompasses the attitudes towards and beliefs about learning that others hold.  These in turn affect parents’ own behaviour  – for example the way that they behave towards reading themselves, the ways in which they do or do not present reading to their child, the things which they might praise or notice as being part of their child’s literacy development.  One of the things that strikes us at this point is that we have no word to describe this aspect of parent/child interaction nor its impact.  Many parents we spoke to were very aware of its influence but were loath to call it “teaching” with all the school type connotations that that word now holds.  Maybe it is time for the autonomous world to consider how we can verbally characterise the relationship between parent and child as it pertains to learning in autonomous education. 

However, the cultural curriculum has to be more than just there in the sense that children need to engage with the life around them and to gradually start behaving as members of their own cultures (and in the case of literacy to start behaving as people to whom reading is meaningful).  The processes by which children carry out this engagement encompasses many of the behaviours normal for children in our own culture; playing, watching, imitating, exploring, conversing, practicing on their own terms.  Within these behaviours, though there are obviously enormous individual differences and this is very apparent when looking at learning to read autonomously.  Variation in age on learning, in interest and motivation, in the material they chose to read, the place that reading occupies in children’s own lives – the diversity is astonishing given that in school such variation is seen as a series of problems to be ironed out rather than something that gives meaning to reading itself. 

The idea of the cultural curriculum is a start but we have a long way to go in constructing an argument that we can use to persuade the doubtful of the efficacy of autonomous learning.  The case of learning to read autonomously though is so forceful and striking that we have high hopes!  Thanks very much to all who listened to and contributed to our discussion at this conference.  For us it was a further fascinating insight into how autonomous learning works.  


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