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Learning to Read Without Being Taught
by Alan Thomas & Harriet Pattison

How unschoolers learn to read

It’s probably no exaggeration to say that home educators have done more to advance the scientific understanding of the nature of learning than a century of research based in schools. Home educating families do not have to adhere to the conventions and traditions that have grown to surround learning in schools. Instead, they have the freedom and indeed the compulsion to custom design an education that suits them, their children and their lifestyles. Nowhere is this freedom clearer than when it comes to unschooling where the philosophy of the classroom is abandoned as learning ceases to be a separately definable part of life. The result is a form of education in which the theories which support professional education in school are contradicted and questioned at every turn.

Where home educators lead, researchers have to follow, trying to unravel how this learning actually happens. Unschooling, at least from the outside, can easily give the impression of a higgledy-piggledy mess in which the subject matter of the conventional curriculum fails to feature significantly and indeed parents themselves sometimes struggled to be specific over what and how their children were learning. Certainly there is currently little or no satisfactory academic understanding of the kind of informal or natural learning demonstrated by unschooled children at home. Our recent research described in our book How Children Learn at Home (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008) seeks to begin the job of filling this theoretical black hole.

We talked to 26 unschooling or autonomous families about their lives, the things their children did and how they themselves saw their children’s learning progressing. We began with some practical questions – looking at what different families do, what works for them and why.

First we sought to explain what children learnt in terms of the everyday world around them. Children at home are surrounded by the artifacts and skills of their culture and by ongoing demonstrations of how to use these things by more experienced members of the culture – everything from how to use a door handle to driving a car. Although it is not set up for learning, separated from the real world, broken down into tiny sequential steps and pre-digested as it is in school, this information is readily available and already in working context for children to explore. Second, we come to the role that children themselves play in their own learning.

Young children are naturally motivated to explore, to play, to be with their parents, to imitate and experiment.... 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 of natural learning 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! 

Alan Thomas is Visiting Fellow at the University of London, Institute of Education. He is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Harriet Pattison is a Research Associate at the University of London, Institute of Education. Her three children are home educated. This article was published in 2009.

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