Learning to read: the self-directed, unschool version

The last few weeks I’ve been on a deep dive into the research and science around learning to read (and literacy more broadly), on a small quiet mission to try to figure out how it applies to my self-directed children, and how it can apply to children who are home educated in an informal, consent-based manner (which includes unschooled, self-directed children, but also any eclectic homeschoolers and others).

One point of contention is whether including an awareness of phonemes, phonograms and phonics, is a necessary component of learning to read, AND of further literacy development leading to skilled reading. I want to point out here that I have by no means read all the studies, there is so much research on reading and I have barely scratched the surface – I hope that in future I might alter and enrich my ideas on this.

For the purpose of this blog post, I’ll call emergent reading (the sort of independent reading that children do at the very beginning) simply ‘reading’ or ‘learning to read.’ Some may consider this sort of reading to be achieved once children can decode AND understand text. There’s an actual equation for this! (Here.) Some have raised issues about how reading isn’t a finite skill and there’s almost no stark beginning and end to it. This discussion is for another day. Right now I’ll focus on assume that ‘learning to read’ is the ability to decode the words (recognise and pronounce them) and fully understand their meaning.

As an aside though, skilled readers is what we ideally want, and let me explain what I mean when I say this is “what we want.” It has helped me to view reading as a combination of skills that a child acquires, and that weave together to form a rope that is ‘skilled reading’ ( Scarborough’s Reading Rope, 2001; SCORE, 2020). Many children will ‘learn to read,’ even though they may not yet be skilled readers. Many children will pick up these skills unconsciously, or some of them more consciously and others almost without knowing or noticing. Some children may pick up some skills and not others, and not ever become skilled readers (the statistics for literacy in the US are a reflection of this). I’ll come back to this later.

Words and texts are everywhere, and I think we can all agree that reading is an essential skill. Becoming a skilled reader helps a child access books, research, courses, online resources or programs, further education of any kind. It opens a whole lot of doors in terms of self-directed education. As far as I’m concerned, skilled reading is something my children want to be able to do, and it’s something I prioritize in supporting. Education aside, skilled reading will be important in almost all lines of work, in engaging with civil society, politics, activism, and all legal, administrative and healthcare information in an informed way. I could go on. We want our children to become skilled readers – to have the ability to read, understand and engage with written text at a high level. We don’t *only* need them to pick up basic reading – we need them to keep improving until they are skilled.

Even if you personally don’t want this for your children, I think we need to consider whether they might want it for themselves in the future. I’m going to set aside the need many of us might have of having our children love to read for pleasure. I’m not saying this is either a good or bad or neutral thing – I’m simply not going to deal with this aspect of reading (at least not today!).

Ok, lets get to the juicy part now. There seems to be a lot of chat in unschool circles about how reading is “natural” and how children will “just pick it up.” There are all sorts of analogies for this. Some compare reading to speaking – humans are primed for picking up spoken language, surely reading is the same? Children learn so many other things, like walking for example, by observing, watching, and experimenting. Why would reading be any different?

I have to admit I used to think this too. It made a sort of rational sense that if children are able to learn most things without intervention, why wouldn’t they be able to learn reading “naturally”? I was super sold on this. I dismissed phonics programmes as schoolish interference in children’s natural process. I believed that simply waiting, trusting and supporting appropriately would do the trick. To an extent, I still believe this. But I suppose it depends on what you mean by waiting, trusting and supporting. I don’t believe that phonemic awareness or phonics instruction (when asked!) is incompatible with this view. But hear me out.

The first point that I think is really really important to bear in mind is this: humans are NOT wired for decoding written text. Linguists have talked a lot about how we are primed for language – what they mean by this, I believe, is that we are primed for *communication* and talking and language was invented for that purpose. Kids learn to speak their native languages without being taught – they learn through observing, and listening, and trying and failing, and getting adult feedback on their attempts. They learn “naturally” without being systematically taught (although I should say this is not the case for ALL children).

We are not primed or wired to read. Nothing about our brains is primed for reading (SCORE, 2009). Sure, we invented reading. We also invented the nuclear bomb. I don’t think anyone would claim that assembling a nuclear bomb is “natural”. Some people might get there in a self-directed, informal, “natural” way after a lot of time and practice, but others will not get there without instruction. This is an extreme example, and I’m not comparing reading to nuclear science, but it serves to illustrate that learning to read doesn’t *have* to be a natural process by definition. Not all man-made processes and skills are “natural’ by definition.

Reading involves rewiring our brains. This is a quick overview of how our brain is trained and re-wired to read. If you consider that English written text is a code where letters and combination of letters stand for different sounds, and words stand for meaning, then reading is a bit like cracking a code. Once you know what letters or groups of letters stand for, what their sound is, and how to combine those sounds to make words, you can ‘read’ those words, in the sense that you can pronounce them (you may still not actually know what they mean). Once you know what words mean, and how to combine them into sentences (grammar), you can read a sentence, pronounce all the words, and understand the meaning of the words and the sentence as a whole. This is my simplistic version of a very complex process (SCORE, 2020).

In fact it’s very much like riding a bike. You don’t just get on a bike and immediately ride it, in the same way you don’t just open a book and immediately read. I spent 30 minutes watching my 15-month-old niece trying to figure out her new tricycle. First she sat backwards on it and pushed her feet down on the floor, moving backwards. She spent quite a while doing this. Then she turned herself around on the seat and practiced moving the handlebars. Then she pushed her feet into the ground and moved forwards a bit, then backwards a bit. She never did get around to using the pedals. Not today, at least. And this isn’t even a bike, it’s a tricycle! She will eventually figure it out, and then perhaps graduate to a balance bike, and then a fully-fledge bicycle. Much liked becoming a reader, bike-riding is not “natural” – it takes time, a ton of practice, observation, experimentation and perhaps, for some kids, scaffolding and a supportive adult to offer suggestions, champion, sometimes even instruct.

And that brings me to my next point: it is different for every single child. Some children will require more adult intervention, some less. Sure, the human brain is similar in many ways, but none of us learn in exactly the same way.

So we can agree that reading is a learned skill, and that learning to read is made up of many ‘strands’ of skills that include understanding that letters and words are made-up symbols that stand in for concepts or objects, or represent meaning, language comprehension skills such as understanding meaning and knowledge of grammar, and word recognition skills that include phonological awareness, decoding (knowing that ‘a’ makes a specific sound), and sight recognition (of words such as ‘the’).

Agreeing on this means that in order to become a skilled reader, children will need to master all of these skills. Some children will seem to “naturally” pick up reading, when in fact what they have done is their brains have unconsciously cracked the code of reading without explicit, systematic instruction from an adult, or app, or programme, or much of anything other than just exposure to language and text in its many forms. According to studies, this is a minority of children: between 1% and 7% (SCORE, 2020; Margrain, 2005; Snow, 2007). But given that some of the studies are done on either kindergarten children, or school children below age 8, I personally would need to see further studies to be able to pin down a number. (I haven’t read all the studies so perhaps there are studies with larger age ranges that include home educated children – if so, hit me up!)

The reason is this: two of the studies are based on children who could read before they started formal schooling at either kindergarten and first grade. Only a tiny minority of children could. This *may* tell us that a tiny minority of children learn reading ‘by themselves’; but this could also tell us that a tiny minority of *school* children learn reading ‘by themselves’ before they start school. I wonder what this number would have been were there a study that looked at informally home educated children – perhaps only a tiny minority would have learned to read ‘by themselves’ at age 5 or 6, but perhaps a larger chunk would have learned by ages 8,9,10, or later. We can’t know this from school children because at age 6, systematic reading instruction begins, and therefore you can no longer claim that a child is learning to read ‘by themselves’ even if perhaps they are ignoring all teaching, and in fact learning by themselves.

The other issue that comes up with studies on reading, is that many of them measure learning as if it were by definition the direct result of teaching. This is the “classic assumption.. that children learn because they are taught.” (Trevarthen, 1995), and that when we measure children’s learning, it is the direct result of teaching. In fact, learning is much more complex than that. There is a lot of research on how our conventional constructs of learning are flawed, or incomplete, and children’s learning is in fact much more complex and there is so much of it that is simply not measurable or even evident to adults.

From looking at the very few studies done on home educated children, and the one and only study of how home educated children learn to read (Pattison, 2013), it seems that children who are home educated in largely informal, consent-based and self-directed homes, will tend to learn to read in their own time, which can range from age 2 to the teenage years, and with a combination of informal methods. These include but are not limited to observation, conversations, exploration, and a variety of activities that might be adult or child-led, or might be online, and that sometimes involve the use of Phonics instruction, and sometimes do not. I think this, and Harriet Pattison’s book, is valuable research because it pushes back against the conventional ways we assume children learn, and considers that it’s a much more complex, less measurable, sometimes relational and sometimes hidden, process. Both Harriet Pattison and Alan Thomas have done valuable research around this process.

Just to go back to some of the research around reading, most of which is done on children in school settings. The research shows us that because written language is a code, and because the English language is essentially a code made up of letters and combinations of letters that represent specific sounds (phonograms), and because there is in fact a logic to the way phonograms work in English, explicit, systematic instruction of Phonics in schools has generally speaking been shown to work more effectively than Whole Word instruction (where children learn letter names and sounds and then ‘figure out’ words by repetition and being read to) or ‘balanced literacy’ (which is basically a no-mans-land between Whole word and Phonics where no method is implemented properly, and it takes place in some schools in an attempt to satisfy both camps). Basically, the available research tells us that in a school setting, and perhaps in a more formal homeschool setting (although we have no research to show for this), Phonics instruction will be more effective in helping your child learn to read, and eventually become a skilled reader. (Although, one recent study claims that phonics instruction in schools does help some children in the short-run, but makes no difference in the longer-term.)

The problem we encounter as unschoolers and informal home educators is the following: we don’t tend to implement anything systematically and regularly. That’s just not how we roll. However, what we do do, is we give our child a lot of space for the other ways children learn: play, observation, exploration, conversations and “doing nothing” (Thomas & Pattison, 2007), the latter of which is a way for researchers to account for how children learn in ways that are not immediately or ever apparent to adult observers. Our self-directed children learn in these ways, and many others.

As such, the studies on Phonics tell us that knowledge of Phonics helps children learn to read in settings where they are mostly exposed to systematic instruction, and less exposed to the other ways children who are home educated informally might learn. We may also stretch this research to tell us that, if in doubt, and if you are not sure you are providing your child with a variety of rich unstructured, informal learning, then a Phonics program or Phonics app is more likely to get your child reading, and also help them become more skilled in the long-run, than leaving them to their own devices. That said, there is no research that directly confirms or challenges this statement – we need more research on self-directed children!

For those of us who feel confident that our home facilitates our child to learn in a myriad of different ways, it might make sense to assume they will learn to read. And because we are usually in no big rush, we trust it will happen. Based on the ONE research study on how children learn to read at home, *it’s likely* that if children have a multidimensional and text-rich environment, and an adult who is knowledgeable enough to support and facilitate (or who knows how to access the knowledge they don’t have,) then they will learn to read. There seems to be a lot of informal evidence in the homeschool community that would confirm this idea. Many reference the high illiteracy/low literacy rates in the US to mean that skilled reading does not come, even later on. This may be so – and it may be a case for phonics instructions in schools. Harriet Pattison’s study also does not follow up to see if children who learn to read then become skilled readers. I tend to think that if you are in a school setting and are labelled as ‘behind’ or a ‘late reader’, this sticks with you, and may even prevent a child from becoming a skilled reader in future – whereas a home educated child who is

The way I see it is this: research in schools seems to show that Phonics is helpful in learning to read. So, knowing what we know about how reading is like a code we all need to crack, in one way or another, why wouldn’t I support my child with phonological awareness? Why wouldn’t I consider the research and bring in some of the accumulated knowledge about how our brains crack the code of written language to our home learning?

I realise I haven’t spoken much about trust – as unschoolers we fundamentally trust that our children will learn what they need to learn, when they need to learn. I’m fully behind this concept. We are consent-based and anti-oppression at core. That will always be my baseline. I simply don’t think that an awareness of phonograms and phonics contradicts this fundamental principle in any way; in the same way that if my child was really interested in engineering, I would facilitate their knowledge of things like the Laws of Motion and other principles of Physics, because I recognise this knowledge could help them significantly. Of course I would only offer if I saw they were interested in digging deeper, or if I noticed they were stuck and that this knowledge would help them.

I do the same with my knowledge of phonics – I offer it if asked, when I see they are stuck or struggling and might be receptive to it, when I feel like it might support them get where they want to go. This is totally possible — and I will write about how we do it and how it can be done more in my next post.

The last thing I’d like to mention is that I haven’t spoken about SO MANY OTHER aspects of this topic. One is that critics of the science of reading have claimed it does not consider neurodivergent children and how they learn, and that extrapolates from one group of children to all children. Perhaps there is validity in these claims – I didn’t have space to address this here because I wanted to focus on the idea that phonics makes sense as an effective way to decode language – this makes logical sense, and has been seen to work. I also haven’t spoken about what ‘reading’ actually means – research also differs on when a child is considered as being ‘able to read,’ because reading is not a finite skill that you achieve, it is constantly changing and is multidimensional. This would need a whole other post.

Lastly, I would like to see more studies on self-directed children because I believe that further quantitative and qualitative data on how these children learn to read is absolutely necessary. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks for reading!

References:

Scarborough’s Reading Rope in The Science of Reading (link below)

The Science of Reading, State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), 2001: https://tnscore.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Science-of-Reading-2020.pdf

Precocious Readers, Margrain, Valerie Gail Margrain, 2005,

http://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/handle/10063/481

Snow, Catherine E. 2017. Early literacy development and instruction: An overview. In The Routledge international handbook of early literacy education : A contemporary guide to literacy teaching and interventions in a global context, eds. Natalia Kucirkova, Catherine E. Snow, Vibeke Grøver, and Catherine McBride-Chang, 5-13. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge. https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/32872030/Snow_EarlyLiteracyDevelopmentAndInstruction.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Harriet Pattison study https://etheses.bham.ac.uk/id/eprint/5051/1/Pattison14PhD.pdf

How children learn at home, by Alan Thomas & Harriet Pattison, 2007

Rethinking Reading, by Harriet Pattison (2021)

LSE study https://cep.lse.ac.uk/_NEW/NEWS/abstract.asp?index=6236

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