If you choose to educate your children outside of schools, the Australian government expects you to register as a home educator. I tried doing this two years ago, when Dave should have been starting Year 1, but something always happened: the office was closed, nobody answered the phone... I met the person in charge at the Busselton office just once, the day she was closing it down for good. She said I would have to go somewhere else, I don't remember where because at that point I thought, why register anyway? If you register, you are in the system, and the government wants to know what you are doing to educate your children. They send a monitor to your home (fortunately only once a year) to evaluate your work and the children's progress.(My aversion for the word 'evaluate' is almost as strong as for 'control' or 'judge'.)
Alex is turning 6 this Monday, and now the government considers it is time for me to get out there and find a proper job. That's because they still don't know that I'm a home educator. So I tried to register again. Things have changed in these two years and now it was all done without a hitch. I talked to our moderator on the phone and we arranged a date to meet. In the meantime, she sent off my certificate as a home educator and asked me to get online and study the Australian curriculum, because we'll have to follow that.
'What? You mean we're not free to keep learning the way we've been doing? My kids have to do the same stuff they're doing at schools? What's the point of home schooling then?' I was quite shocked. I didn't know then that this is a very recent change. She said the kids can still learn at their own pace, so if Dave hasn't mastered Year 1 Maths, for example, even though he's supposed to be in Year 3, that's fine, as long as he is progressing.
Ok, I thought, this will be interesting. Let's find out what they're teaching in conventional Australian schools. At this point, the Education Department wants us to focus on four main subjects: English, Maths, Science and History. I went through all of them up to Year 3. And I relaxed. When the moderator came for a visit I told her, 'We've covered all that and heaps more just by exploring our surroundings, talking about everything, reading books, surfing the internet, playing, and travelling.' I told her about Dave's passion: drawing and building. He makes things with wood blocks, Lego or out of carton. I'm still not sure what Alex's is, but he's really good at computers and video games. I explained to her how Dave and Alex learn about numbers: through play and every day living. We don't sit down to do sums and subtractions, but we play games (Monopoly is a favourite at the moment), sell our eggs, cook pikelets for which we need to know about measures, etc. However, before she was due to come I was a bit nervous because the curriculum seems to pay a lot of attention to solving math problems on paper. So I asked the kids to do some for me, just to keep the moderator happy. They had never done that before and although they said it was boring, they did. Easy.
To my surprise, she was not so concerned about maths. Apparently, that's more important later on. But what about reading and writing?
'They don't read alone,' I said. 'As for the writing, only Dave does, a little, and just what he wants, which is words like 'MINECRAFT' (all capitals) or 'TRASH PACK'.
'So they are pre-readers,' she said. I winced a little as I'm not used to labels. And then she added, 'Don't you think they should be reading by now?' and, 'Aren't you worried?'
It is a widespread misconception that if you're not constantly hovering over your kids and making sure they're learning, they will stop doing so. I can't stress hard enough how far from the truth this is. Yet, I see why it is difficult to understand, because we were all raised in times when coercive education was the norm. Children can learn how to walk, talk, dress themselves, eat by themselves and... yes, read by themselves naturally, without being forced. They have a natural desire and love for learning and this process is not stopped unless you take them to school. Unfortunately, for lots of kids the opposite is true. I would love to write a book about this, but somebody else wrote it already, thirty years ago. It's called Learning All The Time, by John Holt.
'I'm not worried about my kids. I'm worried about the kids who go to school. So many of them already hate reading because of the way they're being taught. My children love books, they always have. There is not one day when we don't read, the three of us together. I have always read to them, since before they were born,' I said.
'But they need to know their letters. They have to learn that the letter 'A' makes the sound 'aaah' and that there is upper case and lower case.' She went on to tell me some exercises I could do for the children to learn about phonetics and when to spell a word with an 'a' or an 'i'.
'But this is all so boring.' I couldn't help interrupting her. 'And what's the purpose of it anyway?' They already know that 'A' makes the sound 'aaa', except when it doesn't, right? That rule is only good for Spanish, not English. I reckon the best way to learn about how words are pronounced and spelled is by listening to me and looking at the words at the same time, which is what we've been doing for years.
She insisted that I should make them read and write on their own as soon as possible... before it is too late! There was an unspoken hint there: because... What if they never do?
I guess I would be worried like her and so many parents and teachers if I didn't have the enormous faith and trust I have in children (and very little in the education system). There was a time when I also thought being able to read by four or five is ideal, and everything else can come later. Once I read a book by a homeschooling mother who claimed one of her children did not read at all until he was ten. I remember thinking, Ten? That is going a bit too far. No way I'm going to be reading to my kids until they're ten. Now of course I think very differently and look forward to reading lots of young adult books together with my children. That mother reported that when her son did start reading alone, he read just about anything from comic books to Shakespeare.
I told the moderator this story and others. I have met a few unschooled children, now aged from eleven to seventeen, who learned how to read the same way Dave and Alex are, mainly by being read to. If you ask any of these children how they learned to read they all say, 'I just picked it up.'
'But these are unique cases,' she said. 'Otherwise, how do you explain the millions of people in the world who are illiterate?'
There followed an awkward silence. This has happened to me a lot. It's when I look at the other person and wonder if we are from different planets. Maybe she was thinking the same.
'Absolute illiterate people are not exposed to books and reading. They are deprived of an education. Which is not the case of natural learners in Australia. These are not unique cases. Or do you know of any unschooled child, whose parents have a similar philosophy to mine, who is now twenty and can't read?' She had to admit that she didn't. I don't think there is any.
I firmly believe this is the best way to learn how to read. No matter how long it takes, when they finally start reading they will really be able to. Reading doesn't mean knowing your letters or how to pronounce a word;
it means comprehending the meaning of those words and overall story or text. By this definition, Dave and Alex are already great readers. Many school children, on the other hand, are not reading anymore. They're just parroting. And nobody is reading to them because they're expected to do it alone.
I'm afraid lots of adults don't really know how to read, or spell either. Last year (or the year before) it was reported that more than 47% of the Australian adult population is functionally illiterate. That means they can't read instructions on a medicine bottle, they can't read a map, or they can't read a recipe. And these people went to school! Most of them are very clever at hiding their literacy problems, of course, because they are ashamed. They've been carrying their shame since their school days when they were put down because they weren't keeping up, or they were being lazy, or they weren't paying attention... Illiteracy in western developed countries is a tragedy that starts at schools.
You may have noticed that English is not my native language. I started learning it when I was fifteen, of my own accord. Nobody forced me and I learned mostly on my own, although I did ask my parents to pay for lessons because I was also brought up to believe that was the only way I would learn. I didn't read a whole unabridged book in English until I was nineteen. I remember it was Wilt by Tom Sharpe. I got the gist of it, but it was really hard. Nevertheless, I persisted until I finished it, never looking any words up. I had less trouble with the second English book I read. The third seemed even easier. Since then I have read hundreds of books in English, more than in my native language. I never learned how to spell but I don't usually use the spell check because I don't need to. I can also write in English and I like to think I'm not too bad at it. At least I know the difference between "it's" and "its". I can do this mainly because I read. And if I learned to read English when I was already a young adult and can do it this well, how can anybody even suggest that unless my children (who are native speakers of English and a lot more intelligent than I am) are encouraged to read alone now they might end up being illiterate?