The informal acquisition of literacy

It is more or less an article of faith among many home educators that the teaching of reading is unnecessary; children can be expected to pick this skill up for themselves in the right circumstances. In support of this contention, some quote Alan Thomas who carried out research on what he described as the 'informal curriculum'. He said:

'Modern life takes place within a vast sea of written material which surrounds us.... Words are literally everywhere: children are surrounded by advertisements, streets lists, instructions, magazines, bus destinations'

The implication is that reading can be learned with little or no formal instruction; a view which some home educators enthusiastically embrace. Nor is Alan Thomas alone in this belief. As long ago as 1962, Paul Goodman was writing in Compulsory Miseducation that:

' the puzzle is not how to teach reading, but why some children fail to learn to read. given the amount of exposure any urban child gets, any normal animal should catch on to the code'

He goes on to blame schools for reading difficulties and suggests that:

'Many of the backward readers might have had a better chance on the streets'

All of which will be music to the ears of autonomous home educators. There are two points to consider. Firstly, most educationalists believe this to be nonsense. With the exception of the odd piece of research such as Thomas' and the occasional study from an advocate of Steiner in New Zealand, almost everyone thinks that it is necessary and desirable to teach children to read and the earlier the better. Still, what about Alan Thomas' and Paul Goodman's ideas? Could there really be something in this? This brings us neatly to my second point. If it is true that just the experience of living among advertisements, street signs and so on can be enough to get a child going on the road to literacy, then we should see this in other parts of the world. Thomas looked at a handful of kids in England, Ireland and Australia, while Goodman was talking exclusively about America. Surely this informal acquisition of literacy should be widespread wherever children are not in school from the age of five until sixteen?

The literacy rate in London is about 99%. I am not talking here of Ofsted measures at the age of eleven or those getting a C in GCSE English. Instead, I am using the old way of defining literacy; the ability to read or write a simple note. Much was made in the press recently about the number of children leaving primary school with a reading age of seven, but this is perfectly adequate for day to day needs. Our most popular newspaper is specifically designed to be accessible to those with a reading age of seven. It is extraordinarily rare to encounter anybody without moderate to severe learning difficulties in this country who cannot write a simple note or read a passage from the Sun. The official rate is in any case 99%. According to some though, many of these people became literate in spite of rather than because of their schooling. How can we check this?. Easily enough as it happens.

The literacy rate in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh is just under 50%, which is far higher than rural parts of the country. Here are people who live and work surrounded by all the print that Thomas talks of; the advertisements, street signs, destinations on the front of buses and so on and yet half of them seem stubbornly resistant to acquiring literacy! This is odd. Surely, if Western children can 'catch the code' just by living in a city, then Bengali kids should be able to do the same? Let's see what might account for any difference. Both Bangladesh and England use alphabetic systems, so that is the same. London and Dhaka both have masses of print of all sorts on display in the form of advertisements, bus destinations, street signs and so on; the 'vast sea of written material' which Thomas talks of. That can't be the difference. Oh wait a minute, I think I might have it! In England all but a tiny handful of children attend school between the ages of five and sixteen. Compulsory education, which for almost everybody means compulsory schooling has been a feature of life her for well over a century. In Bangladesh on the other hand, the situation is very different. The overall literacy rate is about 35%. Roughly 40% of children never go to school, only 7% complete secondary school. Here perhaps is a clue.

In one country with near universal compulsory school attendance for eleven years of their lives, there is almost universal literacy. In a country where almost half the children never attend school and only 7% complete secondary school, 65% of the population are illiterate. Puzzling, no? I am surprised that instead of investigating a small group of children in England or America, nobody had thought to look closely at how the 'informal curriculum' works in places like Bangladesh. I think that we could learn something very interesting about the connection between compulsory schooling and literacy rates. Looking at other countries makes the situation very clear. The more children attending school; the higher the literacy rate. Near universal schooling means near universal literacy.