Category Archives: Reading

Home ed blogging, and feelings of inadequacy

Twice this week, in two completely unrelated conversations with two completely unrelated groups of people, someone has said to me that they no longer read home ed blogs because of the feelings of inadequacy these generate.

I felt quite uncomfortable about this, because although I haven’t been blogging much at all in the past year or so, when I do blog our home ed, it can sometimes veer towards being that kind of blog.


There is a but. And I don’t really know what I’m trying to say, let alone how to say it! But feelings of guilt and inadequacy can certainly be overwhelming, and perhaps we all have an inner ‘should’, which looks around at what other people are doing to try and get some kind of measure by which to set itself.

It’s just that.. blogging (or Facebook commenting, or posting etc) isn’t life. And yes, this sounds really obvious, but I wonder if we do forget this and assume the family in question to have spent its whole week doing amazing science experiments or completing piles of enlightening workbooks, or asking oh-so-interested questions and finding the answers. Just because those are the presentable bits.

The truth is, all of those hours of silent consolidation or contemplation, or being immersed in Harry Potter for three days straight without coming up for air, of sibling scraps and screaming rows and just plain, banal domesticity – or indeed, hours spent blogging or reading other blogs and Facebooking and general Internet mooching while the children indulge their own CBeebies/ Moshi Monsters/ Bin Weevils habit… aren’t mentioned.

Instead, the temptation is to sometimes say: “Ooh! We did something *educational*! Quick! Let’s blog it!” – just to convince everyone (but mainly ourselves) that we are doing ok, making progress and so on.


I think all that other stuff (that doesn’t get blogged) is educational too. I could write lists for how it is. In fact, I will:

  • Silent consolidation or contemplation – *thinking time* – is vital, as anyone who knows anything about the learning function knows. We can’t just take in information bites non-stop, and spew it straight back out again in the standard manner that seems to be required by schools – that’s not real learning. We have to ideally go seeking the information ourselves and then take it in at our own pace and then go away and let the subconscious chew on it for a while, and then come back with more questions later. If we have any. Which we might not. (And that’s valid.) Depending on our personality and how we seek and process knowledge.

    The problem (I could pontificate on this for quite some pages) with trying to industrialise – or commercialise – Education is that it doesn’t really box up like that. Not really. You can deliver or sign up for a course in something and bestow or receive a certificate at the end of it, with or without some kind of test, and all of this still doesn’t guarantee any real learning. For that, you need to begin with either curiosity or some other kind of intrinsic motivation. And that’s hard to profit from, or oversee, or monitor, or sell, or buy, or earn money for teaching. Sadly, in the latter case. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

  • Being immersed in Harry Potter for three days straight without coming up for air – well, that’s just reading, isn’t it? I’m no psychologist, but I’m sure it’s useful for the development of our critical faculties, or creativity, or cognitive something-or-other. And yes, many of us are obsessives. I suspect our natural learning function leans more towards focusing exclusively on a thing until we’ve finished or mastered it to our own satisfaction, than it does towards a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum patchwork quilt of neat and tidy one-hour chunks.
  • Sibling scraps – learning to manage conflict in a safe and fundamentally (although it often doesn’t feel – or sound – like it!) loving environment.
  • Screaming rows – assertiveness training 😉
  • Just plain, banal domesticity – the building blocks of a well-functioning life. Vastly underrated – if you want to know how vastly, go round to a distracted, obsessed, highly intellectual academic’s house for tea. Especially if he doesn’t hire a cleaner. Teaching children – by example – how to endure the ‘boring stuff’ in order to live well (delayed gratification, I suppose) is vital. And something they don’t learn at school.
  • Hours spent blogging or reading other blogs and Facebooking and general Internet mooching – very important information gathering and social networking to facilitate facilitation 😉 (And the parent’s sanity! If you’re that way inclined..)
  • While the children indulge their own CBeebies/ Moshi Monsters/ Bin Weevils habit – this, actually, is really important. I love the fact that we now have those children’s social platforms so that they can learn about group interaction and so on at their own pace, with an off-switch for when it all gets too much, without the pressure of helicopter parents. CBeebies I have more of a love/hate relationship with, but it’s largely uncommercialised and some of the content is great. Anyway, it’s not for me to choose what my children like to watch. If they’re attracted to something, they’ve probably got something to learn from it.

And when I make these points, I hear people say: “Yes OK, all of those things are educational. But is it the kind of education you want your children to have?”

But who’s to say the parent’s (or teacher’s, or local authority’s, or government’s) desire for a child’s education is the best, most appropriate education for that child? I don’t think anyone can say what that is, in fact. Not even the parent. Yes, he or she can be responsive and attentive (although sometimes these hinder the learning process rather than helping it) and present learning opportunities for the child, and create a stimulating ‘learning environment’. I have done all of those things and still do sometimes.

But if the chief motivator really is the child itself – and this can be really difficult, as an adult, to allow precisely because of those feelings of guilt and fear of other people’s judgment, lack of trust in the natural process and fear of letting go – then the person grows up ‘complete’, learning (and able to learn) everything he or she really needs to know. A truly independent learner.

Sure, set good examples. This is the only way I know of teaching (apart from supplying the information or tutoring that’s requested by the child and no more than the amount requested! Another very difficult thing to achieve for most parents and teachers) that’s in any way properly effective. As a species we can’t seem to help mimicking each other. So if I read, my children read. If I grow food, they want to grow food. (This is actually not the case here yet. I live in hope, but suspect there’s some kind of instinctive division of labour system going on.) If I earn lots of money, they probably want to earn lots of money and work out how to do that, and so on.

This learning by example is a very powerful thing, but it doesn’t always manifest in ways that are immediately obvious. For example, my parents and friends’ parents were mostly churchgoers and yet I and my friends are mostly not. And yet we do congregate and eulogise at home ed meetings, which could be seen as similar kinds of gathering places.

When people wonder why it is that some autonomously home educated children grow up to become barristers and others organic farmers, shopkeepers, or unemployed etc – I look at the parents’ occupations and there is usually some pattern of emulation that’s quite easy to spot. So if you want your child to become Prime Minister, first become Prime Minister yourself! (Discuss.. 😉 )

I do see exceptions to this rule: adult children who have broken the mould and gone on to have adult lives that were very different to those modeled to them in childhood, but there are still usually less obvious and yet strong similarities. A factory labourer with a strong work ethic who nevertheless doesn’t find his work particularly fulfilling, produces an office worker son with an equally strong work ethic who nevertheless doesn’t find his work particularly fulfilling, and so on.

And I was the child who was taken to all of the extra-curricular clubs, sessions, groups and lessons, whose every hour was kept busy, for fear of boredom or inadequate parenting.

And yet, I (not necessarily my sister or brother, but I) just wanted to stay at home and be left alone to read, play and dream on my own terms, in my own time, with no externally-imposed schedule. (I live like this now for myself though, whenever possible. And yet.. none of my parents do! Hmm..) (I’ve had a variety of parent-and stepparent-type people in my life, in case you were wondering about my choice of quantitative pronoun there!)

And at least one of my children often requests a schedule from me, though most of the others don’t. So we’re all different, and the best thing, surely, is to work out what each person needs by way of input, and supply that.


Filed under Curiosity - a delicate flower, ICT, Innate, Natural learning - how it works, Planning - or not, Reading, Strewing

“Why does ‘walk’ have an ‘l’ in it?”

That question of Lyddie’s yesterday led first to the dictionary, then to Wiktionary and ended up with Shakespeare and Milton!

Here’s how:

The second question was “What’s Old English and why is it different to the new kind?”

So we explained how language evolves and that this was why, for example, some of the words and phrases in our current bedtime story Peter Pan, sound a bit strange to her.

And then we got to talking about the different origins and influences in the English language, and some of the political events that made the changes. We experimented with a few words, trying to guess the roots of them then checking to see if we were right.

Lyddie was interested to know what words had appeared or changed since I was a child. I could think of ‘texting’, ‘DVD’, ‘Internet’, ’email’ and others to do with technological development. I struggled to think of ones that had evolved due to other factors, although I suppose any kind of Leet would be an example of that. Then I realised the term ‘home education’ wasn’t even used when I was a child! At least, not in the way it now is. (Of course the older offspring added a few to the list, like ‘house’, ‘road’ and ‘car’! 🙄 )

Finally, just before she’d heard enough about the subject, we read some Shakespeare and Milton out loud – just a few lines of each, and she was quite shocked to hear how our language has changed almost beyond recognition in the past few hundred years. I’m thinking of getting this to follow on with. Am wondering if anyone’s seen it?


Filed under Curiosity - a delicate flower, Natural learning - how it works, Reading

Autonomous learning, what it means for us

Home ed is different for every family. We have friends who follow a set curriculum all morning, every day during the week throughout term time and do nothing else deliberately educational at all. Others insist on an hour or so of set learning, then do other things with the rest of their time. It’s quite common, too, for families to do most of their ‘home education’ out and about with various groups, engaged in planned and themed activities together. Here in West Yorkshire, for example, there’s at least one such event planned for every day of the week by various people and groups of people – some regular, some not. Usually all home educators are welcome.

Royal Armouries

We’ve done some of that, but tend to be more home and family-centred these days. I’ve found, over the years, that my children learn best when I let them take the lead. So we went to The Royal Armouries yesterday, for example. One of the girls had asked to go, so we went. Once there, we split into two groups: an adult for each child. (This is where adult offspring really come in handy!) And we followed the children around the museum, not the other way around. I was with the four year old and amazingly she didn’t just run through the place and out the other side: she actually wanted to know the answers to questions like where things were from, and what was happening here:

He's shooting the tiger.

Going at her pace took some doing – the temptation is for me to see things that I think might interest her and hold her back to point them out, but she stops asking questions if I do that, and I know that questions are vital to her learning. So:

'Wow, swords. What are they for?'

– has me scrabbling to read the plate to her, before she’s off again. She only wants a word or two: she’s only four. We’ll come back again frequently when she’s older, if she wants to. Maybe when she can read the plates for herself.

At home the method/way of life is similar. There’s lots to do here: we’ve amassed quite a collection of stuff over the years and it’s quite well organised and stored in a visible, accessible kind of way. I’ve always liked the Montessori idea of preparing the environment (although ours is not so rigidly structured) and also, I suppose, what unschoolers call strewing (although ours is not so parent-led – I’m just the one who pays for it, transports it home, finds a box and a shelf for it and then usually tidies it away again when it’s finished with! Our children are quite capable of doing their own strewing.)

Last night, for example, the old comic box had an airing:

It surprised me when she wanted to do the thing on this page properly.

And sometimes they want to just bake a cake:

The icing on the cake, groan

Or make pictures:

Houses are the thing ATM

Or look something up on Wikipedia:

..whilst eating a pizza

Or do workbooks:

... whilst kneeling on the dining table.

Or any amount of other things: see friends, phone friends, build things, make things, read things, take things apart and see how they work, ask endless questions, play in the field:

New swing, for the - ahem! - *children*.

The list of possibilities is endless. The point is, I never ask: “What do you want to do now?” because I don’t need to. They work it out themselves, getting ideas from books, friends, family, TV, the Internet, games, or just the environment and the thoughts in their heads. I don’t ban or limit anything: they could play computer games all day if they wanted to, but they never want to. I try not to suggest things, because when I do, they stop being creative and owning their learning.

But I don’t do nothing. I facilitate everything they want to do, never saying ‘no’ to anything if I can help it. I keep the place relatively clean and tidy so that they can be safe and have the clear space they need. I organise my time and money so that they can get what they want, go where they want, do what they want when they want to get, go and do it. I answer every question asked, or help them to find the answer (and the questions never stop, thank goodness!) I read to them a lot. I help them to learn. I will even teach them if they ask me to, though sparingly.


Filed under Aptitude, Co-operating, Curiosity - a delicate flower, History, ICT, Innate, Letters, Natural learning - how it works, Out an' about, Planning - or not, Reading, Strewing, Writing

Learning last year

In and amongst the new year celebrations here, I’ve been thinking and chatting with the children about what we all learned last year. It’s probably quite easy for me to list some of the skills that some of us mastered:

Keeping accounts
Holding conversations
Getting dressed
Playing guitar
Playing piano accordion
Dismantling, fixing and rebuilding piano accordion
Resolving certain laptop malfunctions
Map reading
Drawing faces, with BIG smiles (but no noses)
Building Lego ships
Driving a computer mouse

I’ll let those of you who know us work out (or remember) who learned which of those skills in 2009!

And I think most of us have garnered quite a lot of information, in response to our own curiosity. Some of the areas that some of us have been learning about last year have included:

Where other countries are on the globe in relation to the UK
Other cultures, beliefs and customs
Letter sounds
Politics, economics and the history of these
The development of technology

But it’s a lot less easy to list what we learned in terms of thinking, ideas or principles. I’m struggling to do that for myself, let alone for the children.

I think I learned that it’s ok to apply a certain amount of teaching to completely unschooled children, as long as they’re happy about it and interested in what’s being taught. This was difficult for me to grasp at first because the older three, having been in school for a few years as younger children, had so much resistance to the idea of actively being taught something that they just learned more, better and easier under their own steam.

I assumed all children would be like that in non-coercive situations, but I now know from the younger two that they’re not, if they haven’t been damaged by the violent coercion of schooling.

I don’t think I worked that out in its entirety just in 2009 though. It’s been an evolving train of thought and experiment for the past three years or so. But last year probably provided enough clarification for me to accept it as being ‘true’.

I also learned that it’s ok if I don’t say ‘yes’ to every request that’s made of me, although after a childhood of violent training to the contrary, this is a hard realisation for me to put into practice all the time, even 30-40 years later. Those childhood lessons really do run so deeply, which is why our relationship with our children is so fundamentally important. But that’s nothing new, is it? Just yet more verification of something very old.


Filed under Business, Co-operating, Driving, ICT, Innate, Numbers, Reading, Russian

Walking in a winter wonderland

Christmas has come early for the children here: it’s been snowing! Such fun and excitement – it’s wonderful, which is kind of what this post is about.

I’ve been studying a bit of NVC with some friends, and the chapter we’re working on this week is all about “how to request things to make life more wonderful for us”, though I found that this phrase irritated me so much I couldn’t get past it, and had to keep putting the book down.

So I started thinking about the word “wonderful”. Full of wonder.

wonder v. 3 tr. desire or be curious to know

It has other meanings of course, such as: surprise mingled with admiration and curiosity; a strange or remarkable thing; having marvellous or amazing properties; a miracle.

In general, it’s a word that means good things, isn’t it? Wonderful! Great! Terrific.

But it also means ‘curiosity’, and that made me wonder whether these dual meanings are accidental, and to decide that they’re probably not.

When I’m at my best, I’m full of curiosity: wondering about the world, how things work, why things are and so on ad infinitum. When I’m a bit ill or down, my curiosity leaves me and my life, like my head, is really not full of wonder.

When I’m being kept to task on something against my wishes, there is no vestige of curiosity, or any other kind of wonder, left in my being. Just something approaching misery or resentful tolerance, or numbness and a feeling of being switched-off. A non-feeling, more precisely, that might well be stifled anger. As I’ve got older, I’ve learned that that’s a toxic state of mind for a person to be in: one of the many arguments in favour of autonomy – it’s good for your health!

Recent wonderings expressed around here have been about space, the relative size and structure of planets and stars, languages and politics (as ever) and a bit of physics too. The baby has started on Letterland already (though it only seems like too minutes since we were doing that with Lyddie!) But we’ve got these flashcards now, which have ordinary words on one side and Letterland-illustrated words on the other, so Lyddie reads the words while the baby names the characters.

I never, in a million years, imagined I’d use flashcards. Even less, that a child of mine would ever want to. But they do.

One question I’ve started asking is: “Have you got any questions about that?” and amazingly, lots of questions come by way of reply! I never realised to what extent people of all ages internalise their wonderings, perhaps not quite realising they’re there until they’re specifically asked about.

I feel better about the NVC thing now, anyway.

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Filed under Curiosity - a delicate flower, Reading, Seasonal stuff

More happens when you leave it alone

Lyddie and I haven’t done any reading practice for weeks. Peter and Jane have been abandoned on the sideboard since she lost interest in them back then. I started getting a bit concerned this week, thinking the development of her reading skill might be stagnating, especially since she’s been really enjoying hearing me read to her for about an hour a day, when we started on the Famous Five series ten days or so ago, but not expressing any desire to try to read them to herself.

I mentioned Peter and Jane this week, when my throat was aching from Famous Five reading, saying something like: “You’re not too far off being able to read these to yourself, you know. We should get back to Peter and Jane and work on your reading skill again,” and she said: “Hmm, well, I’d quite like to be able to read this Thumbelina book to myself.”

I opened it, glanced at a page and told her: “Well, you might be able to. Give it a go?” – not, to be quite honest, at all confident that she could, it being quite well in advance of the Peter and Jane she’d abandoned on the sideboard in frustration weeks before. She picked it up and read a page out loud – slowly, but quite smoothly. And another, and another. She was as amazed as I was that she could do it so well, and so easily. We were both delighted: it was a lovely surprise.

I’d forgotten that about the natural learning process. There often has to be a period of leaving it alone for quiet absorption and/or deep processing to take place. If you systematically push something every day remorselessly, even after the student wants to stop, that’s damaging – or at best, impeding. But if you’re able to be completely responsive and stop at the right time (i.e. when the learner says they’ve had enough) then something seems to happen subconsciously in the break – a consolidation process.

She’s picking up books a lot now, reading the odd page here and there and delighting in the fact that she can.

The same has been happening with numbers. We haven’t done any workbooks for a while, and she’s been doing mental arithmetic. “Do you know, Mum, 7 and 7 is 14, and 14 and 14 is 28?” A visitor made the mistake of asking her what 28 and 28 is then, and she told them she didn’t want to know the answer to that.

There’s always someone who wants to take charge of her learning process for her and start trying to lead it! But I’m sure that slows her down.

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Filed under Aptitude, Natural learning - how it works, Numbers, Reading

I confess

I have done something that I never thought I would do, in a million years.

I have bought some components of.. a proprietary reading scheme.

Not only that. It’s the very same reading scheme (Oxford Reading Tree) as the older three were made to use in school and quite similar to the one I was put through as a child too. (Probably Peter and Jane, some of which I’ve also used for Lyddie.)

And I always hated reading schemes. Instead of using that ghastly process, I was going to rely on our room full of books, the enthusiasm of some of the adults here for reading them, and the children’s freedom to browse them and learn to read by osmosis. So what happened?

Well, first – when Lyddie was about three – I read John Taylor Gatto’s Underground History of American Education (no, we’re not American but it was still an eye-opener) and this particular section made me wonder whether I would be doing Lyddie a disservice by relying on look-say and osmosis to enable her to read.

The thing was though, that I knew for a fact that leaving them to it does work, because we have some family friends who learned that way, and I was lucky enough to witness them doing it. When the girls were about nine or ten, they were asking to be told what the traffic signs said on journeys and you could see them starting to piece it together and work out for themselves how the language is constructed. Within a few months of that they were easily reading epic novels, with enthusiasm.

This was inspiring to me because I’d also known many people who had been structuredly taught to read from an early age who would never read an epic novel, nor want to. (Though I didn’t include myself in that group because I was both taught early and I always loved reading – except for the dreaded reading scheme books!)

Out of my older three children who were taught to read at school with the Oxford scheme, only one was an avid reader a few years ago, although interestingly all three now are.

I really hoped all of my children would love reading, because it was often the only thing that made my childhood bearable. My saviour: to be able to escape into a book. But then I realised, as the older three settled happily into home education, that they didn’t have anything odious to escape from, so perhaps they didn’t have the same incentive to become so immersed in the printed page.

But then reading Gatto made me wonder again as to the best approach of all the available options, for us. Having the ability to decode words into their component sounds is important – or at least very useful, isn’t it? I was musing along these lines during one of our weekly home ed meetings around that time (and I also blogged my thoughts) after which someone brought us their old Letterland machine. If you follow the ‘reading’ thread from the drop-down menus in the sidebar of my other home ed blog, you’ll be able to see how we progressed with that, and the making of some tactile letters and so on, then doing a lot of blending the sounds together into words.

But I wanted to stay involved in the process. One of the things I hated about proprietary schemes is the sense one gets of delegating the teaching/learning process to the scheme. It seemed to steal some of the creativity and individuality of the learning process. We did some Letterland, but we avoided Jolly Phonics (and glancing at it in Borders yesterday made me quite glad that we did.)

So when a well-meaning relative (ex-teacher) turned up with some Peter and Jane books for us, my heart sank. They brought back very unhappy memories of my own school days in which, a read since the age of three, I’d been forced to read every single book from every single level of that and several other schemes, before being ‘allowed’ to choose anything to read ‘for pleasure’. It had felt like torture to me. That’s why in our house at that time, Peter and Jane stayed on the shelf for quite some months, if not a year or more.

“We can do this in a fun way,” I was thinking. “We don’t have to resort to Peter and Jane. Lyddie can choose for herself what she wants to read because she doesn’t have to comply with an asinine school system.”

So, she chose. She chose Peter and Jane.

“Do we have to read these?” I complained. “There are lots of other fun stories on the shelves..”

“Yes, we do,” she said. “The others have too many words on the page. These look a lot easier.”

She was quite right. We’d kept trying to read (I’d kept trying to inspire her to read for herself) some of the other books we had, but it was the number of words on the page that put her off every time. She became overwhelmed and overfaced and lost the ability to focus on each individual word.

“Oh well,” I consoled myself as we plodded doggedly through Peter and Jane. “At least it’s not the dreaded Oxford Reading Tree.”

The older children had those books from school, when my hatred of reading schemes was confirmed. But again it was probably the lack of choice and personal involvement that annoyed me. The regimented, impersonal detached procedure of sending every child home with every book at every level in any old illogical order (I think the Oxford books really need reading in the right order, especially the Magic Key ones, or they don’t make sense.) regardless of the child’s actual ability, much less their preference, really irritated me. Factory schooling. Horrible.

I thought I’d seen the last of Biff and blooming Chip and I was very glad to have done so. Until…

Well, we ran out of Peter and Janes, and there just happened to be some of the basic Oxford books at the supermarket last week. Lyddie wanted them. We bought them. She then raced through them all in about ten minutes flat, and said “I want some more of these.”

And that is how we found ourselves in Borders yesterday, buying one from each level (I’m so glad I’ve got another, younger child to help to justify all this buying of books). Lyddie raced through them all last night, only slowing down a bit when she got to level 6 but even then she could still read independently by decoding and blending the sounds of the words on which she was stuck.

I’ve since ordered some more of the level 6 books from Amazon, and I reckon that we’re only a few more Oxford books off her being able to read about half of the children’s books on our shelves. And there are a lot of those to get through.

So. It wasn’t the schemes that I hated, as much as the lack of choice involved in the way they were delivered and the tick box mentality that was required to get through them in a school system. On their own, for an autonomous child, the schemes are actually really useful. Amazing.


Filed under Reading