A very limited amount of research about literacy instruction practices and difficulties encountered by home schooling parents and students pertains primarily to students being home schooled in the elementary grades. A small number of families home school their children through high school graduation, but literacy research about those families is completely lacking. The literacy experiences of high school graduates and their parents are of special interest because of the long-term nature of their instruction; high school graduates and their parents may have a somewhat different perspective than home schoolers of shorter duration. The purpose of this research was to expand the literacy knowledge base and fill in some gaps about long-term literacy instruction of home schoolers by providing the results of interviews with home school graduates and their mothers about their literacy instruction. We questioned the graduates and their mothers individually about what they remembered about literacy instruction during home schooling, in particular, phonics, comprehension, spelling, vocabulary, grammar, writing, literature, what instructional techniques were especially successful or unsuccessful, reading aloud, favorite books, time spent reading, and any special literacy projects, such as plays or writing projects.
For a comprehensive look at the home school movement, see McDowell and Ray (2000), which contains a wealth of current information and references. In this issue, the researchers discuss the historical, political, and legal contexts of home schooling, present research related to present practices, and give the pros and cons of home schooling, since there are 1.3 to 1.7 million U.S. home school students (Lines, 1998; Ray, 1998). The Ray (2000) article is one of the few nationwide studies that deal with home schoolers’ standardized achievement test scores as well as families’ background information; in relation to students’ literacy, he reported that reading achievement scores have consistently showed higher scores for home schooled children than for public school children (also see Farris & Woodruff, 2000).
The home school movement is especially active in the State of Washington, probably because of the accommodating state home school law, with numerous home school support groups and co-ops, where teaching is shared with other parents. In Washington, students may go to public schools to take desired subjects, such as band or computers. Some public schools provide teachers just for home schoolers, such as Spanish teachers, and an unused school building may be used by home schoolers. Since reading achievement tends not to be an issue with most home schooled children (Frost & Morris, 1988; Ray, 1988, 2000; Wartes, 1988), differences in the kinds of literacy experiences of home schooled children from those in the public schools are of interest. Previous research (Knafle & Wescott, 1994), a questionnaire survey of reading practices of 64 parents who were home schooling 127 children ages 5-16 in the Seattle area, found that parents stated that the most difficult subject for them to teach was some aspect of language arts (reading, writing, phonics, English, spelling, grammar, and literature), followed by math and science; 41% of the total teaching time was spent on literacy instruction. Two later studies (Knafle & Wescott, 1996, 1998) are also relevant; the 1996 study examined home school literacy practices of three families (7 children) from the point of view of the mothers, in detail, showing the wide variation in instruction keyed to the children’s individual differences and needs. The 1998 questionnaire study surveyed 23 mothers about their children’s (N=56) cross-age tutoring and collaboration in literacy activities and found much sibling cooperation, but also some conflict. Additionally, there are a few other literacy-related studies in the literature; one-family writing studies were completed by Hafer (1990) and Treat (1990). Hafer also examined home school writing texts, and Treat’s ethnographic study examined a family’s reading and writing instruction over a 3-month period.
Our previous questionnaire survey of reading practices (Knafle & Wescott, 1994), along with the later literacy studies of 1996 and 1998, contributed to our wanting to hear about home school literacy practices from graduates themselves, as well as from their mothers. We also wanted to see whether there were differences from the two perspectives. No previous researchers have interviewed high school graduates of home schools and their mothers about their literacy experiences. (Home school researchers almost uniformly question parents about home school issues, not their children.) A face-to-face interview format seemed to be the most productive way to elicit in-depth literacy information in an informal non-threatening way, with the potential of pursuing desired information that might not be reported on a written questionnaire.
We therefore interviewed home school graduates of high school and their mothers in the Seattle area, anticipating interviews of 20 individuals: 10 graduates and their 10 mothers. However, since 3 mothers had more than 1 home school graduate, we were able to interview 23 individuals: 10 mothers and their 13 graduates (6 males and 7 females). In all instances, the mother was the graduate’s teacher of reading and language arts.
Eight of the 13 graduates were home schooled all the way through high school (K-12), one all the way through except for kindergarten (1-12), one all the way through except for fifth grade (K-4, 6-12), two beginning in third grade (3-12), and one beginning in the second half of fourth grade (4-12). All the graduates were either currently attending a 2- or 4-year college (n = 10), had taken college courses (n = 2), or were planning to enter college in the fall semester (n = 1). Four graduates were 18 years old, seven were 19, one was 20, and one was 21. Seven of the 13 graduates (three males, four females) were or had been a part of the Running Start program, in which home schoolers, after taking a placement exam, take courses at a local community college in the 11th and 12th grades and receive college, as well as high school, credit for the courses. All the graduates were white. (Note that McDowell, Sanchez, & Jones, 2000, reported that in 1997, 96% of the home school population was white.)
The graduates and their mothers were interviewed individually in several places, at their convenience: in one of two home school centers where home school classes were offered on Mondays and Wednesdays, in their homes, or in Wescott’s home. Many mothers had younger children who were also being home schooled and who attended classes in the centers; since those mothers were required to be at the centers, usually in the classes with their children, they were interviewed at the centers. Most home school graduates of those mothers came to the centers just for the interviews.
Interviews took place in February, March, or May. In two instances where the home school graduate was attending college outside the Seattle area, the mother was interviewed during February, but the home school graduate was interviewed after the college semester ended in May. Interviews with graduates lasted from 20 minutes to half an hour. Interviews with six mothers lasted from 30 to 40 minutes; four interviews with mothers lasted 50 to 60 minutes. Twenty-two of the 23 individuals were interviewed by Knafle; one graduate was interviewed by Wescott because of scheduling problems. All the mothers were personally known by the researchers or were friends of the other mothers being interviewed.
For the interview procedure, the graduate (or mother) was first asked to read and sign a university-required consent form for participation in research. The consent form included the following information: “If you agree to be in this research, you will be asked what you remember about literacy instruction during home schooling. You will be asked what you remember about instruction in phonics, comprehension, spelling, vocabulary, grammar, writing, and literature, and about what instructional techniques you thought were especially successful or unsuccessful. In particular, you will be asked what you remember about reading out loud, about favorite books, about time spent reading, and about any special literacy projects you remember, such as plays or writing projects. I will be taking notes during and after the interview.” (The interviews were not video or audio taped.) All the graduates and mothers signed their forms without questions. The interview then proceeded with the graduate (or mother) being asked what he/she remembered about literacy instruction during home schooling, according to the categories given in the consent form. As the interviews proceeded, it was clear that all the participants knew the terminology, such as phonics, very well.
The 10 families are designated A – J, with the graduates designated AS – JS (S for student) and the corresponding mothers designated AM – JM (M for mother). The students of the three families with two graduates each are designated FS1, FS2, GS1, GS2, and IS1, IS2. The six male graduates are AS, BS, CS, DS, ES, and FS; the seven female graduates are FS2, GS1, GS2, HS, IS1, IS2, and JS. The terms “his sister, his brother, her sister, and her brother” are substituted for names of siblings.
The mothers had a variety of educational backgrounds. Four of the 10 mothers had been elementary teachers, one in first and second grades, one in third grade with a master’s degree in special education, one in fourth grade, and one in K and fourth grade. Another mother had been a preschool teacher. One mother had a degree in social work, one had 2 years of college (business courses), two had one year of college, and one had been a licensed practical nurse and was currently a ceramic artist.
The reasons the mothers gave for home schooling varied from the practical (“The Christian school became too expensive.” “There was a long bus ride to school.”) to the personal (“GS2 was bored in school.” “AS had a bad experience in public school.” “Peer pressure was not good for FS2’s personality.” GM “didn’t like the personality of the teacher.”) to the ideological (“School taught situational ethics.”). Several mothers mentioned friends or neighbors as providing the original impetus to home school.
Seven of the 10 mothers were already home schooling older siblings when they began home schooling the graduates, and 7 of the 10 mothers were currently home schooling the graduates’ younger siblings. Five mothers had home schooled or were home schooling three children; three mothers, two children; one mother, four children; and one mother, one child.
In analyzing the interviews, we used the framework of the original consent form, namely phonics, comprehension, spelling, vocabulary, grammar, writing, literature, successful and unsuccessful instructional techniques, reading out loud, favorite books, time spent reading, and special literacy projects, such as plays or writing projects. Several additional categories emerged from the analysis of the interviews: early memories, Bible stories and Christian materials, other instructional materials and techniques, family co-ops, Monday/Wednesday school, reading problems, comparisons with siblings, TV and video games, and current reading. Phonics became the broader “decoding.” Also, findings are reported for two final questions, one for mothers, “What would you do differently?” and one for graduates, “Would you home school your own children?”
The graduates remembered their mothers reading aloud to them, often every day. A few fathers read aloud. HS remembered her grandmother reading Good Night Moon to her. All the graduates remembered the reading aloud as an enjoyable experience. They also remembered learning letter names and sounds. If the graduates had older siblings who were reading, they wanted to read, too. (BM said that her son “especially paid attention when” his older brother “was being instructed.”) GS2 said she “taught herself to read.” IS2 mentioned liking nursery rhymes, and JS, Sesame Street books. AS said he “picked up reading through reading billboards.” The graduates remembered some aspect of reading taking place every day in their early lives.
The mothers read aloud to their children in every family, in several instances from birth. The usual pattern was that the mothers read to all their children together every day (Bible stories, Golden Books, story books with Christian messages, Mother Goose, Berenstein Bears, picture books, chapter books, Little House on the Prairie, C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series, and adventure stories). The reading aloud by the mother was viewed as a pleasurable activity rather than a wholly instructional one. AS still enjoyed listening to his mother reading. As the children got older, they had more input in choosing books. In most instances the reading aloud continued until the children were about 10-12, but if there were younger children in the family, the reading aloud often continued into the graduates’ secondary grades. As the children learned to read, they often took turns. FS2 remembered that her family “passed the book around after dinner to all three” children who took turns reading aloud. IM stated that they “took turns reading aloud as a family throughout home schooling.” FS1, FS2, IS1, and IS2 mentioned having regularly spent extensive time reading aloud. Reading aloud took about an hour each day, although HM read to HS about two hours a day throughout home schooling. Only 2 graduates (BS and HS) mentioned that their dads read to them when they were little. JM said her husband would read about an hour each day to both children until JS was three or four. Two mothers said that their husbands didn’t like to read. CM took CS and his older sister to story time at the library once a week.
All the graduates received phonics instruction according to their mothers, and 11 of the 13 graduates remembered that instruction. Following is a summary of the mothers’ and graduates’ recollections about phonics and decoding instruction. JM, whose daughter didn’t remember, said she taught phonics in context in addition to sight words when JS was age 4, but used no program. Most graduates remembered learning letter names and letter sounds in isolation, usually with the help of flash cards, workbooks, and wall charts. Some graduates remembered their mothers helping them sound out words, and DS remembered sounding out every letter in words. DS said he memorized about 5-10 very short words, so he knew those words when sounding them out. ES remembered not liking phonics, and HS said she “hated phonics.” BS remembered using Explode the Code, and IS2 remembered using Little Patriots.
The mothers provided detailed information about the programs and techniques used and any problems their children had learning phonics. Mothers remembered teaching letter names and then phonics in isolation. BM used alphabet books and Explode the Code. CM used Salt Mine and Hifwip and Writing Road to Reading in conjunction with phonics. GM used the Bob Jones phonics program and some ABeka materials. EM used the alphabet song and had her son match letter sounds to pictures in magazines. She tried different phonics programs (Writing Road to Reading, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, Max the Cat books), and said that Hooked on Phonics really worked when ES was age 7. She said that he was an auditory learner and that he memorized books.
The mothers persevered even when they or their children were not happy with the materials. HM used SWRL (Southwest Regional Laboratory) books which proved hard and frustrating for her daughter. IM taught phonics until about the third grade. She used Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons but said she didn’t like it (“it was dry”) even though it was effective. AM taught phonics to her son when he was in fourth grade since he hadn’t learned it in public school. She also had a tutor who taught phonics.
Comprehension instruction did not follow the pattern of phonics instruction, that is, intense parental involvement and close monitoring to assess skills. According to most of the graduates, after books and stories were chosen by mothers and graduates, the graduates were left alone to read silently. Only CS and DS mentioned their mothers asking questions after their reading. DS remembered often completing worksheets on the material. ES remembered liking using an SRA kit for 2 or 3 years. Most graduates mentioned that they liked reading on their own, and they easily recalled favorite books, authors, and genres. As the graduates got older, they used literature textbooks in addition to their individual reading, and many graduates took English classes at jr./sr. high ages. IS2 mentioned being a part of a ninth grade book club where the participants discussed a given book every 2-3 weeks and sometimes watched a related movie. JS’s mother often required that books be read before she saw the related movies (such as Jurassic Park). BS took part in a local library contest in which he read “lots of books” and in Pizza Hut’s “Book It” program,
The mothers confirmed their graduates’ recall of comprehension instruction in almost all instances. An exception was FS who said he didn’t talk about stories with his mother, but just read on his own. His mother, however, said she used “mostly recall questions” in Sing, Spell, Read, and Write. The discrepancy is probably caused by the grade level remembered, with FS focusing on later grade levels. BM said she “didn’t worry about comprehension”; IM “didn’t have much analytical questioning after their reading”; DM used “natural feedback” in which “children raised questions about things they didn’t understand.” CM “sometimes asked comprehension questions.” EM had her son retell the books he’d read, to her and the whole family. Almost all the mothers mentioned using many library books. JM “used no program, just books.” DM “initiated lots of discussion about books read.” GM had her daughters complete many book reports, and one year BM had her son complete book reports that were sent to a program where they were graded with comments. HM used ABeka literature textbooks for all four children who worked as a group and “used a variety of types of questions” for checking comprehension.
The book mentioned most often as being a favorite when the graduates were young was Little House on the Prairie (ES, GS1, GS2, HS, and IS1). ES, FS1, and GS2 liked the Narnia books. AS, BS, CS, DS, ES, FS1, IS2, and JS liked adventure and science fiction stories (specifically mentioned were Star Ship Troopers, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Star Wars books, and Jurassic Park). CS mentioned the Little Bears series and the Hardy Boys series, and FS1 liked Frank Peretti’s children’s books. BS liked Box Car Children. All the girls liked series books, especially historical Christian fiction, also mysteries, Nancy Drew books, Baby Sitter series books, and Sweet Valley series books. DS and IS1 liked non-fiction. IM said her daughters, along with their younger brother, especially liked reading the Walk Across America series aloud as a family.
At the elementary level, the graduates read a variety of children’s books. Graduates mentioned fairy tales, short stories, poems, novels, mysteries, science fiction, and biographies, mostly borrowed from public libraries. At the high school level, the graduates frequently used literature textbooks and read traditional novels, such as The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, and The Red Badge of Courage. They recalled reading historical fiction, poetry, short stories, biographies, essays, and drama. They often went to plays and watched videos related to books they had read. HS told of performing part of Les Miserables. BS performed in Our Town, The Mad Woman of Chaillot, and The Good Doctor. The graduates often memorized poetry. (“The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” and “The Village Blacksmith” were mentioned.) Some graduates also read popular books; CS especially liked Stephen King novels; ES liked the Left Behind series. Most graduates took literature classes, primarily Shakespeare classes.
Nine of the graduates mentioned studying some of Shakespeare’s plays (Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard III, Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night); eight of the graduates took classes, formal or co-op, in Shakespeare’s plays. Some graduates also saw the plays performed in nearby theaters, some saw the plays on videos, some saw the plays on a trip to a Shakespeare theater in Oregon, and some performed the plays, complete with costumes and props, for large support groups. AS built a set of Hamlet out of Legos. Three mothers stated they didn’t do much Shakespeare with their sons. BS “just read excerpts.” DS “didn’t enjoy it,” but they “did go to some plays.” ES read “parts of his plays.”
Surprisingly, both mothers and graduates had practically nothing to say about vocabulary instruction except that vocabulary was integrated into unit studies; it “was a part of what they did, not separate (HM),” although AM used analogies, and FM used Wordly Wise series. Graduates asked their mothers if they didn’t know the meanings of words, and they also looked words up in the dictionary.
Almost all the graduates said they had no grammar problems. GS1 and GS2 said they had “not many grammar problems.” ES said “taking Latin helped a lot with grammar,” and GM said the same for her two daughters. (Five of the graduates or their mothers mentioned taking Latin, ES for 3 years.) DS recalled using work sheets “like what’s wrong with this sentence,” doing work sheets about parts of speech, and diagramming sentences. FS1 and FS2 mentioned using workbooks, and GS2 said she “would look it up if it was really important.” The mothers mentioned using specific programs, such as Houghton Mifflin materials, Easy Grammar, Excellence in Writing materials, and a programmed learning textbook.
Although extensive time was often spent on spelling instruction, nine of the graduates (four males, five females) said they had had some spelling problems, and four of those felt they still had some problems. For FS2, GS1, and IS1, who stated they had had some spelling problems, their mothers said they had no spelling problems. Perhaps the mothers expected spelling to be difficult for children to master and focused on their graduates’ eventual spelling successes, while the graduates focused on their difficulties. AS remembered using Spelling Power, and DS, whose mother said he was an above-average speller, “didn’t do spelling in the beginning when learning to read.” A year or two later he had lists to study and had “little tests every morning.” The mothers mentioned using Spelling Power, Word Power, and Sing, Spell, Read, and Write.
Seven graduates (two males, five females) took a writing class. With the exception of AS, who said that writing wasn’t something he wanted to do, the graduates recounted positive writing
experiences. Graduates wrote stories, book reports, essays, history reports, descriptions, science reports, political reports, letters, and poems. GS2 and HS remembered writing girls’ adventure stories for fun. CM said that writing projects were a problem for her son. CS, however, said that he was “pretty good at writing” and that he wrote daily about what he read throughout home schooling. DM said that her son and his younger sister “journaled every day.” Before they could write, DM wrote what they dictated. (DM got the idea from other home school mothers.) EM said that her son “hates to write,” but she “made him do it” and “he can do it.” ES said he likes “writing some things, like politics and science, not book reports or essays.” GM said her two daughters, along with their older brother, “wrote all the time,” especially “a lot of history reports” and that they were all “pretty good at writing.” IM mentioned a writing correspondence class that her daughter, IS2, took; papers sent in once a week were returned with comments and corrections. IS2 also took a special writing class with other home schoolers in which the teacher and students discussed each other’s writings each week.
Bible Stories and Christian Materials
Nine of the 10 mothers mentioned using Bible stories and/or Christian materials as part of the reading and language arts instruction. Three mothers mentioned having their children memorize Bible verses, and three mothers mentioned reading the Narnia series aloud. Mothers mentioned using such materials as a Christian phonics program, Christian literature, particularly Christian novels, series books from the Christian bookstore, ABeka literature textbooks, and Bob Jones individual books. Of the 13 graduates, 8 (three males, five females) mentioned using Christian materials, namely the Narnia series, Christian fiction, and Bible stories.
Other Instructional Materials and Techniques
Of the graduates, BS remembered copying words and said he learned a lot on his own by going over little books that had been read aloud by his parents. For cursive writing, FS1 remembered using workbooks. Of the mothers, CM used “a lot of manipulatives” but did not use a set curriculum. All the mothers mentioned using unit studies and/or projects; they went to project fairs and took many field trips. Topics frequently mentioned were early pioneers, the Civil War, World War II, and Native Americans. IM used many different programs and “constantly looked for additional materials”; she asked for advice at a home school store concerning programs. FM found the McGuffy readers boring for her children. IM liked Alpha Omega and Little Patriots. Since DM sold Scholastic books to home school groups for three years, she got lots of books free. GM used informational books, such as Seattle history. AM mentioned that her son did internet searches. EM said she had “not much newspaper reading,” and “some magazines.” BM said that her son “read the backs of baseball cards.”
Time Spent on Reading and Language Arts
Mothers reported spending from 1-3 hours a day on reading and language arts (five mothers, 2-3 hours; three mothers, 1-2 hours; two mothers, 1 hour). EM reported that when her son was older they spent about 4 hours a day because he read so much. The graduates’ recollections of time spent confirmed the mothers’ reports.
All but one mother (AM) reported belonging to a co-op. The others were “part of co-ops all along.” In family co-ops, the children are taught by the parents, usually the mothers, not an outside teacher. Each family co-op works differently; each makes its own rules, but the norm is that several mothers share the teaching in some way. One mother may teach the whole day, including planning the lessons and activities and gathering materials, while the other mothers watch and help out. More commonly, the mothers plan together what they will study and the activities they will do. Then they work together in teaching so everyone is responsible for something.
Most co-ops tend to study social studies, literature, and science topics and are very hands-on. For example, when studying Indians of the United States, the children may make dioramas of the Indians’ homes and villages, may act out some phase of their lives (such as the ways the Plains Indians hunted buffalo before using horses, with some children playing buffalo and some playing Indians), do an art project, perform in puppet shows, cook typical meals, do crafts (moccasins, Navajo weaving), and go on field trips. Sometimes when a topic is studied over an extended period of time, the families are invited to a culminating activity: for example, the fathers and any siblings not in the co-op attend an “Indian” night for a meal which includes some food of each Indian group studied and where the children display their arts and crafts. There may be a presentation such as a play, skit, or song.
Some co-ops are formed for one age group, some for one age and gender, some for one topic. For example, fourth and fifth grade girls may take part in an American Girl co-op. They read American Girl series and do arts and crafts. However, most co-ops tend to be for all the children in a family. Among the families interviewed, the co-ops were all literature or social studies related. One family, however, reported a different type of co-op. BM stated that theirs was a field trip co-op where they went on two to three field trips a month to places like a lumber mill, the Safeway bread plant, and a ski factory.
The literature related groups, in which 6 of the 10 families participated, tended to be one of two types. The first type either put on drama presentations or attended drama productions, and the second type read and studied literature, especially Shakespeare’s plays.
Five of the 10 families reported being involved in social studies co-ops. These studied a variety of topics such as geography (JM), where one of the activities was making a relief map of Africa, and history (CM, FM, GM, IM, and JM), such as medieval times, state reports, American government leaders, Egypt and ancient Egyptians, the Civil War, World War II, and Hebrew holidays.
Four of the mothers used the Konos curriculum in their co-ops, a curriculum which uses unit studies to teach all subjects, except math and beginning reading, to K-sixth grade students. The curriculum is comprised of an extensive idea book that orders instruction around character traits (e.g., attentiveness, obedience, honesty). Each character trait is then taught through social studies and science topics that contribute to that character trait. For example, attentiveness is taught through a study of senses necessary to attentiveness, such as seeing, hearing, and smelling. Then the social studies and science aspects are developed by studying Indians, trappers, and birds – those who must use attentiveness to survive.
Nine of the 10 families took part in Monday/Wednesday School, especially in writing and Latin classes. This school is a “co-op,” but not in the usual sense of the word. Every parent (mother) has a job that contributes to the running of the co-op; however, this is not a co-op in teaching. Courses are held in the modern classrooms of two large church buildings. The governing board decides which courses to offer for all ages, and each teacher sets his/her own fee and a materials’ fee. Parents pay the teacher through a “class facilitator.” The facilitator and one other parent must be present in each class. Parents are required to be on the premises, and they usually attend their children’s classes, sitting in the back of the room. As the children get older, parents attend less. However, in some classes, as many as two thirds of the parents may be present. In Latin class, most parents sit next to their children, learning along with them.
Several of the graduates had had reading problems, and it is interesting to see how the mothers dealt with those problems and how the graduates reacted to their problems. AM, the licensed practical nurse who was currently a ceramic artist, faced daunting challenges with the reading difficulties of her son, and HM, a former elementary teacher (3 years in a Christian school) found that her daughter had comprehension difficulties complicated by vision problems.
For AS, who had severe reading problems throughout his primary public school instruction, AM, upon removing him from school and finding that he couldn’t read simple first-grade words, taught him phonics and got special tutoring for him for the next 3 years in phonics, reading, writing, and spelling. Although he “knew some isolated words, he made mistakes every fourth or fifth word. It was painful to listen to.” In the public school, AS “was just refusing to cooperate or do the work.” Consequently, the “teachers used to call daily.” But AM stated that she received no help from teachers. Since it was “very difficult to get him to read a book,” even after he learned phonics, AM read aloud to him for several hours each day and regularly asked questions (literal and interpretive) after she read each book aloud. From fourth grade up, AS dictated stories and AM wrote them down. AS “never really wrote for fun.” In the eighth grade AM paid him to read books ($5 for an adult book, $1 for a Star Trek book, $.50 for a comic book); AS “had to be able to answer questions on the books.”
AS remembered being sent to special education classes, but he “just sat there.” He said he “had a really bad experience in public school, in learning as well as being picked on.” He said “the tutoring for writing and pronouncing words out loud was helpful.” He remembered that his mother mostly read to him and that he watched videos after she read. He remembered spending “hours and hours” each day on reading and language arts activities, including Shakespeare’s plays, science fiction, and fantasy. He remembered having some spelling and grammar problems and not wanting to write. He currently liked reading medieval fantasy series and manuals, and after he took a course in computer technology at a local community college, he started his own business as a computer technician in which he strips down and rebuilds computers.
HM reported that “phonics seemed to frustrate HS” and that HS “had no comprehension memory for what she had read. But she was OK at comprehension for material read to her.” At age 10, HS had vision screening. Although her vision was 20/20, focusing was a problem. One eye focused far, one near. She had visual therapy exercises for about 4 years, and this eye problem will continue to be with her. “Once in a while she’ll read for pleasure.” HM read aloud about two hours a day throughout home schooling. (HS, the second of four children each 2 years apart, listened to her mother and her older brother when she was younger and later listened to her younger sister, who liked to read aloud.) HM made sure to give a variety of types of questions for comprehension. With her siblings, HS was a part of a five-family co-op, which did drama presentations. (As You Like It was mentioned.) All the children watched movies of the books they had read. All also wrote essays, and all took writing classes.
HS recalled her mother reading aloud to the four children together until she was about age 12, and she currently enjoys listening to her younger sister (age 15), who is reading The Lord of the Rings aloud to her and her younger brother (age 17). She remembered hating phonics and “preferred doing the reading, not being taught.” She talked about her vision problem and daily exercises, saying that she “used to skip big words because of the vision problem.” She remembered comprehension problems before getting glasses; she still has some problems. She “had a vague understanding, but with glasses, reading and understanding changed a lot for the better.” She started reading more after getting glasses. She felt she is “doing-oriented. The text needs to be personally important” to her. She remembered some spelling problems (“some problems still”) and doing a lot of writing. When she was little she drew a lot and wrote captions on her drawings. At ages 11-13, she “wrote a lot of stories just for my own pleasure.” Sometimes with friends she wrote stories about girls having adventures. At the high school level she used a traditional literature textbook, read biographies to go along with the history she and her siblings were studying, and read and performed plays. She remembered spending at least 2 hours a day on reading and language arts activities. She currently likes reading informational books and is reading books about missions, since she is preparing to go on a 2-year mission cruise to Europe and South America when she soon graduates from a local community college.
JS remembered “some problems with pronunciation of long words.” GS1 asked her mother for any help she needed; she didn’t ask her older brother or sister. If ES had problems in understanding his textbooks, he’d ask his mother.
Comparisons With Siblings
Eight of the mothers talked about their children’s reading progress in comparative terms: “BS is better in spelling than his brother.” “BS had less trouble with phonics than his brother.” “His sister had no problems in spelling, but CS still has problems.” “His sister spent 2-3 hours a day reading; CS did only what he had to do.” “DS had no problems with phonics; his sister had problems.” “DS likes to read more than his sister.” “FS2 and her brother were slower than FS1.” “GS2 was, and is, the worst speller, GS1 the best speller.” “Her brother was more cerebral than HS; HS was more active.” “Her sister can’t spell; none of the others had such big problems with spelling.” “My sons do better than daughters in grammar and writing.” “IS1 was not so much into writing as IS2.” “JS doesn’t read for pleasure as much as her brother.” IS2 mentioned that her younger sister IS1 wanted to learn to read when IS2 did; IS1 caught up. JS “learned to read early, but not as early as” her older brother.
TV and Video Games
According to both mothers and graduates, nine of the graduates watched TV for an hour or less each day, and four graduates watched 2-3 hours a day. Of the individual variations, three graduates watched no daytime TV; one watched no TV during the week, only from Friday night to Saturday night, but could record weekday programs for weekend viewing; one family (two graduates) hadn’t had a TV in their home for the last 2 years. JS saw no cartoons on Saturdays because she attended a German language school on Saturday mornings for 8 or 9 years. Nintendo games were limited to an hour or less each day for BS (2 hours a week when they first got them).
Although the time spent reading textbooks in college curtailed pleasure reading for most of the graduates, all made time to read something for pleasure. GS2 and JS read historical fiction; AS and BS, medieval fantasy series; DS and IS1, non-fiction; IS1, informational books; ES, science books and fiction; CS and FS1, magazines; GS1, “pretty much anything”; FS2, sports medicine books; and IS2, detective and adventure stories. IS2 often read books more than once.
What Would You Do Differently?
Mothers responded to “What would you do differently?” by saying they would do more spelling (BM, CM, DM, and HM), study more grammar earlier (GM), use more literature (DM and IM), do more with creative writing (CM and DM), and instill more of a love of reading by reading and discussing more books together as a family (IM). Three mothers wished they had known about specific skills programs earlier (Word Power, Spelling Power, Hooked on Phonics). FM felt her children watched too much TV (about 2-3 hours each day.) JM would continue to read aloud longer; she stopped at about age 5 for JS and at about age 7 for her brother. She would read to them separately. She stopped reading aloud to them together because they didn’t work well together. AM said “Nothing.” She would “just continue as I did.”
Would You Home School Your Own Children?
Asked “Would you home school your own children?” only one graduate (a female) said “no” (“I’d be working”). Almost all graduates said they would home school their own children at least through elementary grades. Four graduates (three males, one female) said “yes, all the way through.” Three graduates (one male, two females) said “yes” through elementary school; the females said “maybe” for junior high, “no” for high school; the male would decide about jr./sr. high after elementary home schooling. One female said “probably” through high school. Another female said “probably” through sixth grade, but not for jr./sr. high. Another female said “I don’t know.” A male said “Yes, it would be a good idea,” but it would depend upon the wife. Another male said it would depend upon the child. The female who said “I don’t know” said “It’s a lot of work and needs a lot of patience. I enjoyed it myself and learned a lot, but I don’t know whether I would have the patience.” The female who said “probably” through sixth grade, but not for jr./sr. high, also said “unless my husband was willing and able to take on the math and science.” Of the four graduates who said “yes, all the way through,” two (males) had been home schooled all the way through themselves; one male was home schooled for grades 4-12, and one female was home schooled for grades 3-12.
In many ways, the literacy instruction in these 10 families could serve as a model for other home schoolers. The mothers showed a very great awareness of, and attention to, the individual differences of their children. The mothers were willing to spend all their time ensuring that their children learned skills and subjects they deemed appropriate. If the children had difficulty learning to read or with other aspects of literacy instruction, the mothers would spend as many hours a day as necessary to ensure their children’s success. They quickly changed from programs that were not giving the desired results, and they sought out supplemental materials when necessary. These mothers had a very clear idea of the importance of reading, and their children’s low performance was not an option, especially in terms of decoding. Other aspects of literacy instruction, however, such as comprehension and vocabulary, were not treated with the same single-mindedness.
The mothers frequently noted that a specific child did not like a given aspect of literacy instruction, such as phonics, writing, spelling, or certain types of literature. However, mastery of skills, especially phonic skills, was required and expected; exercises and instruction, often with other materials or programs, stopped only after mastery. A child’s dislike of certain types of literature was handled differently, especially as the child got older. For example, DM did no reading of Shakespeare with her son because he “didn’t enjoy it”; they did, however, go to some Shakespeare plays.
In terms of instructional concerns of the researchers, the main one is the generally unstructured comprehension instruction of many of the mothers. Many mothers seemed to feel that comprehension would just come naturally after decoding was mastered; mothers without a teaching background didn’t think in terms of literal and interpretive comprehension. Formal analytical and evaluative comprehension appeared to be neglected, but of course extensive family discussions of books could provide those necessary skills. There is also the possibility of individual publishers having undue influence on mothers without a background in teaching. Additionally, mothers must constantly assess the kinds of literacy activities completed. Otherwise, a home school student who didn’t like to write could avoid writing and therefore not develop necessary skills. While mothers in a previous study (Knafle & Wescott, 1994) named writing as being a particularly difficult subject to teach, the mothers and graduates in this study cited a wide variety of positive writing experiences, with few negative memories. More than half of the graduates, mainly females, took writing classes, mostly at the secondary level.
Another instructional concern is a decoding practice of some home schoolers, hopefully not common; that practice was recalled by DS, who sounded out every letter in words he already knew. Unfortunately, some presenters at home school conventions have said that students learning phonics who guess at word pronunciations in stories instead of sounding out every letter are “cheating.”
A main implication of the findings in the “Comparison with Siblings” section is that for these home schooled graduates there was an intense degree of scrutiny of their reading and language arts progress, probably on a daily basis, in comparison with their siblings. Interestingly, the graduates were well aware of these comparisons, made some comparisons themselves, and said nothing to show that they resented these comparisons. (JM, however, noted that JS did not work well with her older brother. JS mentioned that she learned to read early, but not as early as her brother. And GS1 and CS mentioned that if they had a reading problem, they would ask their mothers for help, not their older brothers or sisters.) Sibling competition could have the potential of being problematic with home schoolers, especially since mothers are personally involved in every nuance of the reading process, but resentment of a sibling’s literacy success did not appear to be a problem with these graduates.
Only a few different perceptions between mothers and graduates about problems in specific literacy areas emerged in the interviews. In spelling, four graduates said they had had spelling problems, but their mothers said they had no spelling problems. In comprehension, few graduates remembered their mothers asking questions after reading. In writing, a graduate said he was “pretty good at writing,” but his mother said that writing was a problem for him. And a student with many reading problems did not see his problems as being as severe as his mother did.
For some home schoolers, there may be a question about their exposure to current materials, especially current fiction. Favorite books of the graduates were overwhelmingly traditional and/or Christian. At the Washington state home school convention, more than 100 publishers exhibited instructional materials just for home schoolers; the materials most frequently used by home schoolers are not the materials used in the public schools. The fiction provided by the publishers and read by the graduates was frequently not current. An extreme example was that of ABeka publishers, where all the fiction provided at the high school level was classic. No doubt the conservative views of home school parents and publishers account for the nature of much fiction read by home schoolers.
It was clear that the mothers knew what their children were reading throughout home schooling, and not just because of the extensive reading aloud by mothers and children in the elementary grades or because of their participation in unit studies and in co-op projects. DM mentioned that she “read 75% of the material kids read when they were older, more when younger.” GM “read everything they read, then we all discussed the stories.” Home school girls may be especially protected in the home literacy environment. Because of that protection, home school girls may look at life a little differently than other girls. A study of children’s responses to forgiveness versus retribution in a fairy tale found that home school girls reacted to forgiveness versus retribution in a more pronounced manner (preferring forgiveness) than girls in public, Catholic, or Christian schools (Knafle & Wescott, 2000).
In a comparison with other studies, the extensive reading aloud by the mothers and the graduates and the extensive phonics instruction confirmed previous findings (Knafle & Wescott, 1994), where parents and children continued reading aloud at upper grade levels and working on phonics often well beyond the grade for such instruction in public schools. The mothers’ emphases on phonics instruction and oral reading seem to be givens for home schoolers, and it would be difficult to find a home school mother who did not emphasize phonics and oral reading. We have been asked, “Why?” and whether parenting styles and/or politics might play a role in such instructional choices. Most home school mothers would probably say they used phonics and oral reading “because they work” or “because that’s the best way to teach reading.” Unsympathetic teachers might say that the mothers like to monitor and be in control of the reading process as well as all aspects of their children’s lives, including avoiding corrupting current fiction. Some home school parents might reply that that is precisely why they are home schooling their children. (Sometimes it seems as if there’s a little war going on.) But such questions are beyond the scope of this study. The graduates’ mothers’ patience, persistence, and resourcefulness when their children had reading difficulties was also found in a previous study (Knafle & Wescott, 1996), in which three mothers described their instructional responses to the reading difficulties of some of their children. Duvall, Ward, Delquadri, and Greenwood (1997) and Ensign (2000) also reported home school parents’ persistence and success in teaching their learning disabled children who had reading difficulties. The cross-age tutoring and collaboration of these graduates confirmed previous findings (Knafle & Wescott, 1998), in which tutoring and collaboration occurred primarily with siblings in reading and language arts, but also with other home schoolers in social studies. However, at higher grade levels, the graduates in this study reported much collaboration with other home schoolers in the areas of literature and drama. As in the 1994 study (Knafle & Wescott), graduates preferred reading fiction to other genres; also, in accord with the 1994 findings, no one in this study reported reading Greek and Roman myths, but rather Bible stories.
This study provided some previously lacking information about the literacy practices of long-term home schoolers from the points of view of home school graduates and their mothers. Some findings were expected and in accord with other studies, such as the intense nature of phonics instruction, which continued until mastery, often beyond the grade levels of public school phonics instruction. Failure was not an option for graduates or their mothers in this area. Also in accord with other studies was the extensive amount of oral reading by graduates and their families, in many instances into high school grades, another clear difference from public school instruction. The home school mothers were single-minded in their instruction in these two areas especially. Spelling was often given extensive instruction time, and grammar was given varying amounts of time and materials, depending upon individual differences of the graduates. Vocabulary was generally not taught separately, but rather integrated into unit studies, a major difference from public schools. Another major difference from public schools was the unstructured nature of comprehension instruction. Writing was a frequent activity for most of these graduates. Literature was almost exclusively classic and traditional; the fiction read by the graduates was usually not current, probably reflecting conservative and/or Christian traditions. Graduates and their mothers spoke about their many unit studies and special literacy projects, about their extensive involvement in co-ops, and about how the mothers handled reading problems. The mothers’ commitment to their children’s literacy success was clearly evident throughout the interviews. Finally, almost all the graduates said they would home school their own children at least through elementary grades.
The authors are especially grateful to the graduates and mothers for their candidness in discussing their reading instruction practices, along with their frustrations, problems, and successes.
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Selected Home School Instructional Materials
ABeka Book Inc. PO Box 19100. Pensacola, FL 32523-9983
Adams-Gordon, Beverly L. (1995). Spelling power. Seattle, WA: Castlemoyle Books.
Alpha Omega Publications. 300 North McKemy Ave. Chandler, AZ 85226-2618
Christian Liberty Academy materials. (Multilevel books on phonics, spelling, and grammar are available from Great Christian Books. 229 South Bridge St. PO Box 8000. Elkton, MD 21922-8000.)
The great Saltmine & Hifwip direct phonics reading program. (2001). TATRAS, Teach America to Read & Spell. PO Box 44093,A. Tacoma, WA 98444-4093.
Hall, Nancy, and Price, Rena. (1990). Explode the code. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service, Inc.
Hodkinson, Kenneth, and Ornato, Joseph G. (1991). Wordly wise. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service, Inc.
Hooked on phonics. (1995). Orange, CA: Gateway Educational Products, LTD.
Phillips, Wanda C. (1994). Easy grammar. Scottsdale, AZ: ISHA Enterprises, Inc. (Available from The Home School. PO Box 308. North Chelmsford, MA 01863-0308.)
Professor phonics kit & master kit. (1999). (Available from Builder Books, Inc. PO Box 99. Riverside, WA 98849.)
Pudewa, Andrew. (2000) Teaching writing: Structure and style. Institute for Excellence in Writing. PO Box 6065A. Atascadero, CA 93423
Scovell, Saundra, & Nelson, Guyla. (1987). Little patriots series. A beginning phonics curriculum for American Christian schools. Mile-Hi Pub. PO Box 19340. Denver, CO 80219.
Sing, spell read & write. (1998). Sing ‘n Learn. 2626 Club Meadow. Garland, TX 75043-1102.
Spaulding, Romalda Bishop. (1969). The writing road to reading. New York: Quill.
Spelling for Christian schools. (1990). Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press.
Thaxton, Carole, and Huley, Jessica. (1987). Konos character curriculum. Richardson, TX: Konos.
The Weaver Curriculum. PO Box 7438. Chandler, AZ 85246.