Learning to talk is a phenomenal feat in young children, setting them up
for a lifetime of talking to learn.
For a long time I’ve been convinced that the most
powerful educational tool we have available is, quite simply, talking.
In Britain, several researchers into home education have come up with
the conclusion that the single most important factor in children
learning at home in all kinds of creative ways is the sheer volume of
conversation that goes on when children are in family groups and not
placed into large artificial peer groups with little access to adults
with whom to talk.
Other researchers long ago acknowledged that young
children go from asking hundreds of questions each day to a mere handful
of mundane questions like “Where is the ruler? or “Can I go to the
toilet?” within weeks of entering school. Mainstream education kills
conversation; it is simply not a logistical option to have several
in-depth conversations on whatever issues the child is puzzling over
when there is a ratio of one adult to perhaps thirty or more children. The
dearth of conversation in schools is so dire that in the UK it is now a
curriculum topic as part of English teaching! Of course, children don’t
get to ask questions about whatever they are inquisitive or passionate
about – rather they are given stilted “conversation” tasks designed
around set pieces so that overworked teachers can tick off the
“listening” and “speaking” boxes on dumbed-down key stage attainment
The only real conversation that goes on in these
artificial environments is between pupils during snatched moments at
break times. There is no doubt that such conversation is vital to the
children, but it is a mono-conversation, that is, only what children of
exactly the same age can provide for each other. As good, creative and
fulfilling as this might be, it can never compete with the
poly-conversational opportunities open to home-educated young people.
Children who learn without school don’t have to
stop asking questions for most of the day when they reach the age of
five. Moreover, they have a much broader range of people to talk to. Not
only do they have friends of their own age, siblings across an age range
and home-educated friends who may be younger or older than themselves,
but they also have much greater access to unstructured and unhurried
adult conversation: with parents, relatives, local home-educating
adults, librarians, museum curators, members of the local community and
Time and again, people comment to me about the way
my children talk to them, engaging in conversation on a serious level.
For home-educated young people, the world is their peer group and they
engage with it accordingly. My 11-year-old son chats with the pilot who
lives down the road about flying and about her model remote control
aircraft hobby as though he is a member of her local hobby club. He
makes interested conversation with the couple a few doors further down
who restore classic cars, about the features of Cadillacs, in much the
same way as any of their adult neighbors with a bit of time to talk
The fact that my son also happens to be highly
dyslexic makes absolutely no difference to how he interacts, to how much
new knowledge he retains, or to the breadth of his ever burgeoning
vocabulary. The learning isn’t impeded by having to be committed to
paper or hindered by the demand to make a five-minute presentation to
fulfill some curriculum requirement. Instead it flows naturally, with
each conversation organically adding more skills, learning and
Although two of our children have now reached an
age where they have opted for formal degree level study, conversation
has always been the mainstay of our home education “method” and remains
a vital ingredient, alongside fun. My oldest son is studying literature
and politics. He sets his alarm early so that every morning he can read
newspapers online and then go and spend time with his dad (the other
early riser in our house) talking about world events and the interaction
of history and politics. Until taking a degree, he had never studied
history or politics formally. The written work of the previous 12 years
could probably have fit on the back of a decent sized envelope. Rather,
years of conversation fed a passionate interest and continue to keep
that interest lively and ongoing. The same is true with literature – a
love of reading books is sustained with a love of talking about books.
First and foremost, stories are oral; and we haven’t grown out of
reading to each other, as well as talking about what we are reading.
We’ve also seen the power of conversation in other
areas of learning. I read science degree texts to my older daughter
because, like her younger brother, she is dyslexic and prefers to learn
by ear rather than eye. The reading aloud has taught me a great deal of
science that I never thought I would know and has given me the tools to
be able to discuss scientific issues more fully. This, in turn, has
rippled through the family, so that reading and discussing articles in
the New Scientist has become a family propensity. When there is a lot of
conversation going on, learning is so much less privatized. It may be my
older daughter who is taking the qualification, but all of us are
gaining a deeper understanding of fascinating things because there is so
much space within home-educating family life for us to talk about what
she is doing and gain from it with her.
My friends whose children go to school constantly
complain that their children give monosyllabic answers at best when
asked about what they are learning. I’m hardly surprised that their
children are reluctant to talk about subjects that they are being force
fed, regardless of their unique interests and motivation. How dull it
must be to be asked to regurgitate descriptions of something that didn’t
interest you the first time round! Our household and other
home-educating families I know experience the complete reverse of this.
Children wake up talking and don’t stop till they fall asleep again.
What’s more, the conversation is full of life and interest, taking all
kinds of interesting turns and stretching what is known to the next and
the next level.
A few weeks ago, I began Welsh classes. I live in a
Welsh speaking area and although all of my Welsh neighbors speak good
English, they certainly think in Welsh. It is the living conversational
tool of the area and even if I never get as good at it as my neighbors
are at English, I’m keen to be able to talk to local people in their own
language. The classes are very different from the highly academic,
grammar-based language classes I had at school when I was learning
French, German or Latin. We write virtually nothing and learn by
talking. The sessions are oral, fast and intense and that also makes
them highly memorable and great fun. I leave every session tired, but
exhilarated and wanting to learn more.
The lessons are a wonderful model of what I see
going on in so many home-educating households. The conversation flows.
People of all ages join in, try out new ideas and, if they are stuck or
need information, they ask questions. The topics are those that really
interest the participants, whether it is comparing organic seeds for
sowing in a vegetable garden or the theory of black holes or how to
describe the weather in Welsh (“mae h’in bwrw glaw” – “it’s raining”
being a fair bet for this time of the year).
I’m very grateful to live in a world that is
bursting with all kinds of educational resources. I love books. I love
writing, whether it’s keeping a journal or planning a full length novel.
I admire the communication and knowledge contained in music, art,
photography and film. I’m thrilled by the best possibilities of
technology, just as I am by the skills of craftspeople who work
manually. But above all else and uniting all of these learning
possibilities, conversation leads the way in learning. And it is our
children, the ones who are nurtured to follow their intrinsic motivation
and learn in all kinds of creative ways, who have the most access to
conversation. Learning to talk is a phenomenal feat in young children,
setting them up for a lifetime of talking to learn.
Jan Fortune-Wood lives and works in Wales, UK as a poet, writer, publisher, parenting adviser and humanist liturgist.
She is author of four titles on home education, autonomous education and non-coercive parenting:
Doing It Their Way; Without Boundaries; Bound To Be Free
and With Consent, all published by Educational Heretics Press. She
unschooled her four children.