Our 6 year old: learning to spell and read

Learning to read… that magic when the squiggles on the page become something you can decipher!
This is not a “how to” post, merely a description of what’s happening now for our youngest, the 6th child to learn to read from our family. He’s aged 6 years and 11 months.

Yes, I know I could have taught him years ago. (My mother had Glen Doman’s “Teach your baby to read” which describes a process of using flash cards and having a fluent reader, aged 2 years).

Yes, I know I could have read up on all the latest teaching fashions.. it was Letterland in Ireland for some of his older brothers at this stage, who are now aged 19 and 21. Now many schools seem to be using Jolly Phonics.

Yes, I know I could get exercised about whether phonics or whole word methods are preferable. I could engage in heated debates regarding the orthodoxy of teaching reading methods.


A little Secret…

I have NEVER TAUGHT a child to read!!!
Or spell!!!
Or do times tables!!!
There… sue me!!!

Here’s what I did:

I read books.
And newspapers.
And magazines.
I got membership newsletters from La Leche League, the Home Birth Association of Ireland, “Sa Bhaile” (former Irish newsletter for home ed.), Home Education Network, the Miscarriage Association of Ireland, the Irish Haemophilia Society, The Mother magazine and before that, The Compleat Mother.
I borrowed copies of “Education Otherwise” magazines and John Holt’s “Growing Without Schooling”.
So I’d be nursing a baby/toddler/older child(!) and reading.
Whatever I wanted to read.
I read Jane Austen, Maeve Binchy, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Ina May Gaskin, Marian Keyes, Sheila Kitzinger, Alexander McCall Smith, Anita Shreve….

So all the children here think books are sacred.. and important… and worth looking at everyday. They picked up the idea (along with mother’s breastmilk?) that words have power and magic and are enjoyable and a GOOD THING.

I never told them they SHOULD read.

I just read.

For myself.

I read to them too, of course… we read Walter Macken and Shirley Hughes and C.S. Lewis and Dr. Seuss and Tolkien and Enid Blyton and Michael Morpugo and J. K. Rowling…

We went to the library and borrowed books on tape and CD.

So last night at a time that was more than 2 hours later than his notional (more honoured in the breach than in the observance) “bed time”, Eamonn (6) said:

“Will you snuggle me?”
“How do you spell ‘snuggle’?… NO! WAIT!!”
Deep quiet thinking..
“S… N…G… now wait, DON’T tell me…”
More thinking, I swear I could hear the cogs turn in his brain, or the synapses firing..
“S.. N.. U.. G”
“Well done! ” I said. “You got SNUG .. now, you just need the “gle” sound…”
More thinking..
Let me remind you, he is not yet a reader. So SNUGGL is a pretty brilliant try, I think.

I’ll keep you posted!


Some lessons babies taught me

This time 21 years ago, I was eagerly looking forward to having my second baby, and to helping to heal the first child’s actively managed hospital birth, by having this birth in the comfort and security of our own home, with our trusted midwife, Ann Kelly.
I resented having to get up to the toilet at night as the growing baby took up some bladder space. It hit me one evening, braving the cold outside the bed covers, “there’s a person inside me!”.. I can still feel the shock, the realisation, the “don’t be such a bloody moaner”; count your blessings!
I called out Ann Kelly 10 days before my due date, with vague contractions and what became a thumping headache. She stayed with us overnight and when she took my blood pressure, she told us gently and firmly we needed to go to hospital. We had no car, and no arrangements to care for Darragh, nearly 7 years old. So she drove us to hospital and had Darragh to her home for the day.
A lovely midwife said into my ear, as I heard our baby’s heartbeat on the scan, “dear, we have to lower your blood pressure and we have to deliver your baby.” 2 hours after arriving there, Oisín was born by caesarean section under general anaesthesia and I had round-the-clock midwifery care for 48 hours until my blood pressure stabilised.
I don’t remember when I first saw him. I only know that whenever I woke, I begged to see him and to have him breastfeed.
We were in hospital for 10 days and lucky to have a midwife sit for 3 hours one night helping us to get a comfortable position and latch, made difficult with the c. section scar.
I recognised the kind midwife (who had taken the time to explain what was happening) 3 months later when I was back in hospital for a kidney check-up. I had no visual memory of her (apparently due to high blood pressure and medication) but I knew her voice and thanked her for taking the time to treat me as a sentient being.
There was so much to deal with in the aftermath, happiness at Oisín’s health, sadness at not having the homebirth, scar healing and a windy, sometimes unhappy baby. The words of one doctor were ringing in my ears: “I know homebirth is a nice IDEA but you’ll never be a candidate!”
4 homebirths later, the first 20 months after the c.section, I know that it’s possible to be grateful for medical expertise and yet seek other opinions and research; to count the blessings of a healthy baby and alive mother but still mourn the experience I’d hoped for.
I treasure the words of Mary Cronk, amazing midwife:
I guess the expertise comes in knowing which are those births!

Keeping my nerve on a road less travelled

When I first thought about home education, my son was 9 months old. I had met only one family, with a toddler and 2 children under 10. I knew no home educated teenagers or adults. Before this family loaned me their John Holt books “How Children Learn”, “How Children Fail”, “The Underachieving School” and their Education Otherwise (UK) newsletters, I hadn’t thought about the concept of children continuing to learn at home within the family, just as they learn to sit, crawl, walk and talk. Because I was born in Brisbane, I had a vague notion about the Australian “Schools of the Air” where children on remote farms maintained radio contact with a teacher and worked somewhat independently on their studies. We moved to Ireland when I was 6 and my parents’ idea was “the more education, the better” and for them, education=schooling.
I have to credit La Leche League and the concept of “mothering through breastfeeding” with giving me enough courage for each day’s challenges. My mother breastfed all 6 of us and I’m the eldest. There was never any formula in our house. I remember one brother having a bottle of diluted blackcurrant as an older child and that same lad, 21 months old when his “baby” status was displaced by another, asking for a soother. My mother got him one and it was soon discarded. No drama, no fuss.
La Leche League also hosts an annual conference, which has become an unmissable highlight in our year. There are often talks relating to education as part of the programme. Some of the most encouraging talks have been from parents who are home educating, telling their stories, being honest about what worked and what mistakes they made on the journey of accompanying their child’s learning. The conference bookstall has been a source of much take-home inspiration: Agnes Leistico’s books: “I Learn Better by Teaching Myself”, “Still Teaching Ourselves”, and Mary Griffith’s “Homeschooling Handbook”
We were weaned early, though. I first met a breastfed toddler when I was 16. I was highly impressed that when I took this child, aged 18 months, to the corner shop he asked for “babu” – his word for apple – and ignored the rows of chocolates and sweets. His mother loaned me her La Leche League book “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding” 3 years later, when I was having my first baby. There was so much love and wisdom and many powerful, gentle examples in that book. It’s still a book I return to, and recommend highly to anyone seeking reassurance in following her/his heart in parenting.
So wobbly days, questioning myself days, wondering if this unusual path is really right for us? Dara Molloy from the Aisling Árainn network on Inis Mór, organised an “Alternatives in Education” day in Clonmacnoise in the summer of 1988 and from that, a list of home educators in Ireland grew and a newsletter “Sa Bhaile” (Irish for “At Home”). It gave a vital link to other people in Ireland whose children were learning at home and was a crucial channel of support and inspiration.
It’s funny how our ideas can grow and develop. I thought all my children would get a college degree. Eddie thought they would all do the Leaving Certificate (exam taken at around 18 years of age, on which access to college is largely based). So far, with 3 adults, we’ve both been wrong! The eldest did a few Fáilte Ireland courses in bar skills and hotel management after he sat the Leaving Certificate exams. The next did Leaving Certificate and 2 years of acting courses. The third is in third year of college (studying for a degree in music) without having attended any school or sitting the Leaving Certificate. He gained entry to college by studying piano at home and then attending a one year course, aged 16, in a local college and achieving a FETAC (Further Ed. and Training Awards Council) Level 5 in Music and doing well in the college entrance exam and audition.
I am amazed now at my daring, really. There have been times when I did the soul-searching: “Is this really the best path?”
“Am I cutting off some possibilities from their futures?”
When Darragh, now 27, was home from his travels, I had one of those moments and enough humility to ask him:
“Did I do ok? Did I give you enough? Do you regret the home educating?”
His reply was one of those “real Mother’s Day” gifts:
“Mam,” he grinned, reassuringly, “I LIVE in Hawaii!”

Making an example of oneself

You might not believe this, but we are actually a fairly “let’s keep to ourselves” family.

I know…

…we have a facebook page Home Education Support Fund which recounts our various media forays since our court case began rumbling…

…we have  a YouTube documentary “Homegrown Knowledge” (but we were being filmed to help film student Eoghan McQuinn in his final year assignment, and never thought it would be on the screen of the Irish Film Institute – as part of their “Stranger than Fiction” series)…

… a month ago, I began a blog…

but we are genuinely quite private, actually.

Sometimes, you just feel you have to make a stand.

And if publicity and an amount of public debate (plenty of it negative) is the result, well, then  you just read some quotes by Gandhi or other inspiring people or better still, do some finger painting, snuggle on the couch and read to a small child, make a cup of tea, breath deeply and remind yourself that “other people’s opinion of you is none of your business”.

A quick summary: we have home educated since finding out about it when eldest child (28 this month) was 9 months old… so really, we just continued facilitating his learning, as we’d done since his birth in 1986. Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Constitution of Ireland, Article 42, specifically names parents as primary educators and says parents “shall be free” to provide education at home. A “new” law, (well, it came half way through our home educating journey) the Education Welfare Act 2000, says parents must apply for assessment, and if they are deemed to be providing “a certain minimum education”, then they are ALLOWED to educate at home… so the state asks us to request permission… which can (and has been) refused.

We can discuss whether you believe the state should ask parents to prove their fitness to home educate (but seeing as education is for us, a seamless continuation of our parenting, then you might as well require all people, hoping to have children, to prove their fitness to be parents).

I could offer the idea that what has happened to our family is evidence of a heavy handed approach by authorities to make lines-be-toed.. to what end, exactly?

How is one “educationally” neglected child in this state better off because we went through a court process, were convicted of “failing to cause” 2 children to attend schools, were fined and imprisoned?

I know people are afraid that we will make things worse and scare off potential home educators.

What I can say is this:

a mother in another county read about our court case, dropped her two children to school, drove to Tullow, enquired in a coffee shop, from a postman, from a man walking his dog and finally found our neighbours, who directed her to our home.

We sat for an hour over coffee and shared stories, She borrowed 2 books and left somewhat reassured, that home educating might be possible for her family.

Maybe she won’t home educate.

Maybe she would have anyway.

But she turned up at our door with doubts and questions, and we did our best to assure her that the ONLY requirement you need to home educate is



That’s our secret.

Your own success at school. college or life is fairly irrelevant.

Your (lack of) teaching qualification is irrelevant.

But your love for your child and joy of being on a learning journey together is the key.

A Funny Kind of Education

I’m reading Ross Mountney’s “A Funny Kind of Education”. It’s her account of taking her 5 and 9 year old daughters out of school where they were plagued by unhappiness and health issues. They live in rural England. It’s a very touching, honest and sometimes “laugh out loud” funny account of finding their own path to learning together.

She had contact from Education Otherwise, one of the home education support groups: “a whole community of other aliens. Nice to know there really are other people as weird as me.”

The Local Authority forms, which were sent to them for filling in asked about “subjects and learning rooms and tests and work schemes.”  The parents discuss the requirements. “They don’t seem appropriate to what we want to do at all,” her husband offers. Reflecting on it, she decides “we’ve taken the girls out of school so we can pay attention to their education rather than their schooling.”

When Ross speaks to the Education Otherwise helpline, it’s explained she doesn’t HAVE to fill in the forms and can ask for time to settle into the new learning approach.

She finds a family near her who are happy to meet up and discuss her concerns.

It’s what has struck me so often about this “community” or “tribe” we stumbled into… how generous people are with their time and talents, to encourage others who are tentatively taking the first steps into something that still remains quite counter-cultural.

When we started back in 1987, I had a family to observe with children a few years older than Darragh, and I could see how scheduled learning fitted in around family life. I read their wonderful John Holt books and nodded in agreement with his statements about observing young children’s hands-on approach to learning.. whether that was with his manual typewriter or cello or whatever he was busy with.

Probably the best reassurance a new home educator has, is access to a family who are LIVING their learning each day. (Ross comes full circle with this, and four years from beginning her home education adventure, she takes calls from nervous parents who are wondering if they should try educating at home for their families.)

For me, after companions on the journey, the next thing is to have first-hand accounts of families who have begun, often with great trepidation, as I did, wondering if this path was somehow going to deny a child some experience that they would need. The writers who have most inspired me are probably those who have been very honest about their mistakes, like Alison McKee in “Homeshooling our Children, Unschooling Ourselves”, who talks about how her son’s love of observing the seasonal changes in a particular patch of ground was almost killed by her insistence he RECORD what differences he witnessed.

Ross is very honest about that too. She recounts an exchange with her daughter where she tries to insist on learning being recorded and her daughter’s assurance that she KNOWS it and doesn’t need to prove that to anyone.

“Come on, it won’t take a minute, and you need something down on paper to show all the good things you learn,” mother cajoles.

“I don’t. I know what I’ve learned. And I want to do something else.”

Ross recounts a conversation with her “Home Ed best friend”:

“There’s so much chaos at home I wonder how much proper Home Ed is going on.”

To which her friend says:
“Course you’re doing proper education…The problem comes when you start to compare what you do to the education children do in schools where they produce lots of stuff which is often just to keep the children busy. ”

There are sad conversations with a friend whose children are struggling in school and have been written off by teachers, and of the mother’s attempts to have her child’s needs met within the system.

There are the struggles of daily life as Ross tries to get her own writing done around the constant questioning and companionship of her daughters. Her struggle with migraine she sees as her body saying she needs time to herself, and her husband and mother come up with solutions to take part of the care of the girls so she can have her own space.  This echoes what Jean Liedloff writes in “the Continuum Concept” where the author asserts that babies and young children don’t need fancy “educational ” toys and the newest gadgets, but rather to witness adults engaged in real activities as they go about their daily lives.

There are lovely descriptions of outdoor days and the seasonal changes in the world around them. There is fun and celebration, house moving, renovating, new beginnings, deaths; the circle of life.

“I’m fast learning that I need to rethink the timetable, scrap the school habits, stop being so bloody inflexible and see all the fantastic learning opportunities that are happening right under my nose… what the kids need is a caring, interested, encouraging and inspirational adult. No teaching required. Wish I’d never been a teacher… I’m a human being guiding other human beings on their path to becoming more human. Don’t need teacher skills to do that.”

AMEN to that!


I love how our experience of educating at home means that learning is never confined to a set time or workbook or subject or curriculum.

Last night, as our youngest, Eamonn, aged 6, was snuggling at bedtime he was excited about the story he wants to write.

“What will you call it?” I asked.

“I’m thinking” he replied.

He got his brother’s clipboard, an A4 sized sheet and drew lines on it for the words. He’s not quite reading yet so asked me to spell each word and wrote 3 sentences before realising that maybe he could dictate and I would write for him.  He read back each sentence before composing the next one. He wants me to keep it secret until it’s finished but I can tell you it’s about a hobbit called Nora.

It reminded me of his eldest brother Darragh, now 27, then aged 6, returning to Dublin from a visit to my parents in north county Wexford, coming back by the last train, making our way through the streets on a bus, writing sums (4+6=10) on the fogged-up bus windows. When we got back to our home in Harold’s Cross, he asked to do a page of sums so I scrabbled around for a page of a workbook we’d been sent by his Grandma TC, a 4th grade teacher in Chicago, who wanted to support his learning as much as she could. I remember my feeing of disbelief… a child would ASK to do sums, at ten o’clock on a Sunday night? No-one told me children were this curious, this motivated, this fired up to learn, with no outside nudging or pleading or bribing or rewarding.

We filled the A4 sheet with words and Eamonn needed to think about his hero’s friend’s name so decided to sleep on it.

He moved the page and pencil to the end of the bed, arranged his Turtle and Blue Bear and snuggled up, yawning.

“Oh, I’ll call it ‘Lord of the Rings 2’ “, he said.