Reading: What Happens With Home Schooled Students?

Reading is a critical skill to have for school and life success and there are multiple suggestions as to how to teach it effectively and quickly in schools – but what happens in home schooling?

Little is known about how Australian home educators teach reading to their own children, but early evidence suggests parents have a different set of values..  

Reading approaches may differ considerably across home educating families with some adopting an organic approach to reading instruction with less urgency to see their child read by a specific age.

Growth in home education

Australian home education is visibly growing in popularity and registrations have doubled in the past five years with some hypothesising that the rise can be attributed to the COVID-era. As of 2023, the registered numbers of home educated children in each state or territory demonstrated significant growth across the country: 

State/Territory of residence2018  2022
New South Wales4,24912,359
Western Australia3,5636,151
South Australia1,3152,443 
Australian Capital Territory302413
Northern Territory110Not available 

A diverse population

Home educating families represent a diverse population and the approaches used in their children’s learning vary significantly. These have been shown to range anywhere along a continuum of autonomy from greater parental-determined structure through to unstructured child-led “unschooling” approaches.

Our recent study has investigated how Australian home educators teach their children to read and why they make specific choices in taking these approaches. We have heard from 185 home educating parents throughout Australia about their own experiences, approaches and attitudes.

The families in this study fell into similar categories regarding the degree of structure in learning that have been previously defined. Some indicated a formalised curriculum and parent-led approach:

What the families in this study said

I have used a phonics-based approach with direct instruction. This took the form of 15 minutes a day.  However, I would read aloud to my child 30min-1hr a day with no expectation of it being ‘reading practice’ but rather them enjoying the story.  Now my child is a bit older, she practises reading aloud 15 minutes a day of a book that she chooses.  We sit together and if she gets stuck, I am able to help.

Others took a more child-led approach and allowed their children to teach themselves to read, following their child’s lead and doing little formal reading.

[We did] no formal teaching. He learned to read through observing written text in real life, showing curiosity, and us reading aloud to him. He picked it up naturally, and we helped with reading difficult words. I expected it would be difficult, but he learned to read because he wanted to understand the world around him.

Creating a culture of reading aloud

The most common parental expectation around reading was creating a culture of reading aloud to their child, which was seen across the spectrum of structured and unstructured families. There were also those who expressed the importance of surrounding their child with a literacy-rich environment.

I’ve always read to my child, even when pregnant, so that is a big part of the reading process to me, as well as having plenty of age-appropriate books strewn around the home to explore. Currently [I’m] allowing my child the freedom to learn to read. We read novels daily and have simple picture books/early readers available for when she’s interested.

A most interesting observance was that many families revealed an unpressured approach to learning to read that let go of expectations regarding reading age. The concept of being a “late reader” was therefore not necessarily a concern to some home educating families. 

Difficult to teach

One parent noted the challenge of a child who was “difficult to teach” and indicated that allowing them to learn at a later age led to no long-term reading disadvantage:

He was most difficult to teach and had major melt-downs. So around 8 years old we took a step back when he still couldn’t read simple cvc words. I continued to read to him but wouldn’t push for him to ‘learn’ to read – he is now 9 and by letting him figure it out on his own time with zero pressure he has used technology including computer games such as Roblox to understand how to read and sound words out and I would say he is now a very, very good reader no different to what my first 2 children were at his age! Who went to school at that age!

Other families saw their children become early readers without any intention or pressure.

At around 2 years old she showed interest in letters and the alphabet. ‘B is for Butterfly’, etc and singing the alphabet song…Then one day, around 3.5 years old, I found her stumbling through a picture book on her own. I then tried to provide books around the house that were about the right beginner-reader level and the right interest level (that was tricky)… I didn’t push at all as she was so young so there was absolutely no stress or pressure on whether or not she could read yet. Now, at 4.5 years old, she’s an independent reader and enjoys chapter books like “The Faraway Tree”.

An organic approach

The stories from these families indicated that many took an organic approach to reading instruction that relied upon a range of avenues, including environmental print, sibling interactions, singing, subtitles on television, technology, and of course, reading aloud. The idea that children learn to read when they are ready was also widely recognised and supported.

These stories from home educating families encourage us to think about teaching reading as a joy filled and natural endeavour. Providing the right mix of opportunity and trust in a relaxing atmosphere may prove beneficial for some children who initially find reading challenging.

From left to right: Krystal Cathcart is a final year PhD candidate at the University of Southern Queensland. She is currently a home educating parent of four children. Katie Burke is a Senior Lecturer Arts Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. She is also a former home educating parent.

Georgina Barton is a professor in the School of Education at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. At UniSQ, She is the Research Cluster – Pedagogy lead.

When school’s in a caravan on the road to an astonishing world

One of the more reported side-effects of the COVID disruption has been the increase in families choosing to educate their children outside of mainstream schools (see the latest Queensland homeschooling statistics as an example of the growth in families choosing to exit the school system).

While home education, frequently called homeschooling, has seen incredible growth recently (Moir & English, 2022; English & Gribble, 2021), and received a lot of attention (Life Matters: RN; ABC: Radio National), one model stands out as a major disruption to our understanding of education. 

Worldschooling, or World Schooling, has been in the news recently because of its increased interest and popularity (see Mannino, 2022; Greenfield, 2022; Scott, 2022). It is sometimes described as homeschooling without the home. People leave the home and travel because they are pushed by internal forces which originate from intrinsic motivations, such as the desire for rest and relaxation, escape, socialisation and prestige. In the case of educational travel, such as in school excursions and worldschooling, it can be curriculum based motives which may relate to extending or even replacing the formal lessons in the classroom to outside the classroom to encourage experiential or more active learning (Dale & Ritchie, 2020).

While there is little academic work on the concept, it is generally defined as a form of home education where the world becomes the classroom, and travel takes the place of the home and the school. The underpinning conviction of worldschoolers is that “travel itself is inherently educational”. It was founded as a business venture by Laine Liberti who wanted to offer a travel opportunity that combined education with experience.

However, it has since expanded to describe any type of travel experience that combines education with experience. So, it has expanded beyond its original definition.

Who would be attracted to worldschooling?

Like homeschooling, worldschooling attracts a diverse range of families, for equally diverse reasons. For some, it’s an intentional and deliberate choice to eschew “life as usual” and the expectation that families must be “geographically anchored” ; an embracing of opportunity and adventure. For others, it’s dissatisfaction with mainstream education and life that leads to the search for alternatives. The significant growth of worldschool bloggers (see here, here, here and here as just a few examples) highlights the range of families now drawn to worldschooling and approaches they adopt, from those who combine travel with school attendance in various locations, to those who combine homeschooling or unschooling with travel for short stints, or extended periods of time. 

Why might they do it?

This lifestyle may also be more available to families than ever before. Covid-19 lockdowns accelerated the move towards flexible or remote work, and the recognition that many have regarding the opportunity to continue remote work has further opened the opportunity to embrace the life of the digital nomad, and with this, the possibility of worldschooling for those with children

In a recent study, parents who were homeschooling were interviewed. One mother, whose pseudonym was ‘Joy’ talked about how she was unschooling her sons using travel and how her caravan had become her classroom. Unschooling is defined as any education where “there is no fixed, explicit curriculum”.

She stated:

We just travelled and saw things and we would do things and every other week, we were always going away somewhere, yeah …we just took any opportunity. “Oh, we need to go in to Broken Hill to get whatever we need to get -” [and] off we go…I could take them to really cool places and teach them stuff that they didn’t realise that they’re learning. So, like we went to Victoria, we did a whole lot of work about Victoria, and [how it was colonised and mapped by Europeans] and the various expeditions. We looked at [Charles] Sturt’s exploration expedition and why it failed, and what they could have done better and all of this.

Even though not explicitly identifying as a worldschooler, Joy’s experience reflects the heart of worldschooling, and the sense of trust these families have in the educational potential of authentic exploration to engage children in meaningful learning.

What are the potential challenges and benefits?

One of the major challenges has to be financial. Not only is it expensive to travel, particularly as COVID disruptions continue to affect the travel industry, it also requires you to travel with your family, to take breaks in your work while you get to your destination or to take a permanent break.

Clearly, this type of education is not open to everyone. Or, frankly, very many people.

However, it doesn’t require a huge commitment, you don’t need to purchase a Project Worldschool trip to Mexico for $2,200USD. The Project’s founder has noted that cost is a major barrier to entry for this particular experience.

But, as Joy’s story has shown, you can do it in a caravan, you can do it on weekends, you can do it short term while getting on with the rest of your life.

Rebecca English is a senior lecturer in the School of Teacher Education & Leadership in the Faculty of CI, Education & Social Justice at Queensland University of Technology. She teaches into the BCT Curriculum area as well as the sociocultural studies units and was a teacher in both the Catholic Education and Education Queensland sectors for seven years.

Katie Burke is a Senior Lecturer in Arts Curriculum and Pedagogy in Initial Teacher Education at the University of Southern Queensland. Katie is known for her research and practice into enhancing online learning for creative and authentic engagement, including her innovative online pedagogy of care, developed to meet the challenges of facilitating online learning, particularly in the creative arts.

Naomi is an Associate Professor of Management and Program Director for the Bachelor of Business and the Bachelor of Event and Tourism Management at the University of Canberra. Naomi has been teaching and researching in the Tourism Discipline at UC since 2006. She was the recipient of an Australian Post Graduate Award scholarship and her Ph.D. investigated destination choice by school excursion groups in Australia.

The fascinating reasons why some students will never go back to school

While homeschool, distance education and pandemic school are terms that were used interchangeably during the pandemic, when schools closed, went online, reopened, perhaps closed again or went back online, parents weren’t homeschooling or doing distance then. However, in the wake of this experience, more parents have opted for home and distance education. These terms have been used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. 

Homeschool/home education

Homeschooling or home education, the preferred, legal term, is a legal educational option enshrined in every state or territory Education Act. While the precise definition differs, there are some key elements to home education that separate it from distance education and pandemic schooling.

First, home education is always the responsibility of the parent (or in some states a registered teacher can be designated). They accept full responsibility for the planning, implementation, management and monitoring of the child’s learning in a suitable, home-based environment.

Second, parents must be responsible for providing a high quality education for their children. The state or territory will check the education is high-quality through reviewing the parent’s learning plan.

Third, the parent is the primary person who is responsible for learning, usually in consultation with the child.

Fourth, the parent must show that the child is learning, just as a regular school reports to parents. Some states, such as Queensland, require all parents to prepare a report. Some states, such as Victoria, audit families. Some states, such as NSW, send department representatives to check on the child and their learning.

Fifth, home education is time limited to the ‘compulsory school age’. In Queensland and South Australia for example, compulsory school age is between six and 16 years (on completion of year 10). In other states, it is 17 (such as New South Wales and Victoria). After this age, a parent can no longer enrol in home education.

There are some providers that offer curriculum and planning services to home educators. These can be Christian or secular. Many of these providers offer registration and reporting assistance with staff available to answer parents’ questions. Some services offer resources that parents put together as they see fit.

These groups straddle the divide between homeschooling and distance education but always place the onus on parents to provide the education. In addition, at no point is the child enrolled in a school. These providers simply support parents in educating the child. The key difference between home and distance education is the parents’ role.

Distance education

Distance education is a different but also legal educational option enshrined in every state or territory Education Act. However, access differs across states and territories.

Unlike home education, in distance education, the parent enrols their child in a school of distance education where teachers plan, implement and report on the child’s progress. The parent is responsible for overseeing that education or they can outsource that responsibility to a home tutor.

Not every state or territory allows the same access to distance education. In some states, like Queensland, if you’re prepared to facilitate your child’s learning and pay the fees, your child can be enrolled in public distance education regardless of geographic location.

Other states or territories do not offer access to public distance education without a strong, usually geographic, caring or health, reason. In New South Wales for example, public distance education may also be offered as a means of transitioning back to face to face school.

While some state distance education options charge fees, these can be waived for a number of reasons including if the student lives rural or remote, if the student has caring responsibilities, if the student is excluded from state schools, if the student is suffering from a medical condition or if the student is in jail.

In the ACT, enrolment in distance education is through a local state school, but the student is not expected to attend that school and does their education through distance at home instead.

There are also private distance education providers. Many of these are based in a strong Christian foundation and offer a Christian lens on their students’ learning. There are some private, non-religious options for families who prefer a secular education.

But none of this is what happened when schools were forced into preparing for pandemic learning

Pandemic school

Pandemic school was neither home nor distance education. While parents were expected to oversee the education of their children, it was not the same.

When schools closed during the pandemic, the child was still enrolled in their school. Their classroom teachers were still responsible for their education, the parents were facilitating the on- and off-line components of their education.

Parents were not, or should not have been, expected to be heavily engaged in their learning. Parents were facilitators not teachers.

What does this mean going forward?

There has been an increase in the enrolments in home and distance education after the pandemic. While, for some families, the experience was nightmare fuel they never, ever, ever want to repeat, for others, it was really positive.

The ACT recently held an inquiry into the experiences of students and parents who were schooling during the pandemic. That inquiry found many parents and students wanted more flexibility in school delivery after the period of pandemic schooling.

For a growing group of parents, this time was found to be beneficial for their children.

There is also a Catch-22 for schools which has led to an increase in enrolments in home and distance education.

Some families fear the reopening of face-to-face schools may mean their children will get sick with COVID at school.

Other families fear their children will be forced to be vaccinated.

Another group of parents are upset about school vaccination policies that mandate vaccinations for entering school sites, effectively locking them out of their children’s schools.

It may be that, in the fall out from the pandemic, the difference between home and distance education is less academic and more real for many families.

Rebecca English is a senior lecturer in the School of Teacher Education & Leadership in the Faculty of CI, Education & Social Justice at Queensland University of Technology. She teaches into the BCT Curriculum area as well as the sociocultural studies units and was a teacher in both the Catholic Education and Education Queensland sectors for seven years.

Why homeschool? It gets complicated now

A new way to think about homeschoolers: accidentals and deliberates

When you think about a homeschooler, what pops into your head? 

Is it a fundamentalist Christian, reflexively avoiding the secular world that is perceived as dangerous? 

Perhaps it’s a hot-housed, overachieving wunderkind whose music or sport makes attendance at school impossible? 

Is it a child whose school experience was awful and now they’re refusing to go back?

The truth about who homeschools in Australia, and why, is more complex than any of these stereotypes. However, research in Australia and overseas (English, 2021; Ray, 2015; Puga, 2019; 2021; Fields-Smith, 2020) suggests the last one, where a child has negative school experiences, or finds school hostile, is closest to the reason the majority of Australia’s homeschoolers choose to do so. 

How many home educators are there in Australia?

The population of homeschoolers has grown exponentially in each state and territory over the past five years. It’s increasingly likely you’ll see them more often in the community. However, the legal term is home educator (see the WA policy documents as an example), because it takes the school out of the equation.

The legally registered home educating population in Australia is around 26,000 students (English & Gribble, 2021). 

However, accurately measuring that population is difficult and the figure is likely to be an undercount.

Each state and territory has different policies to manage home educators and this leads to different counts.

Policy differences also mean that some states have higher levels of ‘illegal’ families who choose not to register.

One report (Townsend, 2012), from 2012, suggested the undercount of home educators in Queensland was as many as 12,000.

Others (Krogh & Giuliano, 2021) suggest the ways the different states manage their registration process affects the numbers of families willing to engage with their legal obligations.

While states and territories have different rules, they all share one thing in common, home educators must register with their authority that manages this population. 

In some states, a person may ask to come to your house and see your setup (NSW), in others, you have to make a statement about what you expect to do (Victoria), in still others, you have to send in a report and reapply every 10 months (Queensland). 

The highest number of home educators, as a percentage of population, is in New South Wales and Victoria, both have around six in every thousand students who are home educating (English & Gribble, 2021).

The biggest growth in the last five years has been in Queensland, where the population grew by around 26 per cent in 2020, possibly in response to the pandemic (English & Gribble, 2021).

But, as with all states and territories, Queensland has seen a strong growth in home educators over the last five years, so while 2020 may have forced some families’ hands, it is in line with expectations based on yearly growth (English & Gribble, 2021).

Accidental home educators

Research into why people choose to home educate is amongst the most robust in the field. 

In Australia, there is a strong correlation between negative school experiences and the decision to home educate (English, 2013; 2021).

In my research, I figure as many as 80 per cent of the families who home educate do so because one, or more, of their children has had a negative experience at school (English, 2021).

I term these families ‘accidental home educators’ (English, 2021) because they did not set out to home educate and do not have any of that stereotypical ideological opposition to school.

There are a number of reasons for their choice. A good deal of work in the field suggests families may be home educating because a child has a diagnosis of ASD (Hurlbutt, 2011) or ADHD (Duvall, Delquardi & Ward, 2004) or have a mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression (Gribble & English, 2016). In most cases, these studies found children were previously enrolled at school, but left due to the problems in school. 

Neuman, 2019 provides an excellent discussion of the differences between dissatisfied parents who home educate and those who stick it out at school.

Research (Neuman & Guterman, 2017) suggests these families feel more in control and can manage their lifestyles more effectively when they choose to home educate.

The other group of home educators, those who were always going to choose to home educate and who hold an ideological aversion to schools, I term the deliberates (English, 2021).

These families are generally religious, or anti-authority. It is likely they have lower rates of vaccination than the other families, so schools’ ‘no jab no play’ policies may affect their ability to send their child to early childhood which may lead them to eschew institutionalised education altogether.

Earlier conceptualisations of home education choice (Van Galen, 1991) split families into two groups. These two groups were ideologues and pedagogues, which meant either ideology or problems with schools’ approaches to teaching and learning led to the decision to home educate.

The first group was termed ideologues because they were described by Van Galen (1991) as ideological in their opposition to school.

The second group was termed pedagogues. 

Van Galen (1991) defined these families as not caring too much about what the school believed, it was the teaching, the environment, the classrooms and the rules that were the problem. 

This group’s “criticisms of schools are not so much that the schools teach heresy, but that schools teach whatever they teach ineptly” (Van Galen, 1991, p. 71).

The two categories of ideologue and pedagogue do not seem to hold in Australia because most of the home educating population have spent some time enrolled in a school.

In any event, as Rothemal, 2003 argued, these two categories are reductive and fail to account for the reasons the home educating population is growing.

As numbers of home educators grows, understanding how the choice interacts with other policies, particularly those that favour choice and parental control over education, is important. 

There are parallels in international studies with neoliberal choice policies (see Oliveria & Barbosa, 2017) and policies favouring the private supply of education services (see Aruini & Davis, 2005) may also be implicated in the choice to home educate.

In all, whatever educators think about home education, it is likely to remain a growing trend. In particular, where schools are forced to shutter due to major catastrophes such as pandemics (Duval, 2021) and even climate change induced calamities, it may be an increasing minority of the population who home educate. 

If Queensland has seen a 26 per cent increase in the last year and the population around the country grows, it’s likely to be an increasingly strong political force in Australia, one which governments ignore at their peril.

Rebecca English is a senior lecturer in the School of Teacher Education & Leadership in the Faculty of CI, Education & Social Justice at Queensland University of Technology. She teaches into the BCT Curriculum area as well as the sociocultural studies units and was a teacher in both the Catholic Education and Education Queensland sectors for seven years.