Katie Burke

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.