If you want the short answer, here it is: she’s two. So there you go. But let me elaborate a bit.
Firstly, let me state for the record that I think reading is so important. We read stories every day and visit the library most weeks. Recently I logged on to T’s library account and in her short lifetime we’ve checked out around 250 books! (Having new reading material saves my sanity at bedtime. And we have found some real gems at our local library!) So don’t worry. I’m not planning on ending up with a kid who can’t read.
Reading stories does so much for kids. They hear so many new words and phrases in context, and this develops their understanding of language and their vocabulary. It develops their understanding of the world around them. They see relationships form and develop between characters which gives them a deeper understanding of social norms and how to interact with people around them. It fosters creativity and imagination. So…yes, I think reading is of vital importance. I’m a teacher – of course I do.
But lately I’ve been starting to feel a pressure to begin teaching her letters and perhaps write her name. I can’t explain exactly from where this pressure comes. Maybe the toddler toys which aim to familiarise and teach children the alphabet, or phonemes. Perhaps children’s television (not all of it – but some). Recently T’s nursery happened to mention they had started teaching phonics. I was stunned! A quick conversation clarified that this mainly took the form of singing, and that the children could opt-in or out, but I can’t help but feel this is coming too early. For the record, we love her nursery and T thrives there. But if she were full time the phonics would concern me more than it does.
I just don’t see the rush. T will be nearly 5 by the time she is due to start school. She’s smart enough, so I anticipate that by this time she will probably be able to write her name and maybe she’ll know the alphabet and their corresponding sounds. Great! But if she doesn’t? I really don’t see that it’s a big deal, and more than this, teaching her to read before she is ready could be detrimental. David Whitebread of Cambridge University cited some research from New Zealand:
Studies have compared groups of children in New Zealand who started formal literacy lessons at ages 5 and 7. Their results show that the early introduction of formal learning approaches to literacy does not improve children’s reading development, and may be damaging. By the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who started at 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later.
I wonder if that difference in comprehension between the two groups could be because once children start to read, they spend less and less time being read to. And so the comprehension takes a hit because it can take them so long to get to the end of the sentence that by the time they do, they’ve forgotten how it began. Give them a couple of extra years of being read to, and surely their understanding of contextual clues will have developed that much more that the reading process will become quicker and easier?
This is all part of a bigger picture. Early education in the UK has become more formalised in recent years, although the teaching of reading has started at a young age for many years. If you want to find out more about the case for delaying formal education, check out the ‘Too Much, Too Soon’ campaign, from the Save Childhood Movement.
Now, say at three or four years old T starts asking me what words say, maybe in books, or signs she sees around her. I’m not going to say “sorry, you’ll have to wait until you’re seven”. If she’s interested, we’ll go for it! But if she’s not, fine. We’ll give it more time.
I’m not saying that no child should be taught to read at five. If they’re interested, and they’re ready, then great! I have taught many children who have been ready to read at five, or before! I started learning to read aged four, and I loved it! I have taught others who have just not been interested, yet the pressures of the curriculum have not allowed them the time or space to go at their own pace. Ultimately, I want T to love learning, and love reading. And I think the best way to do that is to follow her interests, and let her wait until she is ready.