Should a three year old who is found to be capable of learning to read be taught to read? This article from the Independent titled Toddlers could be ready to begin reading lessons at three years old, study finds, instantly got my fingers typing! Why can’t we as a nation just leave our children to play and explore their new surroundings? Instead we seem to need to instantly exert pressure on them to achieve targets and goals the moment they clap eyes on the world.
In short, the study concluded that three year old children were demonstrating they could recognise that a written word represents a single linguistic unit which should be interpreted in a set way whereas a drawing can be interpreted in a number of ways. This ability to differentiate between the two was considered a skill required to be able to learn to read.
Children in the UK are currently taught to read by the phonetic learning method during their first year at school between the age of four and five in reception class. Compared with many of our European counterparts this is very early. In Poland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark for example children typically start school at age seven. So unless their parents or carers have taught them to read and write most children will still be in the early stages of doing so.
I’m a big supporter of regularly reading to children even from as early as a few months of being born but there is a vast difference between encouraging reading and actively pushing reading instruction onto them. Undoubtedly this study could help us understand child development and capabilities in more depth and even assist in developing new effective teaching methods but I’m struggling to see any practical benefits for a three year old being able to read.
There are many immediate and long-term, social and psychological advantages to learning to read at a young age but are there sufficient additional advantages to learning at age three opposed to four or five? Does waiting a year or two really make that much difference to a child’s life? Let’s look at what we could consider to be other benefits of reading at three years. Parents and teachers would have an alternative communication method other than speech, in terms of written instruction. The children could sit and read a book by themselves. Perhaps it would increase their vocabulary knowledge – very impressive for school test results providing they could also speak and write coherently at three years. Hang on a minute… aren’t these more beneficial for the adults than the children? I’m seriously wondering if we are focusing on the child’s best interests or ours. It seems that most of these so called benefits are limiting conversation which could potentially have the knock on effect of hindering the development of oral communication at this important stage of their lives.
I volunteer in the foundation unit of a local primary school each week and part of my role is to assist with reading to or with the children (depending on their age). I’ve observed that reading abilities within this age group vary greatly. Many of the nursery aged children at three to four years are yet to develop the attention span to sit still and listen to an entire story being read to them unless they are actively being engaged by the reader with intermittent questions. Not exactly a strong indication that they have the ability to concentrate on recognising letters and learning phonic sounds. In addition many are still unable to consistently form clear, comprehensible speech. This is not because the children are being naughty, lazy and stupid or feeling bored; they are merely being toddlers who are developing at their own pace.
So is three years too early to start reading? To consider this viewpoint, I think we need to look at what else is going on around a child at three years. What else are they trying to achieve at this time? To talk coherently is high priority. They are also mark making but very few are writing. What about learning social skills? For many it is the first time they have mixed with a large group on a regular basis or been expected to conform to a strict routine. Surely the last thing we want to encourage is an earlier divide between reading abilities?
For a child already dealing with a steep learning curve, throwing in the need to master additional reading targets could have the opposite effect and put them off for life! Children first need to experience the world before they read about it in a book. We’ve already been communicating with our children since birth through words, sounds, actions, instincts and intuition. Concentrating too heavily on the written word at three years could have long term detrimental effects on the development of all these other valuable forms of communication. It’s these interactive skills which are learnt through play and conversation that ultimately serve to enhance a child’s appreciation of reading in later life not the exposure to letters and phonemes. People enjoy reading because of the content, imagination and empathy these stories inspire, not because they like the look and sound of the letters! If a child is truly capable of learning to read at this age they will naturally pick up letter recognition through sound and sight from other daily interactions without the need to be formally instructed.
So let’s take a step back for a moment and question whether we want to nurture a revolution of avid readers or create a reading rebellion? What do you think? Is there an optimum time to learn to read?
Other interesting articles on this topic:
Guardian 2007 – Under sevens “too young to learn to read.” (Written before the plans for a Foundation Stage were implemented and any untested targets of achievement were set).
Huffington Post 2011 – Learning to Read: How Young is Too Young?
Teach Reading Early – Benefits of Early Reading.