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We Don't Need To Give Our Kids Chapter And Verse When Learning To Read

If we push children into formal literacy too early, we risk extinguishing the wonder and excitement of books.

From the time a baby is born, there are benchmarks that can be as frightening as they are imprecise.

Anxious parents carefully jot down milestones in baby books, seek reassurance from friends and family, and, at regular intervals, talk about development with their child and maternal health nurses.

But, after the crawling, feeding, walking and talking milestones have been reached, what next?

In the preschool years, some parents might turn their attention to teaching their child to read. The importance of literacy is well-documented, so naturally, parents want to give their children the best start possible. And there are few parents who wouldn't get a buzz from hearing their child read their first word or sentence.

Last week, comedian and writer Crystal Lowery proclaimed that she was waiting to teach her five-year-old son to read. Her Facebook post stimulated debate about what was the right time for children to learn to read, and whose role it was to do so.

Clearly, opinion among parents is divided over whether it is better to teach children the basics of reading before they start school, or let their teachers lay the groundwork for this essential skill.

The pros of giving children an early start in reading, before they get to school, seem obvious. The child will to feel confident as they attend their first classes, and their teachers are likely to notice their diligence and competence, ensuring they are recognised as being the clever little things that the parents are convinced they are.

In education, confidence plays a significant role in the academic success of a student -- those who believe they are good at a particular subject tend to try even harder than those who initially struggled. They are praised by their teachers, and their work ethic is reinforced.

However, more recently, like Lowery, I have begun to question the wisdom of attempting to formally teaching children to read before they start Grade Prep.

My son started school this year, and, led by his kinder's play-based approach, I restrained myself from thrusting him into the world of words that I love so much.

While he picked up many letters on the way, enjoyed attempting to play 'I Spy' during every car trip and loved having books read to him, he was not formally taught to read. And to be honest, the decision was not entirely my own, as I knew he would be reluctant to sit and attempt to decode words. He'd much rather be climbing a tree or spilling glitter over the kitchen floor.

In the past eight months, since starting school, he has quickly embraced reading, and I have been surprised by his enthusiasm in picking up early literacy skills. I wonder what would have happened had he learnt these skills earlier.

I fear that, as an excitable, boisterous and action-loving little boy, he would have become bored, had he already had a strong grasp on the skills the rest of the class was only just being taught. I have a feeling he would have been distracted, and distracted others, losing interest in the lessons, and missing out on the excitement of developing these new skills along with his classmates.

And then there is the question of whether I would have been equipped to provide him with the complex skills he needed.

On the other hand, my four-year-old nephew is obsessed with words, and loves to practise his writing and reading whenever he gets a chance. It seems to me that it would be foolish to resist this inclination. Of course, these are just two children, and it is hard to draw any real conclusions based on these anecdotes.

More broadly, formally educating young children does not always provide the intended results of giving children a head start, according to an article in The Atlantic.

In response to a trend in the U.S. in which preschool was increasingly becoming the new first grade (Prep or Foundation in Australia) Erika Christakis wrote of her concern that young children were expected to sit and concentrate on lessons that might in the past have been reserved for the early years of school.

"New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee's publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more "school readiness" skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills."

This result clearly flies in the face of any intentions early childhood teachers or parents might have had in striving to ensure their children or students were 'school ready'.

In a thoughtful and detailed email, Australian Literacy Educators' Association President, Beryl Exley, explained that formal literacy education was more complex than just teaching children to 'bark at print'.

"Learning to read in the full sense of being an independent code breaker, meaning maker, text user and text analyst, requires a long apprenticeship in reading readiness alongside a long apprenticeship in explicit instruction in letter sound connections (phonics) and word analysis skills."

Clearly, these are specialised skills best taught by those with the knowledge to do so -- teachers.

However, Professor Exley said parents still have an important role to play in helping their children develop early literacy skills.

"Parents and carers are well placed to actively support young children to prepare to become a reader by learning to associate reading with pleasure, becoming sensitive to the 42 sounds of the English alphabet, learning to discriminate the 26 letters of the English alphabet, exploring the social functions of a range of genres such as narratives, information texts, recount, procedures and persuasive texts, and the broadening of oral vocabulary."

While not 'reading skills' per se, fostering an interest and understanding of letters and sounds is an important step in learning to read, which children could benefit from grasping before starting school.

Essentially, parents should try to read and talk to their children as much possible, have fun with letters and explore sounds and meaning together.

By all means, encourage children if they show enthusiasm about exploring their own ability to read, but, as parents, we should resist the urge to push children into formal literacy too early. Or we may risk extinguishing the wonder and excitement the exploration of language can offer.

It is crucial that words remain a joy to children, long after their first day of school.


For more on books, visit Readability books blog or follow ReadabilityAus.

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