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With Early Reading, Go Slow To Go Fast

Geoff Nixon

By Geoff Nixon

Nurturing Reading in a “My Baby Can Read” World

One of the most insidious trends in education today is the growing intensity of early reading instruction and baby reading software. The logic is the earlier your child starts reading the soon he will master it. Plus, what’s the harm, most young children do really well when confronted with a specialized skill?

There are two serious flaws in this thinking with regard to reading (and possibly most other skills):

  1. The risk of not learning to read at an early age is a lifetime dislike of reading, and
  2. A focus on reading reduces time for more important foundational learning skills such as creativity and curiosity.

The better approach to early reading is to go slow to go fast. Before the age of five dwell on letter sounds, build a solid foundation a desire to do more, to read. Then at school, hopefully your child will be one of the lucky ones who learns to read in just a few months. If not, he will by then have the foundation upon which reading can be taught with relative ease. At this point, it’s about engagement. As long as your child has a healthy interest in learning to read, decoding should come relatively quickly.

An Early Start To Reading Is Risky

First, starting early is no guarantee of success, where reading is defined as the ability to comprehend and think critically about the texts while reading, i.e., 8th grade reading. This level of reading skill takes a lot of practice. If your child starts trying to read before he is ready he can develop a poisonous attitude to reading, and will not put in the reading miles required for reading proficiency.

Did you know that many countries, including Finland, a country of fantastic readers according to the OECD PISA tests, do not start formal reading instruction until seven years of age? This is because at seven, a child’s vocabulary is fully developed, their processing is mature and they have the ability to comprehend literally. Learning to read at seven is much easier. Finnish children end up having a much healthier attitude to reading, and more often end up being enthusiastic readers, helping them become even better readers over time.

While many children survive an early introduction to reading, meaning they do learn to decode and go on to be good readers, too many do not. The premature start overwhelms them and creates an attitude to reading from which they do not recover. They connect it with humiliation, failure, inferiority, disappointment and drudgery.

At the very least, reading at an early age is a high risk proposition where the stakes are a lifelong love of reading.

If this is all there was at stake, an argument could be made that parents could gingerly test the waters with their child’s reading, and see if there is any interest or propensity to read. If so, proceed, if not, give it another six months and try again.

But there’s more at stake than just a love of reading.

Just Because They Can, Doesn’t Mean They Should

The brain is an amazing organ. It is particularly amazing at a very early age (up to 3 years) where it is permanently in learn mode, connecting everything to everything, figuring out languages, and so much more.

This is the all important setup phase continues into early childhood. It is the time when all of the foundational skills your child will need are developed — curiosity, creativity, thinking, working memory, focus, sequencing, visualization. The list goes on.

Reading though is not on that list. It is a practical skill, learned like riding a bike is learned once balance and hand to eye coordination are mastered.

Worse than that, reading is a specialization. A child can learn to read early, sure, but to the extent a brain’s attention is turned to the special skills required for reading, other foundational skills are neglected. Development of foundational skills are risked.

One Caveat

The risk of a later start to reading is that a reading difficulty is then discovered creating time pressure to get your child to where they need to be in reading by the end 4th grade, the first grade where reading starts to become an integral learning skill. Of course, that same child is likely to have developed a real disdain for reading if he had been forced to read earlier, and so the true downside from waiting is arguably not that material.

The vast majority of early reading issues are caused by language difficulties. Sometimes these are obvious in speech delays. Sometimes they are less obvious but can be picked up in listening glitches, e.g., not being able to follow directions, unusually distracted by background noise.

And so, parents should be vigilant in language development. If there are any symptoms of language delay, be proactive. These delays will not only impact reading later on, they also hamper development of other essential cognitive and learning skills.

Otherwise try to be patient with your young child. If you do spend time with him with a book, be very tentative. If there is any resistance, pause. Let his language skills develop a bit more and consider programs like The Listening Program, Fast ForWord or others that develop language processing skills.

Similarly, if he takes to reading and wants to read constantly, pause. Be mindful of the risk of specialization in brain connections. Rather than reading, add other stimuli — music, activities that require balance and hand to eye, visual processing. Remember, getting to full reading proficiency is a long distance race — you need an engaged student all the way along.

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