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Should parents teach their preschoolers to read?

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 and, at regular intervals, talk development to 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 reading. 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 son to read. Her Facebook post stimulated discussion about what was the right time for children to learn to read. So, is it 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 thing 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, 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, 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 at 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 being taught. I have a feeling he would have been distracted, and distracted others, losing interest in the lessons being taught, and missing out on the excitement of developing these new skills 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. I strongly doubt it.

On the other hand, my four-year-old nephew is obsessed with words, and loves to practise his writing 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 all would behave differently in their situations. Some would thrive, others would struggle.

Broadly, formally educating young children did not always provide the intended results, according to an article in The Atlantic. In response to a trend in the US 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,

“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 complex skills best taught by those with the knowledge to do so – teachers. However, this does not mean that parents do not have an important role to play, according to Professor Exley.

“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, and which children benefit from grasping before starting school.

Essentially, by reading and talking to children, parents can take the first steps in fostering a love of words. Have fun with letters and explore sounds and meaning together, and by all means, encourage children if they show enthusiasm about learning to read. But, as parents, we should resist the urge to push children into formal literacy too early, risking 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.

Visit Booktopia (Australia) and The Book Depository (US and UK) for a wide selection of children’s books.

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