Arguments Against Early Reading Instruction

Is your child too young to learn to read?  Could teaching them too early be harmful?  See our evaluation of the arguments against early reading instruction.

We mentioned in another article that there is some disagreement about when to teach kids to read. Some people say the best age to teach children to read is when they are still toddlers, whereas others say it would be better to wait until they’re around 7 years old. 

Our other article focussed on the benefits of early reading instruction and in this part we’ll assess some of the arguments against it.

2 men arguing with a woman
Teaching your child to read early should be a personal decision, but your decision will be better informed if you are familiar with the arguments for and against it.

Click here for a summary of this article, or browse the contents of the main article below…

Contents:

Summary

  • Claims that most young children’s brains don’t have the right neural connections for reading until they are 5 can be explained by the fact that most young children aren’t taught to read until they are 5. The neural connections required for reading don’t spontaneously appear at a particular age; they form as a result of reading instruction. 
  • Many developmental theories used to argue against early reading instruction are based on outdated assumptions about the way young children learn rather than rigorous scientific studies. These archaic theories are not a reliable source of evidence against early reading instruction.
  • The idea that only a few very gifted children can learn to read early isn’t supported by research that showed most 3-year-olds could blend speech sounds into words. Many young children are capable of recognising letters and the sounds they represent.
  • A study showed that babies did not learn to read using a particular baby media programme. However, this doesn’t prove that younger children can’t learn to read when they are given more appropriate instruction.
  • Children just memorise the shapes of words when they are taught to read using ‘whole word’ / ‘look and say’ instruction. However, some children can progress from learning whole words to reading phonetically.  And when young children are taught to read using phonics from the start they can decode words from their individual letters.  This can be proved by asking them to read unfamiliar or made up words and by their ability to spell. 
  • Young children can’t comprehend what they are reading if they are given books intended for much older children or adults. But they can understand books that are appropriate for their age and verbal language skills.
  • Early reading instruction could be harmful if it is done in an authoritarian way and if other normal developmental activities are excluded. However, most early reading programmes encourage parents to engage their children in a relaxed and friendly way and to continue with normal play and reading activities.  Children feel under a lot more pressure when they learn to read at school than they do if they learn to read at home.
  • It’s true that Finnish children are exceptionally good at reading even though they don’t start formal reading instruction until they are 7 years old. However, a variety of factors contribute to the reading ability of Finnish children and it probably has little to do with the age they start school.
  • There haven’t been any large controlled studies that have shown teaching toddlers to read will help them in school, but some studies do suggest that early reading could have long-term benefits that extend beyond basic literacy.
  • Many child psychologists and educationalists are opposed to early reading instruction, but, ironically, they do encourage parents to help their children develop some early literacy skills so they are ‘ready to read’ when they go to school. We don’t see any sense in getting children to the point where they are ready for reading instruction, but then withhold further instruction at home so it can be crammed into them over of a couple of terms in a crowded classroom.  The current advice isn’t working because many children leave school with poor reading skills.

It’s a Waste of Time Because Very Young Children Can’t Actually Learn to Read…

We discussed this point briefly in our other article where we explained that it really is possible to teach very young children to read.  We mentioned that our own children were fluent readers before they were three and we gave other examples of people who had similar experiences, such as Larry Sanger, a co-founder of Wikipedia.

Chartered psychologist, Professor Joan Freeman has commented:

”In my practice I see several children a week who can read, write and make excellent conversation, and who are well under school age, some as young as 2.  No parent or teacher can make a child do this if they are not capable.  The children are otherwise normal and happy and keen to learn.  The numbers of them that I can see could doubtless be multiplied by many hundreds around the country.” 1

Yet, there are still critics who claim that it’s all a trick or the children have just memorised a few words or even a whole story.  We know this wasn’t the case with our own children and we’ve no reason to doubt the integrity of Mr Sanger or Professor Freeman. 

So, if we’re so sure that it can be done, why are others adamant that it isn’t possible?  Sanger discussed several reasons for this in his excellent essay on the subject and we’ll look at some of them here…

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Developmental Arguments…

Consider this extract from an article by a developmental psychologist on a popular website:

When and how can I teach my toddler to read?

“The truth is, right now you really can’t. Children usually don’t start reading before the age of 5 or 6, and for good reason. Researchers believe that until that age, most children have not yet formed certain neural connections that allow them to decode printed letters and then mentally combine them to make words.”

This seems quite conclusive: an expert is confidently dismissing the idea, seemingly supported by scientific evidence.  But there is no mention of which researchers believe the stuff about neural connections, or what evidence they’ve based their opinions on. 

It’s true that most children don’t learn to read until they are around 5 years old, but this is simply because it’s the age when they start school.  And the starting age for school has more to do with the emotional and social maturity of young children than it does with their neural connections.

The neural connections required for reading don’t spontaneously appear at a particular age; they form as a result of reading instruction.   

Even adults don’t have the right connections in their brains if they haven’t had any reading instruction.  This was illustrated in a Spanish study which showed that adults who had never had the opportunity to learn to read as children showed similar patterns in their brain structure as people with dyslexia.2  However, their brains normalised after reading lessons.

Another study showed that the brains of a group of dyslexic children effectively ‘rewired’ after 100 hours of intensive phonics instruction.3

“…the remedial instruction resulted in an increase in brain activity in several cortical regions associated with reading…”

Changes in brain circuitry in response to instruction are well documented in other areas, such as the spatial memory regions in taxi drivers and certain regions in the brains of musicians.

So, although young children don’t have the right neural connections for reading, the earlier they get instruction (within reason), and the more explicit the instruction, the sooner the necessary connections will be made.  We gave both of our children early phonics instruction and they were able to decode and combine individual letters to read words well before their second birthdays. 

Other critics of early instruction base their objections around outdated developmental theories. For example, in his article ‘Much Too Early’, David Ekland’s arguments are centred on the theories of people he calls “the giants of early-childhood development”. 

To be fair, a few of these individuals are still referred to in educational training courses, but some of their ideas were conceived over a century ago, around the same time that scientists were still debating the  existence of atoms.

Without dismissing all of their contributions entirely, far more is known today about how children learn than it was possible to know when these individuals formulated their ideas.  And none of them tested their ideas with any scientific rigour. 

Jean Piaget was perhaps the most respected of these pioneers, but even his 4-stage developmental model has been shown to be largely incorrect.4

More worryingly, another of the so-called ‘giants’ mentioned by Ekland, Rudolph Steiner, was an occultist with extremely dubious pseudoscientific and racist beliefs.5,6  He suggested that learning should be driven by the pace at which souls incarnate and that the lost continent of Atlantis explained the origins of the hierarchy of the races.

We think that early developmental theories do have some importance, but mainly from a historical perspective.  They provided a starting point and a source of ideas that could be tested and revised, which is how science moves forward.  However, these theories are not a reliable source of evidence against early reading instruction. 

We aren’t the only people who think this.  Grover J. Whitehurst, a child psychologist and former director of the Institute of Education Sciences makes some good counterarguments to Ekland’s points in his response at the end of the ‘Much Too Early’ article.  And the respected cognitive scientist, Professor Dan Willingham, has also been critical of theories that suggest children go through fixed and well-defined developmental stages.  Willingham has stated that it would be a mistake to plan instruction based on these ideas.7

Academics from The American Psychology Association have also stated:

“Students’ cognitive development and learning are not limited by general stages of development.” 8

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Only a Few Gifted Children Can Read Early...

Although some academics do concede that a few children can learn to read very young, they argue that these children are rare exceptions.  However, there is research to dispute this.  Chaney (1992) found that 93% of 3-year-olds could listen to isolated phonemes (speech sounds), and blend them into a word.9  So, for example, children could be given individual sounds such as ‘b’-‘a’-‘t’ and combine them together to make the word ‘bat’. 

And very young children don’t have much trouble recognising letters and learning letter sounds either.  This is evident from some of the parent comments about popular phonics DVDs on Amazon.  Quite a few parents mention that their 2 or 3-year-old children have learned to identify most of the letters just by watching the DVD animations.

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A Study Showed That Babies Can’t Learn to Read…

A New York University study received considerable media attention because it apparently debunked some of the claims made by a popular commercial baby reading programme.10  Many of the headlines said this proved babies can’t learn to read, but that wasn’t really the case…

Although the study was carefully conducted, the early reading programme that was examined used a flash card (look and say) type strategy where children are exposed to whole words along with pictures on a DVD.  This isn’t the most effective way to teach children of any age to read (as we discussed in our article ‘Should I Be Teaching My Child to Read Whole Words?’

Also, some of the things assessed in the study, such as knowledge of alphabetic names and sounds and recognising their own written names, are not even covered in the reading programme, so it’s hardly surprising that children showed no improvement in these areas. 

Additionally, the words presented in the particular reading programme are introduced to children in a fairly random fashion, with seemingly little thought given to what might be most helpful for learning written English. 

For example, some of the earliest words in the programme include ‘eyes’ which has a very irregular spelling pattern and ‘rhinoceros’, which also contains irregular spelling patterns and multiple syllables.  Few teachers would introduce these words as part of early reading instruction and some other words in the programme might also be considered unsuitable for beginners of any age.

Nevertheless, despite the limitations of this particular reading programme, it’s surprising that children in the study could barely recognise any words, even though their parents claimed they could identify quite a few.  One explanation for this might have been the ‘target and foil’ testing method used.  This meant that two words were shown side-by-side and children were asked to look at the one that was mentioned.  It’s possible that they were confused because they had been used to looking at one word at a time in the programme. 

There is certainly convincing video evidence out there that some very young children can recognise words after being exposed to them via flash cards or computer programmes.  This might take several months of exposure and of course, it isn’t clear from video evidence that all children are capable of learning this way, but comments in online forums suggest that many children can. 

Although it can seem remarkable when young children recognise written words, it isn’t very much different from them recognising the signs used in sign language.  Both skills involve associating visual representations with words.  It’s generally accepted that some children can recognise signs from as young as six months and sign back when they are 8 or 9 months.10 

The actual conclusion of the New York University study was that babies did not learn to read using the particular baby media programme they investigated.  This doesn’t prove that younger children can’t learn to read when they are given more appropriate instruction.

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It’s Not Real Reading...

A common criticism of very early readers is that they aren’t really reading – they’re just memorising words, and there is some truth in this.  When children are taught to read using ‘whole word’ / ‘look and say’ instruction they initially just memorise the shapes of words.  Even older children following this type of programme would struggle to read anything that’s unfamiliar. 

Some children can progress from learning whole words to reading phonetically, but this takes some time without explicit phonics instruction. 

However, when young children are taught to read using phonics from the start, they are much more likely to use their phonics skills to decode words rather than memorise them by sight.  We know this was the case with our own children and it seems to be true for infant phonics programmes such as this one .

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How Do We Know If Children Can Really Read?

There are so many videos of young children reading books online that it seems remarkable to us that people still deny that it’s real reading.  If older children were recorded reading books with the same fluency, nobody would question that they were actually reading. 

But because most people don’t teach their toddlers to read, they assume it must be some kind of trick.  Of course, videos can be easily faked, but why would so many parents feel the need to do this? 

Have a look at this video Larry Sanger posted online (around 2 minutes into it).  Does it really seem likely that the co-founder of Wikipedia would force his 3-year-old son to memorise some text about 2-stroke gasoline engines just to fool the general public?

One way to establish if a child can actually decode words phonetically, rather than just memorise them, is to test them using made up words, which are sometimes referred to as ‘nonsense words’ or ‘pseudo words’. 

This might sound like an odd thing to do, but children are likely to encounter many unfamiliar words when they read literature and in everyday life.  Reading these words checks that they can actually decode text rather than just recognise words stored in their vocabulary.

Alison Clarke, the person behind the excellent Spelfabet site, has discussed the relevance of reading these words in several articles, such as this one and this one

And in the UK, all children are given a phonics screening check at the end of year 1 when they are around 6 years old.  There are 40 words in the test and about half of these are made up words.  Children usually need to get around 32/40 correct to pass; you can view a recent version of the test here

We gave our youngest child a version of the phonics screening check when she was only 3 years old and she whizzed through it scoring full marks.  This wasn’t because she is naturally gifted but because she had been given high-quality phonics instruction from a very young age.

Another thing that demonstrates children can actually decode words, rather than just memorise them, is the ability to spell.  With high-quality phonics instruction, children are taught to read and spell at the same time because the two skills involve similar thinking processes.  In fact, as we explain in our article, ‘How Can I Teach My Child to Spell?, spelling is a bit like reading in reverse.

Both of our children were able to spell words verbally and with alphabetic letters when they were toddlers and they have since impressed their teachers at school with their ability to spell.  In fact, our eldest daughter was described as a ‘walking dictionary’ by her junior school teacher.

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What About Comprehension?

Another criticism of young readers is that even if they can decode the words, they can’t really understand them.  However, this depends on what they are reading.

As we discuss in our article, ‘Reading Comprehension Basics’once children can read written words fluently, their reading comprehension is largely dependent on their comprehension of spoken language.  So, as long as they are given books that are appropriate for their age and verbal language skills, they will be able to understand them whether they are reading the books themselves or being read to by a parent.

Larry Sanger freely admits that his son didn’t understand much about 2-stroke gasoline engines when he read about them.  He was just trying to demonstrate that his son was capable of decoding unfamiliar text.  However, his son could both read and understand books that were written for children around his age.

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Can Teaching Children to Read Early be Harmful?

Although some people have claimed that encouraging early reading could be harmful, we haven’t seen any evidence to support this.  There is no reason to believe that learning letter sounds before the age of 5 should be any more harmful than learning the colours of the rainbow or the names of children’s TV characters.

Nevertheless, it is worth considering some of the things that people might be concerned about…

Pushing Them Too Fast…

One suggestion is that if you teach your toddler to read you might be “pushing them too fast”, or “putting them under pressure” and this might actually put children off reading in the future.  However, this certainly wasn’t our experience or the experience of many parents who discuss early reading in online forums. 

As we discussed in another article, early reading can actually make children more motivated to read in the future because it gives them more confidence in their own ability.

Teaching children to read at home doesn’t have to involve ‘pushing’ or ‘pressuring’ them because there’s no need to have a fixed schedule, no exams to pass and no targets to meet.  We found it to be a rewarding and completely stress-free experience for us and our children. 

Doing it yourself means you can fit sessions in when you have the time and when your child is likely to be most receptive.  You can teach them in a flexible, relaxed and unhurried way, working at a pace that suits you and your child.  And instruction can be stopped as soon as the child looks like it is losing concentration.

In contrast, many children are put under pressure to learn to read quickly once they start school.  Instruction has to fit in with the school schedule and children are expected to concentrate and engage with the activities whether they are in the right frame of mind or not. 

As we discussed in another article, children will soon become aware of how much progress they are making compared to their classmates.  If they do fall behind, they will almost certainly feel under pressure to catch up and may need to attend extra classes after school. 

So, rather than putting them under pressure, teaching children to read before they start school means they can learn at a more leisurely pace in a more relaxed atmosphere.  Hence, it can actually reduce the amount of pressure they will have to cope with in the long run.

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It Uses Up Quality Time...

Spending long periods of time cramming information into a toddler wouldn’t be good for a child.  And we certainly aren’t advocating that. 

Play is vitally important for your child’s development and you don’t need to give it up just because you want to teach them how to read.

When you consider how much time young children spend watching TV, the argument that home reading instruction could eat into quality family time doesn’t really hold up.

child-picking-flowers-with-Mum
Teaching your child to read shouldn’t stop you from sharing those special moments together.

A U.S. study found that kids aged 2-5 spend an average of 32 hours a week in front of TV screens.12  Ten or even twenty minutes a day spent doing reading activities seems insignificant in comparison. 

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Finnish Children Don’t Start School Until They Are 7 Years Old...

Finish children do exceptionally well in international comparison tests for reading, yet they don’t start formal reading instruction until they are 7 years old.  This observation is sometimes used as an argument against early reading instruction. 

However, we’re not convinced that the reading ability of Finnish children has much to do with the age they start school.  A variety of factors need to be considered when comparing the education outcomes in different countries. 

The Finnish language has a much more straightforward spelling system than the English language and there are a number of other reasons why Finnish children can read so well.  We discuss these points in more detail in a separate article.

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Learning to Read Early Won’t Help a Child in School...

There hasn’t been a lot of research done in this area, but in another of our articles we outline some studies that suggest early reading could have long-term academic benefits that extend beyond basic literacy. 

The Irony of Objections to Early Reading

Most parents want to help their children learn to read, which is why they share books with them and get their children chanting the alphabet song.  It’s also why wooden blocks with letters on, talking alphabet toys and other educational gadgets are so popular.   

The majority of parents who take their children’s education seriously expose them to letters and written words long before they start school.  Few people have a problem with this, and virtually all child psychologists and educationalists encourage us to do it. 

So we don’t see why anyone should have a problem with a parent explaining to their child (in a simple, non-pressured way) that letters represent the spoken sounds in words, or showing them how different combinations of letters can make different words. 

If all the other things parents do to encourage reading skills are OK, why should explaining the most important bits be viewed as wrong? 

We don’t see any point in keeping the key elements of learning to read a secret from children until they are 5 years old.  As long as we don’t pressure them, what’s the worst thing that could happen? 

If they don’t seem to be enjoying it, or they’re just not interested, all you have to do is ease off and try again when they’re a little older.  And if they are capable of picking up this crucial life-skill in a safe, relaxed and nurturing home environment then why hold them back?

It seems ironic that people criticise the idea of early reading instruction because, in a way, they are defending the present status quo.  In essence, we’re told to avoid giving our children unhurried, one-to-one instruction at home so it can all be crammed into them over of a couple of terms in a crowded classroom when they start school. 

This would be fine if the present advice was working well, but as we pointed out in another article, many children leave school with very poor reading skills. 

“More American children suffer long-term life-harm as a consequence of reading difficulties than from parental abuse, accidents, and all other childhood diseases and disorders combined.  In purely economic terms, reading related difficulties cost more than the war on terrorism, crime, and drugs combined.”      Children of the code ‘what’s at stake?                                  

Further Information…

The ‘brillkids’ site has a number of articles discussing the arguments about early learning:

If you would like to know more about teaching your child to read, see our article How Can I Teach My Child to Read?

If you would like to know more about teaching phonics to your child, see our article: How To Teach Your Child Phonics.

If you would like to know more about teaching spelling, see the following article: How Can I Teach My Child to Spell? Basic Principles.

Larry Sanger’s essay, ‘How and Why I Taught My Toddler To Read’, covers some of the arguments we’ve discussed here in more detail.  It can be downloaded from his blog.

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References:

  1. Teach your child to read, dyslexics.org.uk: http://www.dyslexics.org.uk/teach_your_child.htm
  2. Fields, R.D., Watching the Brain Learn, Scientific American (Nov. 2009): https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/watching-the-brain-learn/
  3. Carnegie Mellon University. “Remedial Instruction Rewires Dyslexic Brains, Provides Lasting Results, Study Shows.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 August 2008. sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/08/080805124056.htm
  4. Clark, D. Piaget – why teach this stuff? http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.co.uk/2009/10/piaget-why-teach-this-stuff.html
  5. Cook, C. Why are Steiner schools so controversial? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-28646118
  6. See also: The true nature of Steiner (Waldorf) education. Mystical barmpottery at taxpayers’ expense. Part 1: http://www.dcscience.net/2010/10/06/the-true-nature-of-steiner-waldorf-education-mystical-barmpottery-at-taxpayers-expense-part-1/
  7. Willingham, D. Ask the Cognitive Scientist. What Is Developmentally Appropriate Practice? American Educator, SUMMER 2008: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/willingham_1.pdf
  8. American Psychological Association (2015) “Top 20 Principles from Psychology for pre-K to 12 Teaching and Learning.” Principle 3: https://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/ptn/2015/09/top-20-principles

  9. Study information accessed from Jolliffe, W., Waugh, D. Carss, A. (2015) Teaching Systematic Synthetic Phonics in Primary Schools, SAGE publications. 

  10. Teaching babies to read: Is it possible? Several companies say yes, but study says no, The Washington Post (2014): https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/teaching-babies-to-read-is-it-possible-several-companies-say-yes-but-study-says-no/2014/05/05/ead52d82-b5d6-11e3-b899-20667de76985_story.html?utm_term=.2989679d230d
  11. When Can I Start Teaching My Baby Sign Language, The BabyCenter (2016): https://www.babycenter.com/404_when-can-i-start-teaching-my-baby-sign-language_1368485.bc See also, Baby Sign Language, FAQs: http://www.babysignlanguage.com/basics/faqs/
  12. Nielsen, TV VIEWING AMONG KIDS AT AN EIGHT YEAR HIGH (Oct. 2009): http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2009/tv-viewing-among-kids-at-an-eight-year-high.html

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