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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Barr (M.A. M.Ed)

Let's Talk About Reading in Early Childhood Education! Part 1: Looking at the Research!

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

Reading is a big deal for many parents and one of the most frequent concerns they ask us about. We know that children, in the first six years of life, have an incredible ability to learn new things. It is a crucial time for development as many of the habits and skills children learn during this period will stay with them and in some ways determine how they interact with the world in the future. Some schools and curriculums see this ‘ability for learning’ to start the instruction of traditional skills like mathematics and literacy. The problem though is overwhelmingly experts agree that there is no benefit for starting such formal instruction with children this young.

This article will focus on why we shouldn’t start formal reading instruction in the early years. Part 2 will look at how ECE prepares children with the necessary skills for when reading instruction should start, and finally part 3 will focus on answering parents frequently asked questions related to children learning to read.

Developmentally it is tricky to start reading instruction in kindergarten (2-6 years). For some children they can (are able to) learn to read but for others they might not get it for years no matter how much adults try and teach them. I (Mr Barr) know this because I didn’t start reading until nine years of age even though my reading instruction started at four-five. My parents often tell me how frustrated they got trying to teach me and reading with me at home. At some point they thought I was dyslexic but the reason for my "late start" was much simpler, I wasn’t developmentally ready yet. With my brothers they learnt much faster and younger. If this type of developmental difference can happen in one family think about a whole class of children.

The research on when is very clear. There is no evidence, as in zero, that suggests children who learn to read in preschool have any long-term academic advantage over children who start reading instruction in primary school. In fact, in all long-term research studies that have observed children, from preschool to adulthood, have shown the opposite. For example, research carried out by Cambridge University led to the recommendation that formal reading instruction shouldn’t begin until seven years of age.

“By the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who started at 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later.” (Cambridge, 2013)

This is supported by many of the leading education systems in Europe where the nations that sit at the top of the tables for education follow a basic rule of ECE is play based and formal education (especially reading) begins at around seven years of age.

“In a separate study of reading achievement in 15-year olds across 55 countries, researchers showed that there was no significant association between reading achievement and school entry age.” (Cambridge, 2013)

The when is also supported by many early childhood approaches. Waldorf doesn’t start formal reading until the ages of seven to nine years of age. This is very different to some national approaches like England and the USA that start as young as four and five years of age. In International and private schools this can even go as young as three years of age. Reggio Inspired schools also don’t start formal reading instruction in their preschools.

learn i such a way that they become life long readers and writers. If we push our children to strt learning these skills too far ead of their own spontanous in

Dr Lilian Katz (ECE Expert & Researcher) said ‘there is a difference between what children can do and what children should do’. Although we know some children can learn to read by the time they are five we really should ask ourselves how does it really benefit them? Is it important a child goes into first grade being able to read? Especially when the research shows by grade three to four a child who learnt to read in kindergarten and a child who learnt in grade one will, at the very least, be on the same reading level. Dr Katz also said it’s important to remember that, ‘We want our children to do more than just learn how to read and write. We want them to learn in such a way that they become life long readers and writers. If we push our children to start learning these skills too far ahead of their own spontaneous interest and capacity, we may sacrifice the long-range goal of having them enjoy such pursuits.’

Hopefully if you are or were a believer in reading instruction in ECE we have changed your mind or at the very least made you think more about it to the point you will seek out more research and opinions on this subject. In part 2 we will explore how we (early years educators) develop the pre-reading and writing skills that will help children for when formal instruction should begin.

We will leave you with part of an interview with Early Childhood Today (USA) who interviewed Sue Bredekamp, Director of Professional Development at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and Susan Neuman, Chair of Reading in Early Childhood Committee, International Reading in Early Childhood Committee, International Reading Association (IRA). The interview focused on learning to read.

ECT: Do you think that pre-k teachers should teachphonics? BREDEKAMP:They don't need to, but they must have a variety of strategies that lead to kids' development of phonemic awareness, the understanding of sounds. Teachers need to read aloud and give children exposure to print, alphabetic principle, linguistic awareness, etc., not direct phonics instruction. Phonics instruction is really best left to first grade. That's the same conclusion that the National Academy of Science came to in their work.


References & Links to Reseach: Cambridge University. (2013). School Starting Age: The Evidence; National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessmentof the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction.

By Joshua Barr


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