Winning the battle but losing the war? Behind the science of early reading instruction.

Leher Singh is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the National University of Singapore. She conducts research on early phonological development in the infant and preschool years. In view of a growing trend towards early reading instruction, she co-wrote this blog with Dr. Roberta Golinkoff to share the science behind this movement.

Winning the battle but losing the war? Behind the science of early reading instruction.

As parents, we can find ourselves drowning in advice about how to position our children well for their future. One example of this is the increasing pressure to teach children to read earlier and earlier. Is this pressure justified? Are early readers better readers? Should we be pushing our kindergarteners to learn to read or should we wait until elementary school?

Reading in Today's Kindergartens

Today's kindergartners are under more pressure to learn to read than ever before. In their report "Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?" researchers Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham, and Anna Roren demonstrate that kindergarten teachers today spend much more time teaching reading than they did in the past. Where does this time come from? It comes from time previously spent on play, arts, music and movement, which now take up a much smaller part of a kindergartener's day. In fact, kindergarten teachers today report spending more time on teaching children to read than on any other activity. So does early reading really pay off?

Are early readers really better readers?

In short, the answer is no. Research has evaluated reading outcomes in children who received reading instruction in kindergarten versus elementary school. What does it reveal? No differences in reading outcomes. Reading researcher, Sebastian Suggate, studied early versus later readers and found that by fourth grade, there were no differences in reading outcomes based on whether children had been taught to read in kindergarten or elementary school. In fact, in the adolescent years, children who had started to read later actually showed better reading skills than those who had learned earlier! Even more striking, Suggate and other researchers have actually reported negative psychological outcomes, such as anxiety around studies, in children who were taught to read early. But books can play a crucial role in the life of a kindergartener.

The values of books

There is lots of evidence that reading books to young children, even to little babies, helps children to develop their language skills. Books offer exposure to a wide variety of words, provide children with valuable knowledge about the world, and provide a treasured sharing opportunity for parents and children. However, the transition to independent reading is one that deserves careful consideration. As noted by Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige in her essay, "Defending the Early Years", most kindergartners are not developmentally ready to learn to read. This is not to say they should be kept away from letters and sounds. Champions for play-based pre-school education have articulated a wide variety of ways in which play-based curricula can skillfully weave in letters, sounds and books without formal teaching or formal assessments. Feeding a curiosity for sounds, letters, and books in a way that truly excites and engages the child can nurture later reading. An early introduction to books is a very good thing for young children. However, an early expectation that a child will learn to read independently may actually backfire.

What can we do to prepare our children to be good readers?

There appears to be lots that we can do as parents to help our preschooler become a good reader. But rather than build up reading skills per se, we can help our children by building reading motivation. Creating a positive reading environment, where young children can't wait to go to the library to find the next in the Frog and Toad series, can benefit children. Similarly, reading to our children and making it fun instills a long-lasting appreciation for books - whether they are those musty things with pages or on glitzy new tablets (we prefer the former!). Selecting books that attract our children's individual interests also helps children enthusiastically bound into their reading journey. Snakes? Spiders? Other creepy-crawlies? Many children are fascinated to hear stories about these critters.

In general, our time as parents may be better spent nurturing a thirst for books rather than drowning our children in reading instruction: Research shows us that children who are motivated to read become better readers. But making children better readers before their time does not make them more motivated to read.