Reading Too Young: The educator’s worst nightmare

February 16th, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  10 Comments

Don't read it and don't do it

I read this article in the Times with some interest. It recounts a debate among high power private school parents in Manhattan and educators in their high power private schools over when children should be taught to read.

Essentially, the schools think kindergarten is too young, but the parents would like phonics working for their kids while in utero. I suppose there are educational and emotional reasons for both positions. JP doesn’t yet read, for example, but I get the sense that he has reached a stage where he could be taught to do so. I don’t know that I have the necessary skill (or patience, to be frank) to teach him. It disappoints me a bit that his current school, a pre-K, doesn’t, and that his public kindergarten teacher next year likely won’t.

Is that an expression of a New York–specific anxiety over my child’s academic progress? Probably. I don’t send him to school anywhere else, so it’s hard to tell. I do know that the competition for what seems like increasingly scarce resources here is formidable, as are the pressure and the sense of never knowing what is the right thing to do.

In an environment where my son got turned away from eight PUBLIC schools for pre-K, where there is a lottery for another PUBLIC school that I’m considering having him attend, and where the system for the PUBLIC schools is rife with misinformation, slashed budgets, and limited opportunities, I think it’s fair to see some free-floating concern directed at his academic progress. What else can I control as a parent?

That doesn’t mean the Times should resist the delights of making fun of over-thinking parents, and no, no, no, they don’t. I like this little bit below ridiculing parents:

She also echoed the belief of some parents that the ability to read will bolster her child’s chances of being admitted to a top school. Officials of some of these schools insist that this is not so, and the E.R.B., the standardized test required by most for admission, does not have a reading component.

“It’s not as though we have two extra points for reading Dr. Seuss,” said Mr. Trower, the head at Allen-Stevenson.

Calhoun goes further: If a family seemed fixated on Junior’s uncanny ability to read James Joyce, Mr. Nelson said, “that would probably be a liability in our admissions decision.”

Fuck ’em, right?


  1. SCOTTSTEV says:

    February 16th, 2011at 11:32 am(#)

    I know my kindergarten is working having them prepared to read by the end of the year. For my son and his peers, as far as I can tell, this seems about on-pace for their abilities. My oldest naturally takes to learning, and so I spent his fourth year (JP’s 4 right?) introducing letter-sounds and reading to him. Pre-reading skills(sitting quietly, holding a book the correct way, following along to a story being read aloud etc)are important and shouldn’t skipped just reach some milestone, but I think many kids could go really far by the end of kindergarten.

    More important than him reading independently, is being able to work at something difficult. My son struggles with this, having inherited my allergy to hard work and concerted effort. I don’t see this getting fixed quickly. It’s hard to balance challenging your kid to strengthen his discipline, versus going full-Chua on him and rendering any practice a miserable experience.

    As for practical advice, I’d say feed him if he’s hungry for learning, but concentrate on building a base rather than meeting some deadline.

  2. dadwagon says:

    February 16th, 2011at 11:35 am(#)

    Scottstev: “full-chua.” That should be accepted slang, like “going postal,” which with the demise of our postal system (and the fact that service in most post offices these days seems much, much better) holds less weight. Have you considered copyrighting that, or is it still free for me to steal for use at bars? –Theodore.

  3. Tim says:

    February 16th, 2011at 12:06 pm(#)

    Theodore, if JP goes to a NYC public for K, he’ll almost certainly be taught reading and encouraged to read, and probably with a fair amount of urgency and intensity. In fact, I think that the public schools’ emphasis on early reading is to some degree an indirect cause of the tension that surrounds the issue in the private schools.

    I’m not a professional researcher, so take this with a grain of salt, but most of the studies seem to indicate that if the child comes from an economically comfortable family with involved parents, has had lots of exposure to books, and is read to every day, then it’s probably optimal to put off formal reading instruction for as long as possible, even though many of those types of kids will be reading fluently on their own by 5-6-7.

    But if the child doesn’t have these advantages, or if there’s a disability/developmental issue of some kind, kindergarten is probably already too late to get the kid fully caught up through formal teaching. So this is why the NYC public schools assess and teach reading as soon as they can.

    I imagine there are some private school parents who have a hard time spending ~$40K per child (and 75%+ of the students at NYC privates don’t get financial aid!) and then observing what seems to be a pretty structureless curriculum for the first 2-3 years.

  4. dadwagon says:

    February 16th, 2011at 12:10 pm(#)

    #Tim–all fair enough. i guess the post, for me at least, is more about the how easy it is to beat up on parents in NY, people who go through most of the academic process for the children with no real sense of control. That may be the same throughout the country, or it may only be most pronounced here, and yes, I think ridiculing private school parents is amusing, but, well, there it is. –Theodore.

  5. SCOTTSTEV says:

    February 16th, 2011at 12:53 pm(#)

    @Ted – it’s yours. I think the score in clever turns of phrase stands at Ross:258 scottstev: 1. You don’t know happy it makes me to sit in with band, as it were.

  6. karen says:

    February 16th, 2011at 1:21 pm(#)

    so … I could read my mom’s magazines at 4, because I learned next to my sister who was practicing in grade 1 (at 7) and was a slow starter. She now has two degrees, and is a vice principal at a local elementary school here in the lower mainland of Vancouver (Canada eh). I … well … I have a few scattered years of uni, no degrees, I’ve worked as a bar wench, a temp in veal fattening pens (hey, it was the late 80s and I was a prototype for Douglas Coupland, whatcanisay …) and I’ve worked for such steller firms as Cathay Pacific, Time (and previously Ted Turner’s evil empire) TNT & Cartoon Network, when I finally got (a bit) serious about doing something with my language skills.

    All’s I’m saying is that I think we all think way too much and my two daughters are completely screwed as they are in grades 1 and 2 and read at a grade 3 or so level. We’ve banned books for my 3 year old son, but that’s okay. He prefers cars anyway.

    I figure JP is gonna do just fine.

  7. Len says:

    February 17th, 2011at 4:37 am(#)

    Interesting. I love books, and the comfortable solitude that comes with them – and the opportunity to discuss with others new ideas, ways of looking at the world, that they stimulate. I want my daughter – now 3 months shy of 5 – to have the same joy. We live in Indonesia, and the private kindergarden she attends is academically worthless, so I took it on myself to teach her to read. A letter a day, followed by phonics, and now she can (mostly) piece things together, especially if I draw a line to separate the syllables. But as I have emphasized at all stages of her development, it transpires at HER pace. I don’t drill every day, I give her a reward for particularly difficult passages, and try to keep her experience as upbeat as possible. By the time she gets to first grade, I expect her to be reading reasonably fluently – perhaps even parsing out words like “bioluminescence,” which I taught her the meaning of nearly a year ago. And if she’s advanced in comparison to her peers, I hope she feels justifiably proud of herself.

  8. William S. says:

    February 20th, 2011at 12:51 pm(#)

    Interesting read.

    Being a Cali transplant to Texas my wife and I have found it interesting the differences in public education here.

    My daughter is a 3rd grader and it seems to me the curriculum is more advanced than that. The schools really push the children to learn. We have about 2 hours of homework each night. It can be a pain, but she is doing very well and we appreciate that. Not everything in Texas Public Education is great. The social studies curriculum seems to go back in time. The science curriculum seesm to be in conflict with itself. But we have also learned that most teachers do not appreciate the politics played by the State Board of Education to change history and science.

    For our son we have placed in a private kindergarten. We have wonderful full day public kindergartens but our son’s birthday falls just beyond the cut off for joining kindergarten this year. So we decided we would have him “red shirt” kindergarten this year. What is amazing is the teacher, she is amazing, has all the children reading after 5 months. Reading not just basic things but full on early childhood chpater books. In addition, they have weekly spelling tests of at least 12 words. We were very reluctant about the spelling tests as first because we thought it was too early for him. But he is doing very well and we see greater self confidence because of this.

    I think as parents we get caught up in worrying about pushing our kids to fast and to far. Just watching the reaction by many around the world to the “Tiger Mom” book demonstrates that. But we should not be afraid to push our kids. We should embrace challenges for them and help them meet those challenges.

    After watching my son achieve in reading, spelling and math I would have a hard time placing my youngest daughter (turning 3 this week) into any kindergarten that did not teaching reading.

  9. Aji says:

    February 24th, 2011at 8:42 pm(#)

    Thank you for writing about this. It is a topic I’ve thought about much. Our public school emphasizes reading in Kindergarten. My kids are currently in 2nd grade and Kindergarten. Here is a summary of my humble opinion…

    1. Read to toddlers, but Don’t Push toddlers to read. I say this because if you can read (or do math) at age 3 and 4, you’re just going to be BORED in school. Imagine how fun it would be to sit thru group instruction in Kindergarten if you can already read chapter books. If you’d like your child to enjoy school, don’t set them up to be bored in Kindergarten!

    2. With both my kids, we emphasized reading in the summer before Kindergarten, this timing worked well. I recommend the Leapfrog DVDs (Letter Factory, Word Factory, Code Word Caper) and later, the “Meet the Sight Words vols 1-3” DVDs. For us, being able to read 3-4 letter words and a few sight words was a great starting point for entering Kindergarten.

    3. Do not overlook practicing writing at home — especially if your child’s letters are still illegible after the first quarter of Kindergarten. We made this mistake with our son.

    4. When it comes to imaginative play, cooperative play, learning music, and physical activity — the sky is the limit! Studies are showing that early success in these areas has a lot more to do with your child’s later success than whether they could read chapter books in diapers.

    5. William: I agree that challenging your kids may be a very good idea. I wish I had done it earlier, we’re just getting on board this year. The challenges we’re pursuing focus on the child’s passions (e.g, Lego building, learning all the lyrics to a song, etc.)

    p.s. “full-Chua” is a great turn of phrase

  10. Ruth says:

    June 13th, 2012at 3:08 pm(#)

    Could someone please explain why parents feel it is necessary for kids to begin reading instruction so early? Countries with much better academic scores and literacy rates than the U.S. don’t begin formal reading instruction until age 6 or 7. Instead, they read to their children and work on developing their children’s interest in literature and their vocabularies. The part of the brain one uses to read is not yet maelynated until the age of 6. Although young children’s brains are more open to learning and enriching influences, this does not mean it’s good for them to get explicit reading instruction as early as possible. The brain is not ready for these skills and the child may learn to use less efficient parts of the brain for reading.

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