I was 7 years old when I learned to read, which is normal for the Steiner alternative school I attended.
My daughter goes to an ordinary English school, and she started at the age of four, which is typical for British schools.
Memorizing letters and the sounds that make words, at an age when in my head education consisted of climbing trees and jumping ponds, made me wonder how much our different experiences shape us.
Is she getting an advantage that will make her do better in life?
Or is she actually potentially exposed to stress and pressure, at a time when she should be enjoying her freedom?
Or maybe I worry too much, and it doesn’t matter at all at what age we start learning to read and write.
There is no doubt that the wealth of language – written, spoken, sung or read aloud – plays a decisive role in early human development.
Babies already show a reaction to the words they heard while in the womb.
Parents are advised to read to their children while they are still in the womb, as well as while they are babies.
There is evidence that working with a child in terms of language at an early age affects his success during schooling.
Books are especially important for acquiring a rich linguistic experience because the written language often includes a wider, more nuanced and more precise vocabulary compared to the spoken language.
This, in turn, helps children to enrich and deepen their vocabulary.
Since a child’s earliest contact with the language is considered essential to his later success, the number of preschools that have begun to teach children basic language skills has grown rapidly.
At the beginning of schooling, language is the area that receives the most attention.
This goal – that all children should learn to read and write – is even more pronounced today as scientists warn that the pandemic has deepened the gap, caused by unequal education, between well-to-do and poor families.
In many countries, formal education begins when a child turns four.
It is often taken as an argument for such a system that already at an early age it has more time to learn and stand out.
The result, however, can be an “education war,” during which parents help children achieve significant success in school through private tutoring and tutoring, with some parents even paying for full-time tutors for their children as young as four.
If we compare this system with one of a few decades ago, based on as much play as possible at an early age, we can see a big change based on completely different attitudes about what a child needs to thrive.
In America, some of the education policy related to this area has been rapidly changing with decisions like the one from 2001, known as “No Child Left Behind”, which advocates standardized testing as a way to measure education and progress.
In Britain, children are tested in the second year of primary school (age 5-6 years) to check whether standard reading skills have been achieved.
Critics warn that early testing like this can turn a child away from reading, while supporters say it can point to those children who need extra help to master that area.
However, many studies show that an emphasis on education at an early age does not bring much benefit.
A 2015 report, written in America, shows that our understanding of what children should achieve in kindergarten has changed, leading to “inappropriate classroom practices”, such as reducing time for learning through play.
The way children learn and the quality of the environment is of utmost importance.
“The mastery of reading in younger children is one of the most important things that elementary education makes possible. It is extremely important when it comes to progress in a child’s life,” says Dominic Wise, professor of primary education at University College London.
He and Alice Bradbury, a professor of sociology at the same university, published research showing that the very way in which literacy is taught in schools is very important.
In a 2022 report, they argue that the current system in English schools that prioritizes sonority – a method of matching the sound of a spoken word or letter to an individual written letter, through a process called “spelling” – can be complicated for some children.
The reason, says Bradbury, is that “early schooling” results in education that is already largely formal at an early age.
However, tests that assess this early knowledge have little to do with the skills necessary to read and enjoy books and other texts that express ideas.
For example, on the tests, students are asked to “spell” and spell strange words, so that they do not simply guess or recognize similar words.
Since these words are not actually meaningless, it could be a difficult and complicated task for children.
Bradbury believes that the pressure on children to acquire these decoding skills – and pass the tests – also means that many three-year-olds are learning about letters.
“In the end, we see that it doesn’t make much sense — kids just memorize the lesson instead of understanding the context,” says Bradbury. She also worries that the books used in the classroom don’t motivate kids.
What is the right age to start reading to your child and why
Neither Wise nor Bradbury advocate unreservedly the second type of learning but think that we should think about the way we teach children to acquire language.
The priority, they say, should be to encourage interest and familiarity with words, using stories, songs and recitations that help children remember the sounds that words make, as well as expand vocabulary.
Many studies support the claim that knowledge acquired at preschool age fades after that period.
Children who regularly attended preschool classes do not have better foundations later in elementary school compared to those who did not attend those classes, the results of several studies show.
However, early education can have a positive impact on social development – and as a consequence, children who go through this system are more likely to finish school and graduate later, that is, they are less likely to go down the path of crime.
In short, attending preschool can affect later success in life, but not the improvement of intellectual skills.
Too much pressure can cause problems in the long run.
A study published in January 2022 found that children who attended a state preschool program, with an emphasis on learning, had less success in school after several years compared to children who failed to enrol in the program.
This is consistent with research on the importance of play-based learning at an early age.
For example, the results of that study show that children educated on this principle had better results compared to the majority of their peers who attended programs based on the school approach at preschool age.
A 2002 study shows that “children’s later success in formal education is most likely related to early, active, play-based learning experiences,” and that overly formalized learning can slow that process.
In conclusion, it is said that “pressuring a child at an age when it is still too early can actually lead to a counter-effect when the child starts elementary school.”
Why early reading is bad for your child
In some countries, the thesis that teaching children should start at an early age is not accepted.
For example, in Germany, Iran and Japan, schooling starts at the age of six.
In Finland, which is considered to be the country with the best education system, children start school at the age of seven.
Despite this apparent delay, Finnish students after the age of fifteen achieve better results compared to their British and American peers.
In support of education that emphasizes children’s needs, Finnish children play much more during the period when they go to kindergarten and are not exposed to school tasks and obligations.
Drawing on this model, the University of Cambridge published a recommendation in 2009 that children should start school when they turn six, because children in Britain should be given the time they need “to develop the language and learning skills that are essential for success in at a later age”, since an early start can “shake the self-confidence of five-year-olds, resulting in permanent damage to the learning process”.
Research confirms the view that learning to read should be started later.
A 2006 study of American kindergarteners found that children who started reading a year later had better test scores than their peers.
A study comparing early readers and those who learned the skill later showed that those who fall into the second group catch up very quickly later on – moreover, they even slightly outperform early readers when it comes to comprehension.
Sebastian Sagate, one of the lead researchers on the project from Germany’s University of Regensburg, says the study proves that starting to learn later allows children to effectively match their knowledge of the world – their understanding – and the world they are learning about.
“It makes sense,” he says. “The prerequisite for sensible reading is language, they have to unlock the ideas it signifies.”
“Of course, if you are introduced to the language from an early age, you will build fundamental skills that normally take years to master. Reading can be learned quickly, but when it comes to language (vocabulary and comprehension), there are no shortcuts. It takes a lot of effort,” says Sagegate.
In another paper, which deals with the experiences of different ages prescribed for starting school, he found that early mastery of the skill of reading does not bring a visible benefit when the child turns 15 years old.
A doubt remains: why should we start early to learn to read if the technique of learning that skill has not itself advanced today?
The difference in reading appetite and ability is a very important aspect.
“By the time they have to start school or start learning to read, the differences between children are huge if we talk about their basic knowledge,” explains Kanningen.
In a study dealing with the education model at the Steiner school, within which a child’s formal education begins around the age of seven, Kanningen singled out as many as 40 % of children who already knew how to read from the overall cause.
“I think the reason lies in their readiness,” she says. She also found that older children were more ready to “learn the process of reading as an extension of the language skills they had already acquired” because they had been learning the language for an extra three years.
Studies also show that the ability to read is far more related to a child’s vocabulary than to his age and that his verbal skills are to a large extent a precursor to later language development.
However, we know that many children who start school are lagging behind when it comes to language skills, usual children from poorer backgrounds.
Some experts claim that formal education enables them to receive support and acquire skills that other children have acquired informally at home.
This position is also represented by representatives of the British Ministry of Education. They believe that learning to read at an early age is “the only effective way to bridge that gap [in language skills]” for those who are lagging behind in language.
Others give priority to the opposite approach – the child should be placed in an environment where he will enjoy and develop his language skills, which, after all, is of essential importance for the successful mastery of reading.
That’s exactly what a fun environment encourages: “The teacher’s job is to assess what the child’s current level of knowledge is and teach them accordingly,” Wise says.
An analysis published in 2009 by Cambridge confirms this assessment: “There is no evidence that a child who spends more time studying in class – compared to one who learns through play – will ‘do better in the long term.”
Cunningham, whose daughter has also recently started learning to read, offers a reassuringly broad-minded idea of what age to start: “It doesn’t matter whether a child starts at four, five or six years old as long as the method of learning is good, that is. tested. Children are so resilient, they will find a place to play in any environment.”
Therefore, our obsession with language education at an early age has no basis, and therefore – there is no reason to insist on this approach when there is no obvious benefit from it.
On the other hand, if your child gets sick If he learns, or shows an interest in reading on his own initiative before he meets that activity at school, that’s also perfectly fine, as long as you have plenty of time to plan and have fun at the same time.