I have one memory of learning to read: Ms. Hunter standing
at the front of the classroom with a long wooden pointer. She’s tapping on words, and we the Kindergarteners, huddled on the floor with our legs crossed, are supposed to read along. “The cat sat on the mat.” I remember my eyes wandering around the
room, checking out Bea’s pigtails or Gregory’s moccasins.
My daughter is half way through her Kindergarten year at a
school with a play-based curriculum. Because formal reading isn’t taught until first grade, I’ve been
completely relaxed about the fact that she isn’t reading yet. No big deal, I told myself, she’ll learn next
year with her classmates.
A few weeks ago,
however, I noticed that other kids in her class are already there. One little boy read the classroom update to his
mother in the hall. Another little girl
sent texts from her father’s phone. These kids were “cracking the code” of literacy and surging ahead.
Deep inside, I felt a pull to get my daughter up to
speed. I didn’t want her to be left
behind. I talked to her about learning
to read. “Do you want me to teach you?”
I asked, thinking there could be nothing more joyful than having your super
type-A mother teach you to decode the English language. Not surprisingly, her answer was a
noncommittal shrug of the shoulders.
“Reading is one of my favorite things in the world to do,” I
explained, “and I bet you’re going to love it too.”
Still, she didn’t seem interested, so I didn’t push it. Not overtly, at least.
Parenting culture today has us half-convinced that being average is outright failure.
During our nightly reading time, I’d point to words and ask
her what they were. I showed her how to
sound them out. I slyly inserted the
concept of “sight words” (i.e.,
“the,” “was,” “say”) into our dinner conversations. I ditched my eBooks and started reading more
actual books in front of her. Even if
she wasn’t ready to learn, I was going to do everything I could think of to
make her home environment “literacy rich.”
Internally, my panic was growing. Why wasn’t
she reading? What, if anything, did it
mean for her future? What if she was the
only first grader who couldn’t read next year?
Suddenly, it felt like everyone was reading except for her.
To my great relief, two early childhood education
organizations, Defending the Early Years and Alliance for Childhood, have
issued a report that suggests that forcing kids to read in Kindergarten may
offer little advantage. The report, "Reading in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and
Much to Lose," says there is no evidence to support a belief that children
must read in pre-Kindergarten or Kindergarten to become strong readers.
There’s nothing like finding a study that speaks to your
The fact is that many children aren’t developmentally ready to read in Kindergarten. While I don’t like the idea that my kid isn’t
ready when other kids are, I am grateful to read the research that there are
greater gains for play-based programs than from Kindergarten programs with a
more academic focus. In fact, there is
no evidence of long-terms gains from learning to read in Kindergarten. A study by Sebastian Suggate from the Alanus
University of Arts and Social Sciences in Bonn, Germany, showed that by fourth
grade, the literacy field levels out. That is, by age 11, children who learned to read at 5 do as well as
those who didn’t learn until age 6 or 7.
“Reading early is not an indicator of higher intelligence,”
according to the "Reading in Kindergarten" study.
We as parents want our kids to be ahead of the curve. Parenting culture today has us half-convinced
that being average is outright failure. Thus, there’s an exaggerated burst of pride and jubilance—and no doubt
relief—when our kid becomes an early walker, talker, reader.
However, a “late” reader, just like a late walker, will
eventually become simply “a reader.”
Most likely, I’m not done panicking about this. One study
cannot reverse the effects of years of saturation in the highly competitive
parenting culture we live in. But I can
relax a little bit. I don’t have to
write off my daughter’s intelligence because her peers can read the word of day
and she can’t. It doesn’t really mean
anything. Not yet, at least.