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So What If My Kindergartener Can't Read?

Photograph by Getty Images

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.

Somewhere along the way, I learned to read.

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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 deepest fears.

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.

Really? Well, whew.

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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.

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