We live in a culture where, not only do we want to keep up with the Joneses, we want to be better than them. Social media has made this problem almost epidemic. And, though we homeschoolers tend to buck the system in many ways, we are not immune in this case. Did Little Sally just start walking? Well, Tommy walked two months earlier. Jim is speaking in full sentences? Isn’t that cute, Jenny was doing that ages ago. Earlier is better in this vein of thinking. And it extends right into our schoolwork as well. Children are pushed to learn academic skills, especially reading, at a very young age. In the public and many private schools, students who don’t attend preschool at three are already considered behind. So, what if your little one is turning five and doesn’t know the alphabet yet. Is it hopeless? Not at all.
Is Earlier Really Better?
Until recently, kindergarten was a place you went half a day to gently learn how to be in school, your letter sounds, and how to count. Much of the class time was spent in play. Gone are the dress up corners and play kitchens of the past. Today’s kindergartners spend their time seated at desks with the expectation that they will be reading by the end of the year. In fact, today’s kindergarten is essentially yesterday’s first grade. And the push to start academics even younger keeps coming.
The question is, does starting early make us better readers? This is a difficult issue to study. Some students who receive early reading instruction would have learned just as well without this approach, while others struggle even after receiving early instruction. And there are risks to starting reading instruction too early.
Children who have formal reading instruction early, especially when combined with a large amount of testing, lose the joy of reading. Instead, reading becomes a chore that needs to be performed.
Children develop at different times, with a large range of development being completely normal. Young children who are forced into formal reading instruction before they are ready may lose confidence, encouraging reading problems later on. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because they were not ready to learn to read, they believed that they couldn’t. And even when their maturity catches up, they already believe that they have a reading problem, so it continues.
Too much emphasis on reading instruction takes away from other important skills, such as life skills and motor skills that young children need to learn.
Dr. Ashlesha Datar, a social scientist at the RAND Corporation, conducted a 2006 study comparing children entering kindergarten at the generally accepted age to those whose parents held them out for a year. According to her research, Professor Datar stated that she found “entering kindergarten a year older significantly boosts test scores at kindergarten entry. More importantly, entering older implies a steeper test score trajectory during the first 2 years in school.”¹ So, did starting a year later increase the children’s potential? Of course not. The extra year simply allowed them to mature and be ready for the type of instruction being tested.
In New Zealand, several studies were conducted that compared students who started formal reading instruction at age five with those who started at age seven. These tests showed that not only does early instruction not improve reading development, it may in fact be damaging. By age eleven, there was no discernible difference in reading ability between the two groups. However, the group that began instruction at age five had less positive attitudes toward reading. In fact, research comparing the reading achievement of fifteen-year-old students across fifty-five countries found no significant evidence that starting early brings any benefits at all.²
So what does this mean for homeschool families?
Many studies suggest that the single greatest contributor to both a love of reading and reading achievement is how much the child has been read aloud to. Homeschooling allows for lots of reading aloud! Also, one of the greatest benefits of homeschooling is the ability to follow your child’s lead when it comes to his education. Look for readiness before attempting formal reading instruction. And if you start, only to discover your child isn’t ready, put the formal books away and spend some time reading aloud, playing games, and doing science experiments. Then pick it back up again!
At a recent homeschool meeting, several moms were discussing the days of teaching reading to their now teenagers and young adults. Many of them had at least one “late” reader. And yet, all of these students were currently doing well. Two of the young adults were successful college students who were on the Dean’s list every semester. Another runs a successful business. In all cases, the late reading was not an issue by the time the student was of high school age. Was “late” too late? Not at all.