I am not an early years teaching expert, but I have witnessed firsthand how ingrained a hatred of reading can develop in some children, and was acutely reminded of this when I watched the BBC 4 documentary ‘B is for Book‘.
As a former secondary school teacher who has tutored numerous children in English for more than 15 years (boys in particular), I could plainly see how easily a love of books can be jeopardised very early on in a child’s life.
Shockingly, the BBC film showed children who were not yet naturally interested in reading and writing independently (much less the daily monotony of phonics and lacklustre books) being deprived of precious playtime, as punishment for academic failure, at just 4 and 5 years old.
“Why are we doing this to children???” I wanted to know.
So that they pass their phonics test with flying colours at the end of Year 1, and perform well for Ofsted? So that we can monitor, check and evaluate whether teachers are doing their job properly in teaching children to read? Or is it because we’re absolutely sure that this approach is in the best interests of all children?
Slowly But Surely
Evidently, the BBC film demonstrates that some young children are able to read early, which is wonderful, and should be encouraged.
But for those children who are not ready yet, why not wait a while?
Why not simply continue reading to them and with them?
Reading, reading, and more reading….
Entertain them with books; excite and enlighten them with the huge variety of stories and facts that exist on each mysterious page; make them eager to (slowly but surely) seek out words that are of interest to them.
Let them crack the code in their own way, and in their own time.
The goal of reading is the same; they’re simply taking a different path to reaching it.
Yes, this may require more patience.
Yes, this may require more differentiation in the classroom.
And yes, this may require confidence to step outside the prescribed method.
But if it results in a child not just being able to read, but actually enjoying reading, isn’t it worth a try?
At least for those children who are very clearly struggling at age 4 and 5…
To back off a little.
To give them space.
To give them time.
To wait until they’re verbally and mentally ready to deliver the intonation and emphasis that makes what they’re reading ‘sound‘ interesting to their ears (and inside their head).
To wait until the words they’re actively learning to read are the more interesting ones, the ones that will really bring the stories in books to life, and enrich their reading experience.
To provide them with really positive and proud memories of ‘the first books I ever read‘.
To make their effort more worthwhile.
To nurture and maintain their self esteem.
Maybe it was my teaching experience, or maybe it was a mother’s instinct, but I knew that enrolling our summer born son in school at age 4 was not the right step for him in autumn 2013.
In fact, many experts say that even an age 5 start to formal reading and writing is not ideal for those children who are better suited to waiting a while.
Their research gave me the confidence to stand my ground in the face of strong ‘school system’ opposition and querying school run stares.
Fast forward to summer 2016 and our son has just recently read his first books, cover to cover, at an age that would be considered ‘extremely late‘ by English educational standards; moreover, given the irrefutable evidence that a disproportionate number of summer born children are diagnosed with SEN, by now he would very likely have been ‘labelled‘ in school over there.
Instead, in Canada, where he started school at age 5 years and 3 months (and formal reading skills in school didn’t start for him until age 6 years and 7 months), the range of vocabulary he can now decode comes from years of listening to stories (with the occasional word or phrase pointed to or discussed – ‘Isn’t it funny how some words begin with a k but you don’t hear it when you say it? e.g. knife, knight, Knapford Station‘ – before moving swiftly on); he avoided years of trudging through basic vocabulary within the pages of books that I knew would not capture his imagination – and undivided attention – quite so well.
Sure, he has some classmates that could read chapter books by the age of 5 and a half, and the system here doesn’t discourage this; in fact our daughter was a very ‘early reader‘ too.
It’s just that there is no expectation for everyone else in the class to be doing the same.
Risks in the Reading Race
Also, the likelihood is (as studies have shown) that in the coming years, this difference in reading ability should start to even out.
For some children, learning to read is a marathon, not a sprint, and in an environment where the process is treated as a race, it might set them up for feelings of failure and frustration as they strive to cross an ever-moving finish line .
As the song goes, ‘You can’t hurry love‘, and for some children, this is true of their natural readiness to develop a love of reading.
Hurry it, and we risk teaching them to hate books instead.
Our son has been lucky; we were able to make the right choice for his start in education after moving away from Surrey’s obsession with bureaucratic neatness and chronological age teaching.
However, there are still others who are trapped inside an admissions postcode lottery that can only be resolved if the DfE delivers on its promise and changes the School Admissions Code.
Forced school entry at age 4, forced Year 1 entry at age 5, or being made to miss a year of school later on, can all adversely impact the entire educational experience for some children, and therefore their life chances.
Correcting the unfair flaws in summer born admissions won’t fix everything, but it’s a valuable and important step in the right direction.
Related Blog Post
In ‘Debunking the Belief That Earlier Is Better‘ (June 27, 2016), education consultant Rae Pica writes:
“For example, the average age children learn to walk is 12 months – 50% before and 50% after. But the range that is normal for walking is 8-3/4 months all the way to 17 months. The same applies for reading. The average age that children learn to read is 6-1/2 – again, 50% before and 50% after.”
Our son sits firmly in that ‘50% after‘ range, and it genuinely breaks my heart when I see children in infant schools being chastised and punished simply because their natural cognitive development means they’re not ready to read and write yet.
At age 7, our son’s handwriting is developing beautifully (and naturally), but I have photographed his ‘writing‘ at age 4 and 5 with the intention of one day posting another article on why it would have been wholly unnecessary (and dispiriting) for him to sit in school at those ages ‘practising‘ and ‘improving‘ cursive skills that would develop perfectly well later on.
- Written by author and journalist Pauline Hull