Russian Roulette With Reading

Here’s a very interesting piece exploring the varying approaches of different schools in and around New York regarding when they start teaching young children to read:

New York Times Article on Reading

I can say right up front that my sympathies are very much with those schools that are delaying the process, though not necessarily with the rigidity that some of them express in the article. My reasons are based upon my reading and understanding of the current ‘best knowledge’ from brain science related to the learning process, coupled with the fact that learning in school is inherently a ‘collective’ group process.

Before a child can acquire the skills to start walking they need a particular neural network to be in place (we could think of it as the right wiring diagram). If that network isn’t ready, then no amount of teaching, cajoling or motivating will enable that child to achieve any proficiency in walking. Ultimately, barring those children with learning difficulties or mental impairment, every child reaches competence in walking, though some later than others. I believe the same requirements apply to reading. This would also explain why reading early provides no clues to long term IQ, success in academics or any other long term outcomes, just as the early walker doesn’t automatically become the champion athlete.

Let’s take a scenario in which I’m a child whose neural network for reading is taking a bit longer to get in place than the child who sits next to me in school. If the school tries to teach us reading early he’ll get it – I won’t. This is no reflection on me or him – it’s just how it is. However, in the ‘hot house flowers’ environment of pressured early learning, what effect will it have on me to see my peer reading whilst I can’t. Worse, how will I feel when my ‘failure’ has a negative effect on my teacher, and worse my parents. I really fear this will cause me to acquire all sorts of negative perceptions about my self worth, my potential as a learner. At worst I might conclude unconsciously that I’m no good at this school game and probably never will be. The outcome of such negative self-talk could be debilitating the child for life.

Of course, some parents might be so supremely confident that their child will be one of the ones ‘ahead of the game’ that they rather like the thought of getting this early head start and undermining some of the competition.

But then, are those the people who should be influencing how educators teach children?

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