Study Shows: Learning to Read too Early Might Be Counterproductive


Study Shows Learning to Read too Early Might be Counterproductive

It’s no secret that there is a constant push to do MORE and be BETTER in education. It often feels like a never-ending competition. Your child may perform well, but you “should” push him or her to be better than their peers. Your school may perform well, but you “should” push for the best in the state. Your state may do well, but you “should” push to beat other regions. In terms of news, our country is “so far behind”. These not-so-subtle messages are pushing our students, teachers, and all other school personnel far beyond age-appropriate performance levels. It starts with reading. Exactly why are we pushing kids to read so early?

In fact, learning to read too early can actually be counterproductive. Studies show it can lead to a variety of problems including increased frustration, misdiagnosed disorders, and unnecessary time and money spent teaching kids skills they don’t even have the skillset to understand yet.

“Escalating Academic Demand in Kindergarten: Counterproductive Policies” is one study that exemplifies the reverse of pushing children to read before they are ready: 

“Narrow emphasis on isolated reading and numeracy skills is detrimental even to the children who succeed and is especially harmful to children labeled as failures…academic demands in kindergarten and first grade are considerably higher today than 20 years ago and continue to escalate.”

While it may seem like our kids are being pushed to succeed, they are often pushed too hard and eventually accept defeat because it becomes increasingly difficult for students to keep up with impossible standards. Once kids “fall behind” according to educational standards, it creates an “I’m not good enough” mentality that often sticks with them through school. The early years are extremely important for building confidence and a positive attitude, yet every year, we fill the early years with more requirements that are proven to be confidence-killers and negative reinforcements. 

There are virtually zero studies that show proof that reading early actually helps kids succeed long-term. 

From a secondary teacher’s perspective, I have never been able to tell which child learned to read first, or which child could recite their ABCs before they were 3 years old. I could, however, tell which students felt confident in his or her abilities. Likewise, I could tell which students struggled to believe in themselves and which students expected to fail. As a teacher, I worry that we are putting skills like reading above social skills and confidence-building.

The teacher part of me can see the long-term struggle, but the parent-of-young-kids part of me can see the current stress. It is extremely difficult not to buy into the hype—the kind that tells you your young children need every educational toy on the market. Society tells mamas (and daddies) that their children are falling behind in sneaky ways through the use of advertisements, social media, etc. 

Parents are constantly seeing children praised for their outstanding achievements and are being asked to compare their own children with the ‘exception’, not the rule. Many kids WANT to accelerate the process and constantly learn MORE. That is perfectly fine. Many kids also want to take their sweet time. That is also perfectly fine.

No two kids are the same. No two students are the same. No kid should be pushed too hard too early to do anything, including reading.

As a teacher, I am constantly reassuring parents that their children are on track, despite the constant “push” for more; as a parent, I am constantly re-centering myself on the idea that our children are natural learners who learn more from the world around them at a young age. As a friend, I want to encourage you to research the lack of benefits of learning to read too early—and look to your child for cues on when he or she is actually ready.

What age is truly the right age to learn to read?

It depends on the individual. 

In the meantime, let’s focus on building confidence, fostering creativity, and allowing our young kids to learn in the ways that suit them best. 


Study reference: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/461568

Citation: Lorrie A. Shepard and Mary Lee Smith, “Escalating Academic Demand in Kindergarten: Counterproductive Policies,” The Elementary School Journal 89, no. 2 (Nov., 1988): 134-145.

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Study Shows Learning to Read too Early Might be Counterproductive

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WhitneyBallard

Whitney Ballard is a writer and teacher from small town Alabama. She owns the Trains and Tantrums blog, https://trainsandtantrums.blog/. Whitney went from becoming a mom at sixteen to holding a Master’s degree in Education; she writes about her journey, along with daily life, through a Christian lens on her blog. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her in the backyard with her husband, two boys, and two dogs.

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