Is reading sooner any better?

In the United States, reading is now taught 1-2 years earlier than just one generation ago. Why? Why are US kindergarteners currently instructed with a curriculum deemed appropriate for 1st graders a mere 20 years ago? Have children’s brain capacity changed in the last 20 years? What is the reason behind the current expectation of sitting kindergartners to learn their letters and sight words instead of encouraging them to learn through play – which research shows as the most beneficial for that age group?

During the cold war, after the Soviets made it into orbit before the Americans, the US feared that it would be left behind in the global race for supremacy, and so began the push for earlier academics. The thought was that the younger you start, the farther ahead you could get (a proven, incorrect assumption). Once international testing took hold, and the US tested behind other developed nations, we panicked. George Bush started “No Child Left Behind”, which pushed schools to test well in order to keep funding, but unfortunately, schools started teaching to teach to the test in order to not risk loosing precious funds. And so the cycle began – pushing children to learn more academics earlier while putting aside the importance of childhood play and a well-rounded education (art and PE were the first things to go as the budgets became more limited).

Of course, government isn’t the only one at fault for the change in academic expectations of children. Parents have the best of intentions for their children – no one wants their child to be last or “left behind”, but studies are conclusive that earlier does not mean better. In fact, it can lead to worse outcomes such as hating reading and destroying creativity. Finland (they are becoming the international standard of education reform gone right after overhauling their system 40 years ago, and now out scoring every other country on international tests) doesn’t even start formal education until age 7, and reading doesn’t begin until 8 or 9. Finland has found that waiting until the brain is sufficiently developed to learn to read (left brain development along with left to right brain connections solidly formed) leads to many benefits, not losses: children learn quicker with age appropriate instruction. Also, “gifted readers” are encouraged to read what they can/want, but they aren’t pushed. Instead, those children help the ones that are behind – making every student stronger. Children in Finland enjoy school while developing a love of learning and reading, a model for the world.

My son was not ready to read at kindergarten. Was he slow? Maybe. Was he unintelligent? Absolutely not. His brain just wasn’t ready to read, and by pushing reading early, he felt like he was dumb, and he learned to hate to read. 2 years later, he is now getting the hang of reading, but it is still his least favorite thing. Partly, because it is hard for him; partly because of the negative association he has with it. It IS beneficial to read to your child, but self-reading shouldn’t be pushed – a child will want to learn to read when they are ready if they have developed a love of books through being read to by their care giver.

The cold war is over. We need to look at education in the 21st century where life is more fluid than it once was. Being able to create and adapt is integral to our future. Pushing reading and academics before children are ready inhibits their love for learning, squelches their curiosity, and kills their creativity, which is what America needs if it wants to remain a global leader. We don’t need a culture of super test takers – even China and India (often considered the top countries when it comes to standardized tests) are trying to adapt a more flexible system based on America’s old model because they have realized that having only “book smarts” is not sufficient for the new global economy. They need people who can think outside of the box and innovate, not just follow directions. Unless we change our current trajectory, we are on the path to switch places with China and India with regards to innovation.

Today, the US is still the leader in developing technological advances that benefit the world, but if we want to remain the leader, we must give children back their childhood so that the next generation can continue to lead and innovate. Let them learn by play and exploration, pushing boundaries and discovering their passion, not forcing them through material too advanced for their brain’s age and development.

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