Folks who discourage teaching kids to read before kindergarten often argue that kids who learn how to read later catch up to their peers who learned how to read earlier. But the evidence they use to support this claim doesn’t prove what they think it does.
Why do people think kids catch up??
In 2009, researcher Sebastian Paul Suggate wrote an academic paper based on data collected from the reading portion of a 2006, multinational assessment of 400,000 students called Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Suggate compared each participating country’s average school entry age (SEA) to that country’s PISA reading scores and found no significant link between reading achievement and SEA.
People tend to use Suggate’s conclusion as proof that early reading education doesn’t matter—because kids who start school at age 6 or 7 usually catch up to children who started school younger.
Is that actually what the data show??
Quite frankly, it’s hard to know, because Suggate’s paper is not a controlled experiment and does not provide any sort of causal relationship between what age a child enters school and their later reading achievement.
Given that the data he analyzed had been collected for another purpose, the results can’t be viewed without heavy consideration of potential confounding variables—variables that are not controlled for in an experiment, which can make it appear as though there is a causal relationship present between two factors when in fact there is not.
Two of the potentially confounding variables Suggate explored in his paper include culture and language.
The 2006 PISA includes scores from 56 different countries. That’s advantageous in the sense that it allows us to compare groups with different SEAs. But it also increases the opportunity for confounding variables.
We know that one country’s culture can vary from another’s in seemingly infinite ways, including individualism versus collectivism, power structures, economic systems, social attitudes, and educational philosophies. All of these factors influence small but highly impactful behaviors that can lead to differences in the level of academic achievement its children reach.
Some of the factors that may not be accounted for (and that we know can affect reading ability) are the relationship between reading achievement and:
- economic status
- participation in early reading activities
- parental income
- parental attitudes towards reading
- cultural capital
- home literacy environment (Myrberg & Roseń, 2008; Park, 2008)
Some languages are simply easier to learn than others (Silveń et. al., 2004) due to variances in regularity of spelling, syllable structure, and the degree of phonemic-orthographic correspondence. That means children may learn to decode at different speeds.
For example, German is a more phonetically consistent language than English, meaning there are fewer instances where words aren’t pronounced the way they are spelled. Because of this, it stands to reason that German would be potentially easier to learn.
In addition to the confounding variables Suggate noted, we must also consider the type of instruction students received in each country. It would stand to reason that how children learn to read is just as important, if not more important, than when they learn. The wealth of evidence we have gathered to date suggests that there is a science to how our brains learn to read (Snowlin & Hulme, 2005).
Without knowing which countries in the PISA incorporate the Science of Reading into their curricula (and to what extent), we simply can’t conclude how SEA fits.
What does Suggate’s analysis NOT mean??
People on the internet will point to the differences between SEA and reading achievement as evidence that it doesn’t matter how early a child learns how to read. Most kids, they claim, catch up eventually.
This is very obviously not true.
In addition, arguing against early reading instruction because kids will naturally “catch up” insinuates that the sole purpose of starting reading instruction early is so a child will get ahead. And that completely misses the point.
Of the folks we know who decided to teach their toddlers how to read, none of them did it because they wanted their child to outperform all the other kids in school. Here are a few of their actual reasons:
- Kids who read early start off school with more confidence. We know that learning to read can give kids a lot of anxiety. When a child has started reading before kindergarten, they can focus on all the other skills they need, like following directions and making friends.
- Kids who read early can start learning about the world around them sooner. If a child can read independently, they’ll be able to start reading about the things that interest them and grow their knowledge in a way that excites them.
- A lot of kids want to learn to read. While this might not be the case for every child (and we certainly shouldn’t force it), many children show interest in reading early. If they can be taught in developmentally appropriate ways, reading can become one of the most engaging parts of their day.
- Teaching reading offers a meaningful bonding opportunity. Learning time provides special moments between children and their parents. Relationships build just as much as reading skills do.
None of this is to say parents have to teach their child how to read, or even that they should. Every child is different and it’s up to parents to decide what’s best for their family. But at the very least, we must acknowledge that early reading instruction isn’t always motivated by a need for a child to “get ahead.”
Finally, arguing that one shouldn’t teach their child to read because they’ll catch up eventually begs the question: Who are they catching up to?
It’s no secret that the public education system in this country has reached a point of crisis. The pandemic exacerbated an already devastating deficit, and reading achievement scores are a clear illustration of that.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which serves as a report card for the United States Department of Education, only 33% of fourth graders and 31% of eighth graders are considered proficient readers for their age. This means that two-thirds of fourth and eighth graders have failed to achieve the reading standards set for them.
So, while the perception of some might be that early reading instruction is intended to get children ahead, more often than not, it is a preventative measure.
Many parents who teach their children to read when they’re young see that something in the education system is broken, and they want to advocate for what they know their children can achieve. Leaving literacy to chance is not a risk they’re willing to take for their child; if “catching up” means failing to become proficient, the bar we’ve set for our children is far too low.
What’s the bottom line?
Based on Suggate’s analysis of the 2006 PISA, many people claim that early reading instruction doesn’t matter because kids who start school later usually catch up.
However, Suggate’s paper didn’t control for a number of potentially impactful variables like the differences in how easy/hard it is to read different languages or differences in instructional quality. There are also many other reasons why parents would teach their children to read earlier, most of which having nothing to do with wanting their child to be academically ahead of their peers.