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Does Learning to Read “Too Young” Actually Harm Children?

The claim that learning to read too young can harm children is unsubstantiated, but the misconception didn’t come out of nowhere.

In this blog post, I review a widely cited, non-academic article that is often taken out of context to support this unfounded claim—and I highlight the potential damage it has created. 

Where does the idea of early reading causing harm come from?

In 2015, Dr. Peter Gray wrote a blog post titled Early Academic Training Produces Long-Term Harm. People often refer to Gray’s post as evidence that children should not be taught to read too young because it will be detrimental to their long-term development.

Is Gray’s article research?

No. In fact, Gray himself doesn’t present his post as research. He quite literally wrote, “This blog is, in part, a forum for discussion.” In other words, it’s an opinion piece.

To be abundantly clear, Gray’s post is not a controlled experiment. It does not have a hypothesis, scientific methods, or statistical analyses. It does not hold any weight with the leading experts in the field. It is simply one man’s opinion about early childhood education that he formed based on his (poor) evaluation of dated research. He intentionally wrote the piece to incite debate.

Of course, Gray has every right to publish an opinion piece; everyone is entitled to posting their opinion.

The difference is Gray’s blog post is being interpreted and regurgitated as “research” by many influential toddler accounts, all of whom have both a moral and an intellectual responsibility to know the difference between an opinion piece and a peer-reviewed study published in a scientific journal.

That said, plenty of people take posts like this at face value. So let’s break it down so you can decide on your own whether learning to read actually harms young children.

Who is Dr. Peter Gray? 

Dr. Peter Gray received a Ph.D. in biological sciences from Rockefeller University. Now a professor at Boston College, Gray’s research fields include neuroendocrinology, developmental psychology, anthropology, and education. He’s currently studying the benefits of play-based learning in an early childhood education environment.

Titles and degrees can be valuable in distinguishing experts in a field, but they can also be deceptive. For example, Dr. Gray’s doctorate is in biological sciences, not early childhood education or anything even tangentially related to it. 

Additionally, based on his curriculum vitae, Gray’s research has been published in second-tier (at best) scientific journals, and he has never led a research lab mentoring graduate students—both of which are indicative of the authority a researcher holds in their field. So while he has achieved an impressive level of education, we can’t ignore the fact that his achievements in the field of early childhood education are extremely limited. 

Through Gray’s study of play, he published Free to Learn—Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (2015). He’s also a founding member of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, as well as a board member of Let Grow, which are both organizations that advocate for a greater focus on self-directed, independent learning in early childhood. 

We need to pause here, because when evaluating the value of a source—especially an opinion piece—it’s imperative to consider who the author is and what their biases might be. In this case, it feels fair to ask the question: 

Might someone who sells a book on the importance of play at a young age be motivated to discourage parents from introducing academics at a young age? Might someone who leads two organizations advocating for independent, play-based learning be motivated to publish pieces discouraging alternatives? 

As you well know, Toddlers CAN Read is on-board with play-based learning. But Gray appears to have a vested interest in discouraging traditional academics, period. In contrast, we believe you can do both academics and play. At the same time, even. 

Gray’s Arguments Against Early Reading

Regardless of degrees, journal sources, or biases, we need to evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of Gray’s arguments on their own. 

We’ll use his words as the title of each argument.

Argument #1: “A Study in Germany that Changed Educational Policy There.” 

Gray begins his argument with a description of a study conducted in Germany in the 1970s, Ergebnisse eines Vergleichs von Modellkindergärten und Vorklassen in Nordrhein-Westfalen, which translates to: Results of a comparison of model kindergartens and pre-classes in North Rhine-Westphalia.

It should be noted that Gray didn’t cite this study directly, but rather a handbook written on curriculum studies that included the study. 

Citing secondary sources instead of the actual study the source is discussing is not considered best practice in academia. Doing so is inherently an interpretation of someone else’s interpretation of a study—which inevitably leaves room for misinterpretation.

In this study comparing the academic and social outcomes of students attending a play-based kindergarten versus students attending a direct instruction-based kindergarten, Gray states:

“Despite the initial academic gains of direct instruction, by grade four the children from the direct-instruction kindergartens performed significantly worse than those from the play-based kindergartens on every measure that was used. In particular, they were less advanced in reading and mathematics and less well adjusted socially and emotionally.”

Any argument that uses data about student achievement in another country to make inferences about student achievement in the U.S. needs to be crafted with serious care. That is not the case here. 

As discussed at length in our recent blog post dissecting School entry age and reading achievement in the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a wealth of differences among countries contribute to the academic and social achievement of their children, and many of them are difficult to control for:

  • Economic systems
  • Social attitudes
  • Individualism versus collectivism
  • Educational philosophies
  • Participation in early reading activities
  • Parental attitudes towards reading
  • Cultural capital
  • Home literacy environments

Aside from the cultural differences between Germany and the US, the language differences impact reading as well. When it comes to learning to read, some languages are more difficult to learn than others. When orthography (the relationship between spelling patterns and the sounds they make) is inconsistent between languages, children will learn to read at different speeds.

Even beyond reading instruction, it’s ludicrous to assume that children in different countries are being taught the same way. 

Gray offered no detailed description of what the play-based preschool’s curriculum looked like, which could vary greatly from what we consider to be a play-based model. 

Given that this was not an international study, there was no controlling for all of these potentially confounding variables. Using a study from a different country to argue for what you believe is best for American children lacks nuance, to say the least. 

Argument #2: “A Large-Scale Study of Children from Poverty in the United States.”

As further evidence of his belief that early reading instructions harms children, Gray goes on to present a 2002 study that compared the outcomes of children who attended an academic-focused preschool to children who attended a play-based preschool. 

He states:

 “The children from the play-based preschools were now performing better, getting significantly higher school grades, than were those from the academic preschools. This study included no assessment of social and emotional development.”

The study Gray is referring to is Rebecca Marcon’s Moving up the Grades: Relationship between Preschool Model and Later School Success (2002). A close read of this study reveals:

  • Lack of a diverse sample. 96% of participants were African American and 75% were eligible for subsidized school lunch.
  • Uncontrolled variables. They did not control for quality of instruction, teacher, experience, school funding, or class size.
  • All children were learning. Every child was being taught. It was the manner in which each child engaged with the content that differed. 
  • More questions than answers. The results raise significant questions about why students in the child-initiated group did better, which may be completely unrelated to the educational content in the first place. 

In fact, Gray’s argument doesn’t even align with Marcon’s own speculation about the differing outcomes. Marcon theorized that child-initiated learning may have resulted in better outcomes because of the independence it fostered in students that they carried through later grades, not because academic content is inherently harmful, as Gray suggests. 

From the Toddlers Can Read perspective, Gray could only have presented this study as evidence of his beliefs through either a negligent or intentionally limited evaluation of Marcon’s results.

Argument #3: “An Experiment in Which Children from Poverty Were Followed up to Age 23.”

Gray goes on to base the bulk of his argument on the results of the Perry Preschool Project, which we discussed in detail in this recent blog post

He summarizes the results of the study by saying:

“By age 15 those in the Direct Instruction group had committed, on average, more than twice as many ‘acts of misconduct’ than had those in the other two groups. At age 23, as young adults, the differences were even more dramatic. Those in the Direct Instruction group had more instances of friction with other people, were more likely to have shown evidence of emotional impairment, were less likely to be married and living with their spouse, and were far more likely to have committed a crime than were those in the other two groups. In fact, by age 23, 39% of those in the Direct Instruction group had felony arrest records compared to an average of 13.5% in the other two groups; and 19% of the Direct Instruction group had been cited for assault with a dangerous weapon compared with 0% in the other two groups.”

Gray’s evaluation of the Perry Preschool Project is perhaps the most egregious.

First of all, his description of the preschool models is inaccurate. He refers to the Nursery School model as the Traditional (play-based) model, which is simply not true. The Nursery School model focuses on “unit-based” learning (which focuses heavily on different topics of interest in each unit)  and the development of social skills that encourage cooperation and good manners. 

We don’t want to understate this point, because it underlies the impetus of this blog post:

Dr. Gray is widely cited on social media for his analysis of studies such as the Perry Preschool Project, and yet he fails to define even the most basic conditions of this experiment correctly. 

What’s worse, he fails to explain that the students attending the “play-based” model weren’t even the ones who experienced significantly better outcomes. Gray uses these results as evidence in support of play-based learning, yet it was the High/Scope condition that saw the best results. In his own words, the High/Scope model involves more adult guidance, meaning the results completely contradict the point he’s trying to make. 

Ironically, it is this very study that is consistently used in support of the early education programs Gray is villainizing. The Perry Preschool Project is frequently cited as some of the strongest evidence of the importance of high-quality preschool programs, specifically ones that follow a High/Scope model. Given that the High/Scope model is not devoid of academic content (the presentation of the content is how this model varies from Direct Instruction), it seems odd to use this source to argue that academic content harms children. 

Consider this direct quote from another of Gray’s blog posts:

“The Germans, unlike we Americans, paid attention to the science.”

In reality, the United States did pay attention to the research—and used it to develop more than 30% of Head Start schools, a federal program that gives low-income children access to early childhood education. If Gray doesn’t consider this source credible enough to be used by the United States government, how can he use the same study as evidence of his beliefs? The two are incongruent.

The Perry Preschool Project is a perfect example of how easy it is to use research to fit our own narratives, given that it’s commonly used to argue both for and against early reading. It’s clear that the study’s findings—while flawed—overwhelmingly support the value of early education and parental involvement. Yet, on the other side, folks like Dr. Peter Gray reference the same study in an effort to spread fear about the potential “harm” early reading can cause. But upon a more careful dissection of the study, the findings directly contradict his opinion that early childhood learning should be exclusively play-based and child-led.

Quite simply, the High/Scope model resulted in better outcomes not because there was a lack of academics as Gray argues, but because of the presence of other factors such as relationships with family and teacher attitudes. Gray’s failure to acknowledge this truth has resulted in a gross and inaccurate portrayal of this study to his readers. Regardless of whether he intentionally misinterpreted these results to support his own beliefs and interests, these decisions do not come without consequences.

What’s the harm?

By now, you may be wondering: If this isn’t research, why are you even discussing it?

Because out of all the sources people cite to discourage early reading education, this one has done the most damage. 

There is a prevailing misunderstanding of what constitutes research, Gray’s blog post is very often shared with parents on the internet as “research.” And if someone is unable to differentiate between a scientific study and an opinion piece, they might falsely assume Gray’s opinions are facts.

This is not to say we shouldn’t respect opinions that differ from our own. We hear opinions in the early reading space that we disagree with all the time. But we still have an appreciation for the thoughtfulness evident in the presentation of those opinions. But Gray’s portrayal of this issue isn’t thoughtful. It’s nothing short of dangerous.

The inflammatory language used in the title of the blog is the first red flag. Telling readers that academic training leads to harm is an easy way to incite fear. Parents with little research training who stumble across this article written by someone with a doctorate might suddenly become afraid of exposing their little ones to any type of academic learning. As if parents don’t already have enough to worry about!

It’s also careless to make such a strong assertion about early learning that will undoubtedly scare parents without having the evidence to back it up. It comes across as even more careless when you consider the obvious misinterpretations present in his arguments. 

Furthermore, making the blanket statement that early academic instruction harms children requires you to completely disregard the complexity of child development. Virtually nothing about raising children is black and white, and this includes early learning. 

If there is any lesson to be gained from this, it’s that we should maintain a healthy skepticism of people who make such broad, fear-inducing statements about our children. Do not let provocative language scare you into changing the way you parent before putting a microscope to its credibility.

What’s the bottom line?

Early Academic Training Produces Long-Term Harm is an opinion piece many people present as research. Dr. Gray’s opinion—which many have mistaken for fact—is based on a serious misinterpretation of three research studies. We discussed the first study here, the second study is based out of Germany in the 1970s, and the third study directly contradicts his opinion. 

Remember: Before we allow someone else’s bold statements about child development to inform our teaching and parenting decisions, we’re allowed to—and should—closely scrutinize those statements.

TL;DR: Sweeping generalizations of child development are rarely accurate, and making those generalizations can lead to misinformation and fear-based decision making.

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