People on the internet claim:
Teaching your child to read early can lead to long-term harm for their social development and academic achievement.
Why some people think this:
People often cite an NPR article which discusses a study from Vanderbilt University that set out to determine the potential impact that statewide pre-kindergarten programs would have on different areas of a child’s development, including academic achievement, behavior, and retention.
What did the study actually test?
This study followed 2,990 students from low-income families in Tennessee from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. The participant pool was made up of two groups: one group of preschoolers who attended the state-funded preschool program and another group that had been waitlisted by the school. The waitlisted students served as the control group and did not participate in the statewide pre-kindergarten program. The achievement of the students was measured by state achievement test scores, whether or not they had been retained at any point, if they had been enrolled in special education services, their attendance rates, and the frequency of disciplinary infractions.
What did they find?
The results of this longitudinal study showed that from third through sixth grade, students who had attended state-funded pre-k had lower state achievement scores, had more behavioral infractions, lower attendance rates, and received more special education services.
So what does that mean?
The fact that students who participated in the state-funded pre-k program fared worse than those who didn’t attend is both surprising and concerning. This must prove that teaching a child to read before kindergarten harms their development, right?
Now, there’s no need to discredit these researchers for how the study was conducted or how they analyzed their data, because by all accounts they’ve been extremely transparent about their methods and results. The trouble with this study lies not in how the researchers came to their conclusions, but in how other people have taken these results and weaponized them against early reading.
This is where context becomes extremely important; if we want to use these results fairly, we need to consider what was actually being studied and the limitations that come with that.
Firstly, the impact of teaching reading before kindergarten wasn't what was being tested. Researchers were looking at the effect of a statewide pre-k program, and that alone gives us a lot to unpack.
And honestly, unpacking this leaves us with many more questions than answers. For one thing, how were these kids being taught in the pre-k program? What was the quality of the curriculum in practice? Were they being taught phonics or being drilled with worksheets? Does the curriculum include evidence-based instruction centered around what the Science of Reading tells us about how children learn to read? How did we measure the effectiveness of each teacher’s instruction? How much time was spent on instruction, and how much time was lost in transitions? Would these results hold true for privately funded programs? Among students with a different socioeconomic background?
I don’t think I can understate this enough: The findings of a study done in a state-funded preschool program in low-income neighborhoods do not tell us about the impact that early academic instruction has on children. The effects of early instruction weren’t what was being tested- the state-funded preschool model was. To say that any type of academic instruction is harmful to children because of the findings of this single study blatantly ignores confounding factors like the quality of instruction, the length of time spent on instruction, and the appropriateness of the activities (active learning vs. worksheets.)
We must also remember that one study alone does not give us substantial evidence to dictate what is and isn’t best for children’s learning outcomes. In fact, the research on universal pre-k instruction has been inconsistent at best.
Many studies have produced results that directly contradict the ones this study found. For example: in a study investigating The Long-Term Effects of Universal Preschool in Boston, researchers found that preschool enrollment boosted college attendance, SAT test-taking, high school graduation rates, and decreased disciplinary infractions for the students in their study.
An even more well-known study, The Perry Preschool Project, found that the 3- and 4-year-old students in their high-quality preschool program were less likely to get arrested, go on welfare or become unemployed as adults, and earned significantly more later in life than students who did not participate in the program (we’ll cover this study in-depth later).
Importantly, even the researchers of this study are aware of its limitations. In an interview with Anya Kamenetz for NPR, Dale Farran (the lead author) discussed the different factors that might have contributed to the unexpected results.
She explained that quality-control for statewide programs is difficult and that the participants were not mixed-income. It should come as no surprise that students in low-income communities have historically been given a much different kind of preparation than those who attend higher-income schools. Lower-income students are more likely to be drilled using worksheets instead of learning about academic subjects through play or small group instruction. Oftentimes they are expected to sit and listen for longer periods of time than is developmentally appropriate.
Unfortunately, time in school does not mean time spent learning.
So does any of this prove that early reading instruction is imperative to future academic and social success? Absolutely not. But it certainly doesn’t prove that early reading instruction (or high-quality early education) hurts children either.
The results of one study on a state-funded pre-k program for low-income students is wholly insufficient in dictating whether or not “academic” instruction before kindergarten has a positive or negative impact on later developmental outcomes. To determine the impact of high-quality pre-k instruction on all children, we need to test the impact of high-quality pre-k instruction on all children.
Note: This is part 1 of a 6 part series analyzing some of the most commonly (mis)cited studies in early childhood education. Have a study you want us to read? Email email@example.com and let us know!