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When People Say, “Let Kids Be Kids…”

Some folks think teaching little kids to read puts too much pressure on them. So let’s talk about that.

Some folks think teaching little kids to read puts too much pressure on them. So let’s talk about that.

On educational content like mine, I see one particular collection of critical comments:

“Let kids be kids.”

Unfortunately, there’s a prevailing, negative attitude toward early reading—based on poor research and misinformation—that can potentially scare parents into not teaching their children how to read. 

People who argue that we should just “let kids be kids,” usually include the following rationales:

  1. Young kids have more important things to learn than how to read.
  2. Learning to read happens naturally.
  3. They’ll learn to read in school.
  4. They’ll catch up.
  5. Teaching young children to read is developmentally inappropriate.

Let’s unpack each of these ideas.

Opinion #1: Young kids have more important things to learn than how to read.

Much of the pushback we hear against early reading has to do with the other skills parents feel are more important: regulating their emotions, making friends, following directions, developing independence and creativity, and so on.

We also believe all of those things are incredibly important. 

We will never tell you to not let your child play or not work with them on social-emotional skills. We won’t even tell you that you have to teach your toddler how to read, because we don’t actually believe that.

But here’s where our perspective differs from folks who think there are “more important” things than reading. You don’t need to choose between two things that benefit your child. You can do both. (In fact, there is evidence to suggest early reading supports social emotional learning.)

There’s no reason our little ones can’t engage in independent play and play games with letter sounds. There’s no reason they can’t grow their social-emotional skills and spend a few minutes practicing blending. There’s no reason they can’t learn to follow directions and learn how to decode new words. It’s not one or the other. 

You’re allowed to teach all of the amazing skills you know your kids need—social, emotional, motor, behavioral, and so on. But insinuating that people who decide to teach their children to read are, by default, neglecting their social-emotional development is ignorant and can potentially inflict shame on parents who just want the best for their kids. 

As parents, we have to make difficult decisions about what to prioritize for our children. If you believe working with your child on their reading at home won’t allow you to give energy to developing your social-emotional skills, then don’t do it. No shame or judgment necessary, on either side.

Opinion #2: Learning to read is natural.

Many people believe early reading instruction is unnecessary because children learn how to read naturally as they develop.

But that’s just not true.

Decades of research on the science of reading has painted a very clear picture of how our brains learn to read, and it absolutely does not occur by chance. 

Reading comprehension consists of a four-part processing system: phonological, meaning, context, and orthographic. The first three processing systems develop naturally as oral language develops. However, the orthographic processing system—which our brains use to form, store, and recall words—does not (Seidenberg & McClelland, 1989).

Essentially, we have to “rewire” our brains in order to learn how to read.

So if we want our children to learn to read, we have to follow the science. And the science has proven time and time again that reading skills will not grow without intentional instruction. 

Opinion #3: They’ll learn to read at school.

Will they, though? 

As it turns out, many schools are not actually teaching kids how to read. They may think they’re teaching reading, but without the use of evidence-based practices, many of their students are unable to develop the skills they need to become successful readers. 

The current instruction based in literacy processing theory discourages students from sounding out words using their knowledge of phonics, and relies heavily on word-solving through strategies such as looking at the picture or thinking about what is happening in the text. 

Scientists have shown these methods to be wholly ineffective, over and over and over again, and yet they still prevail. 

As a result, literacy rates in the United States are suffering. Despite having all the research we need to make evidence-based instruction the standard across the country, the system hasn’t changed. 

So we can’t necessarily rely on our school systems to teach our children to read. And that’s a big problem.

Opinion #4: They’ll catch up eventually.

Again: Will they, though? And if they do: Who, exactly, are these kids catching up to?

We are undoubtedly facing a literacy crisis in the United States, and the fact that two-thirds of fourth grade students are not considered proficient readers is evidence of that. 

Can we really consider a child “caught up” to their peers if the peers they’re catching up to are also behind? Is this really our goal for our kids?

Opinion #5: Teaching young kids to read isn’t developmentally appropriate.

This is by far the most popular argument we hear. 

First, let us be clear: We 100% agree that we should always prioritize developmentally appropriate practices with our little ones. As Carol Gestwicki explains in detail in Developmentally Appropriate Practice: Curriculum and Development in Early Education (2017), if a child is taught in a way they aren’t ready for, it causes unnecessary stress that can interfere with their development. 

However, generalizing any type of early reading instruction as “developmentally inappropriate” requires you to make two assumptions.

First, we assume how a child is being taught. Usually, people assume small children being taught to read are forced to sit still for an hour or more while the parent drills them with worksheets. Not only is that extremely unrepresentative of what’s actually happening with most families, but it’s also dismissive of parents who dedicate time to figuring out how to incorporate play into their child’s learning time. 

Second, we assume what’s developmentally appropriate for one child is developmentally appropriate for another. To say that any kind of early reading is developmentally inappropriate is to ignore the role that a child’s individual differences and identities play in their development. 

Children absolutely do not develop at the same speed, because there are a seemingly endless number of factors that can impact a child’s development. A few of these factors include:

  • Poverty. There’s growing evidence to suggest that poverty can have a serious impact on a child’s brain development, cognitive ability, and neuroendocrine function.
  • Family involvement. Children whose families are more involved in their education at home and in school have been shown to develop better receptive and expressive language skills.
  • Neurodivergence. The brains of children who are neurodivergent develop differently from the brains of children who aren’t. 

The concept of “developmental appropriateness” has also received criticism due to its lack of consideration for cultural differences. 

All this is to say: Whether or not an activity is considered “developmentally inappropriate” really depends on the individual needs of the child, their background, and the specific context of the activity. 

Notes on Equity and Early Childhood Education

When people say “let kids be kids,” in response to other parents who want to teach their child to read, they often haven’t considered the things we’ve just discussed.  

Often, that’s because they fail to consider the perspective of families who don’t have the same advantages they do. 

It’s easy to say kids learn to read naturally when you haven’t witnessed first-hand the devastation that comes when a child does not, in fact, read naturally. It’s simple enough to say the school will teach your child how to read when you know they’ll be going to one of the best schools. You don’t have to worry about whether or not your child will “catch up” if you have the ability to pay for a tutor later on. 

When someone says we shouldn’t worry about teaching our children to read and to just focus on all the other areas of development, that tells us they don’t have to worry about teaching their child to read. They have the access to all the resources they need to make sure that no matter what happens, their child will learn to read. 

But the reality is that most people don’t share those same advantages, and failing to consider that results in incredibly biased narratives. 

Too many times, we’ve seen creators use their platform to push an anti-early reading agenda when their audience is not made up of people who live the same way they do. And that’s harmful. If you’re a parent who doesn’t have the resources to ensure your child has a positive experience at school, you might feel discouraged from teaching them at home because you’ve been made to think it could harm your child. 

All this narrative does is create anxiety for folks who don’t have the same level of privilege. 

If you happen to be  a creator with a large platform, we ask one thing of you: Take special care in considering people who do not have what you have when crafting a message to your followers. Try to think outside of your own lived experience and take into account how your worldview might be limited. Use discretion when making generalizations that could harm marginalized communities. Recognize the impact that your words have, and speak accordingly.

Toddlers can read. And they can learn how now. 

Teaching little ones to read is important, developmentally appropriate, and requires intentional action on our part as parents. All of this might sound daunting. 

But you’re not alone. And there are plenty of resources that can help.

The best place to start is my free workshop. In the Beginning Reading Workshop, you’ll learn the surprisingly simple–completely evidence-based–approach to teaching reading as early as 18-months.

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