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Determining the Optimal Age for Learning to Read

Kids as young as four years old learn to read in some countries, while elsewhere they don't start until seven. What's the best formula for lasting success?

The early experience of language is considered to be crucial for a child's later success, which is why many preschools have started teaching basic literacy skills to children even before formal education begins. When children start school, literacy is a major focus, and this goal of ensuring that all children can read and write has become even more important in recent times. During the ongoing pandemic, researchers have warned that the achievement gap between wealthier and poorer families has widened, leading to increased academic inequality. This has made it more vital than ever for preschools and schools to provide children with the necessary literacy skills to help them succeed in their education and future. 

In many countries, formal education begins at four years old with the belief that starting early provides children with more time to learn and excel. However, this can lead to an "education arms race" in which parents try to give their children early advantages by hiring private tutors or coaches for their children as young as four. This is a marked difference from the more play-based early education that was prevalent several decades ago. In the US, this emphasis on early education and academic success has accelerated with policy changes such as the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, which emphasized standardized testing as a means of measuring educational performance and progress. In the UK, children are tested in their second year of school (ages 5-6) to ensure that they are reaching the expected reading standard. Critics argue that early testing can discourage children from reading, while proponents argue that it helps identify children who need additional support.

Research has found that an overly-academic environment for young children may not provide significant benefits. A report from 2015 in the US suggests that societal expectations for what children should accomplish in kindergarten have shifted, resulting in detrimental practices like decreasing play-based learning.

The potential negative effects of early and excessive emphasis on academic education, often referred to as "schoolification."

The way in which children learn and the quality of the environment in which they learn is of paramount importance. This is especially true when it comes to young children learning to read, as it is one of the most important things that primary education does. It is fundamental to children making progress in life, according to Dominic Wyse, a professor of primary education at University College London (UCL) in the UK. He, along with sociology professor Alice Bradbury, also at UCL, has conducted research that suggests that the way we teach literacy is of crucial importance.

In their 2022 report, they argue that the intense focus on phonics in the English school system, which involves matching the sound of a spoken word or letter with individual written letters through a process called "sounding out", could be failing some children. Bradbury suggests that the "schoolification of early years" is one of the reasons for this, as it results in more formal learning at an earlier age. However, the tests used to assess this early learning may have little to do with the skills actually needed to read and enjoy books or other meaningful texts.

For example, these tests may ask pupils to "sound out" and spell nonsense words in order to prevent them from simply guessing or recognizing familiar words. Since nonsense words are not meaningful language, children may find the task difficult and puzzling. Bradbury found that the pressure to gain these decoding skills and pass reading tests also means that some three-year-olds are already being exposed to phonics.

This approach does not end up being meaningful for the child, instead it becomes a process of memorization rather than understanding context, according to Bradbury. She also expresses concern that the books used in this process are not particularly engaging for children, which can further hinder their motivation to read. The research suggests that a more holistic approach that includes a focus on reading for enjoyment, as well as an emphasis on the development of language skills, could lead to more successful literacy outcomes for young children.

Language, in all its forms, is vital for our early growth and development.

The way children are taught literacy is of great importance and should be reevaluated, according to a report by Professor Dominic Wyse and sociology Professor Alice Bradbury of University College London. They argue that the English school system's heavy focus on phonics, a method that involves matching the sound of a spoken word or letter with individual written letters, could be detrimental to some children's learning. They suggest that instead of phonics, the priority should be to encourage an interest in and familiarity with words, using storybooks, songs, and poems, all of which help the child pick up the sounds of words and expand their vocabulary.

Studies have shown that the academic benefits of preschool education tend to fade away later on. Children who attend intensive preschools do not have higher academic abilities in later grades than those who did not attend such preschools. However, early education can have a positive impact on social development, which in turn feeds into the likelihood of graduation from school and university as well as being associated with lower crime rates.

Too much academic pressure may even cause problems in the long run. A study published in January 2022 suggested that those who attended a state-funded preschool with a strong academic emphasis showed lower academic achievements a few years later, compared to those who had not gained a place. This supports the idea that child-led play-based preschools have better outcomes than more academically-focused preschools.

One 2002 study found that "children's later school success appears to have been enhanced by more active, child-initiated early learning experiences," and that overly formalized learning could have slowed progress. The study concluded that "pushing children too soon may actually backfire when children move into the later elementary school grade." Overall, it is important to provide children with a balance of academic and play-based learning, and to not put too much pressure on them at an early age, in order to ensure their long-term success.

Children taught in a play-based setting had fewer behavioral issues as adults.

Research suggests that the way early education is taught plays a crucial role in children's development, and that a play-based setting may have positive outcomes for children's behavioral and emotional well-being later in life. One study found that children who were randomly assigned to a more play-based setting in preschool had fewer behavioral issues and emotional impairments at age 23, compared to those who were assigned to a more "direct instruction" setting. This highlights the importance of considering not only the content of early education, but also the way it is delivered.

 Furthermore, early education can result in positive social outcomes later in life may have nothing to do with the teaching at all, but with the fact that it provides childcare, allowing parents to work uninterrupted and provide more income to the family home. However, an over-emphasis on academic achievement can cause stress for teachers and parents, which in turn can affect the children. Therefore, it is important to strike a balance between academic and social development in early education.

Later start, better outcomes?

Not all countries believe in starting formal education at an early age, with some like Germany, Iran, and Japan starting at around six years old. Finland, which is recognized for having one of the best education systems in the world, begins formal schooling at seven years old. Despite this later start, Finnish students have been shown to have higher reading comprehension skills at age 15 compared to students in the UK and the US. This could be attributed to the Finnish approach of focusing on play and avoiding formal academic instruction during the kindergarten years. The University of Cambridge also suggests that the formal school age should be pushed back to six years old in order to give children in the UK more time to develop language and study skills, as starting too early may cause long-term damage to their learning and dent their confidence.

“It doesn't matter whether you start to read at four or five or six as long as the method is good” – Anna Cunningham

Research has found that starting formal education later may have benefits for children. A 2006 kindergarten study in the US showed that children who delayed their entry by one year had improvements in their test scores. Other studies have also found that later readers catch up to, and even surpass, early readers in comprehension abilities. This is thought to be because learning later allows children to more efficiently match their knowledge of the world to the words they learn. Some experts argue that starting too early may risk denting children's confidence and causing long-term damage to their learning. 

Additionally, starting later may be beneficial as it allows children more time to develop the language and study skills essential to their later progress. Some countries, such as Finland, often cited as having one of the best education systems in the world, begin formal schooling at seven. Despite this apparent delay, Finnish students score higher in reading comprehension than students from the UK and the US at age 15. This is likely due to their child-centered approach which emphasizes play and no formal academic instruction in the early years. Furthermore, considering individual variation in reading appetite and ability, some children may be more ready to learn to read at a later age than others.

Research supports the idea that starting formal schooling and reading instruction later can be beneficial for children. A 2006 study in the United States found that children who delayed entry to kindergarten by one year had improved test scores. Additional studies comparing early and late readers found that later readers were able to catch up and even surpass early readers in comprehension abilities. This is thought to be because learning later allows children to better match their comprehension of the world to the words they are learning. 

However, it's important to note that individual variation in reading appetite and ability is an important factor to consider, and that some children may be ready to learn to read earlier. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that spoken language skills are a higher predictor of later literary skills than age, and that children from disadvantaged backgrounds may need formal instruction in order to access the support and skills that others may pick up informally at home. Ultimately, what matters most is that children are taught using a good, evidence-based method, and that they have ample opportunity to play and have fun along the way.

In conclusion, while early reading instruction has been traditionally promoted as a way to improve literacy skills, recent research suggests that starting formal reading instruction at a later age may actually be more beneficial for students. This is because children who start reading later tend to have a more developed understanding of language, which helps them to better match their knowledge of the world to the words they learn. Furthermore, it appears that reading ability is more closely linked to a child's vocabulary than to their age, and that spoken language skills are a high predictor of later literary skills. Therefore, Learn with Koala, with its focus on playful learning and immersion in a rich language environment, is perfectly suited to help children develop the foundation of language skills that are essential for reading success. By allowing children to learn at their own pace and in a way that is tailored to their individual level of development, Learn with Koala can help children to become confident and enthusiastic readers. You can find and book those classes on this page.

Happy Learning!

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