This is a very controversial question - and there is so much to say about it!
I recently wrote about it for Times 2 and you can see that here, or the slightly longer version, below....
The one in the Times, also included two opinion pieces, one in favour of early reading and one against.
By Sarah Ebner
Over the border in Wales, young children are experiencing a different kind of education. Whilst experts here laud Scandinavia for their educational expertise, how many English parents know that in Wales, they are already following a play-based curriculum up until the age of seven? And there haven’t been any riots, yet.
“At the beginning there was a bit of distrust from the parents,” says Sarah Owen, a mother of three (and former teacher) from Welshpool. “We all knew that play was important, but I know that a lot of us were wondering how our children would learn to read if they were playing all the time. After all, it’s drilled into us that the sooner you learn to read, the better.”
Sarah has two children, Meg, 10 and Tom, 8, who are too old to have experienced the new Foundation Phase in Wales. Five-year-old Carys, however, is taking full advantage.
“I think it’s the right way to go,” says Sarah. “She is definitely stimulated, but also seems to have this more joyous feeling about school. They do a lot of outdoor play, but she is reading too – they introduce this at the child’s own level. As long as a child has access to books and enjoys them, reading will come naturally.”
Sarah’s views are relevant as they come in the middle of a heated debate about the value of early schooling and particularly when children should be taught to read. New research published this week was interpreted in two startlingly different ways. Some claimed it showed early teaching had no impact on children at the age of five; others said quite the opposite.
However, David Richardson, co-author of the new study, says it does show that children who attend pre-school before the age of three do better – both educationally and socially -at age five.
“Our evidence suggests that early years do have an impact,” he said.
So when should children learn to read? Can they be damaged (or put off reading) by starting too early or fall behind if they start too late? The problem is that there’s no definitive answer – even though educationalists have very strong opinions.
“Up to the age of six or seven, the true foundations of literacy are caught, not taught. We have to invest in training practitioners in how to help children catch them,” says Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood.
Palmer thinks there’s “no rush” to teach children to read, and is particularly unhappy about the targets set in the English early years curriculum. She points to Finland, with its very high literacy rates. Children there don’t start formal reading until they’re seven.
Palmer also emphasises new research by Sebastian Suggate (NB: see his opinion piece attached) which suggests that there’s no advantage at all in learning to read early.
However, although Palmer seems to be firmly on one side of the argument, much of what she says will ring true with those who support earlier education.
“I think there’s a set of bunker positions put into this,” says John Bangs, head of education for the National Union of Teachers. “It’s really an unfair polarity.
“No one is going to recommend forcing phonics on kids at a very early age, but having fun with words and phonics is exactly right. Picking up reading skills is part of child development, but the key is for the children to have fun.”
However, Bangs also adds:
“There’s this idea that kids are going to be polluted by teaching before a certain age. I don’t believe that. I don’t have a problem with age barriers.”
Those who argue that reading should be taught as early as possible often point to disadvantaged children to make their case. There is an increasing body of research which suggests that children with educated parents have an advantage. However, others can be helped by good pre-school care.
This is shown in particular by the landmark research being carried out by the EPPE (Effective Provision of Pre-school Education) project. It concludes that pre-school does have an impact - as long as it’s of good quality.
“Yes, it benefits children,” says Professor Pamela Sammons, from the Department of Education at Oxford University. “It provides them with a better start to school, with the biggest boost to language development at age five.”
And when it comes to reading, Professor Sammons says you simply need a light touch.
“There’s lot of evidence that if you don’t learn to read, you become demotivated later on,” she says. “But it doesn’t have to be at the expense of having fun. You can play with letter sounds, sing songs and nursery rhymes, at home and at pre-school. We’re not talking about formal teaching behind desks.”
Perhaps this point should be emphasised for those people without young children. The way schools teach their youngest pupils has changed in recent years, with much more of a stress on play. Widespread use of phonics has also made a real difference, and despite the sense of gloom and doom around literacy, England still performs well in international studies.
So there’s no quick answer to when a child should learn to read, except that there is no hard or fast rule! The quality of the teacher is vital as is the recognition that all children are different. Phonics appears to help, and over-prescription doesn’t. And above all, play is vital.
The Effective Pre-school and Primary Education (EPPE) project is the largest European study of the impact of early years education and care on children’s developmental outcomes. Early Childhood Matters, edited by Kathy Sylva, Edward Melhuish, Pam Sammons, Iram Siraj-Blatchford, Brenda Taggart has just been published by Routledge.