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Developing Literacy Skills: Should Children Be Forced to Read Early?

written by: Mary Beth Adomaitis • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 4/5/2012

While early literacy skills are important for a child's growth, there are some who question whether we are forcing our kids to read too early. Some intense early intervention programs make promises about teaching even babies to read. Is that really reading? How young is too young to start learning?

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    How Children Learn to Read

    baby reading Typically, children just don't pick up a book one day and start reading. At around 4 or 5 years old, average youngsters learn pre-reading skills. This is when they learn to write letters and short words, start rhyming, develop a vocabulary and read simple, one-syllable words. For some children, these skills come more easily and at a younger age, while for others, it's a struggle.

    For a child to learn to read, he or she needs to understand the link between letters and sounds and then sounds and words. "In order for a beginning reader to learn how to connect or translate printed symbols (letters and letter patterns) into sound, the would-be reader must understand that our speech can be segmented or broken into small sounds (phoneme awareness) and that the segmented units of speech can be represented by printed forms (phonics)."1 This connection is necessary to develop accurate reading skills.

    However, when or how a child learns this depends on the individual and his or her parent and teacher. It's important to remember there is a distinction between naturally learning to read at a young age and introducing too much too soon where what seems like reading is more like memorization.

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    Natural vs. Forced Reading

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    Children usually learn about reading at home, long before preschool or kindergarten. As babies and toddlers, parents introduce a variety of activities to stimulate language skills that in turn enhance literacy or reading. Parents can influence these skills with a variety of activities including:

    • Making books readily available
    • Having child watch parent read
    • Visiting the library
    • Attending storytime
    • Reading books together
    • Turning off the television and offering a book to read instead

    When exposed to but not pushed to do these activities, a child progresses at a natural pace. A report by the U.S. Department of Education states that "the foundation for learning to read is in place long before children enter school and begin formal reading instruction. You and your family help to create this foundation by talking, listening and reading to your children every day and by showing them that you value, use and enjoy reading in your lives." 2

    What Is Forced Reading?

    However, there's a difference between a young child grasping the concepts of reading at an early age (before 4 or 5 years old) and introducing a variety of early intervention activities that may teach the child to read, but the techniques and results are questionable if not controversial. This is known as forced reading.

    Children, some as young as babies, are supposedly taught to read through a variety of programs that use DVDs, flashcards and books. The parents spend several hours a day repeating the same pictures and words until their young ones learn and read the cards or books themselves.

    Another style of forced reading is scheduling a child sit to read a book for a certain amount of time. It could be for 15 minutes, 45 minutes or more. The parents or educators set a timer and the child finishes reading when it goes off. This type of reading starts at around kindergarten and continues up through middle school.

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    Pros and Cons of Forced Reading

    reading There are arguments on both sides of this debate. Some feel forced reading or intense early intervention programs give young children an edge and better prepare them to succeed in school. They also feel that early reading:

    • Lightens the burden from learning to read in school
    • Helps children outperform and achieve success throughout their school career
    • Builds self-esteem
    • Develops broader vocabulary and writing skills
    • Enhances critical thinking skills
    • Improves memory and concentration levels
    A report by the National Early Literacy Panel concurs to a point with this thinking, stating that conventional reading skills developed within a child's first five years have a strong relationship to his or her later literacy skills.

    However, those against forced reading feel young children aren't mature enough — emotionally and intellectually — to understand the concept of putting letters and sounds together so forcing them to do so will do more harm than good. They also believe that young children, if exposed to a constant repetition of words, symbols and pictures, will memorize what is before them and not truly read it.

    A report by NBC News discovered that "child development experts from coast to coast were of the collective opinion that while young children can be made to recognize or memorize words, the brains of most infants and toddlers are just not developed enough to actually learn to read at the level the way the enticing television ads claim they can."3 Opponents agree that forced reading:

    • Seems more like memorization in babies and toddlers
    • Causes children to get easily discouraged
    • Seems more like a chore instead of a fun, leisure activity
    • Doesn't guarantee an edge in the classroom
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    The Controversy Continues

    Deciding how your child learns to read is a very personal decision. Whether forced reading is the answer or allowing your young one to learn naturally, the bottom line is that every child needs to read at some point in his or her young life. As a parent or educator, it's your job to decide if forcing your child to read early is beneficial or destructive to his or her literacy development.

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