I Don’t Necessarily Want My Kids To Be Early Readers

I don't want my children to be early readersOur culture has an emphasis on early learning, and early reading in particular, which can be unsettling to parents. That’s why I’m letting my son pick up reading at his own pace.

The title of this piece is admittedly not entirely accurate, but there’s only so much explanation to be fit in so few words. I don’t mind if my kids are early readers naturally; if they happen to pick up on reading quickly and without coercion, it’s fine by me. Some children are natural early readers, and if it works for them, that’s great.

But our culture has an emphasis on early learning, and early reading in particular, which is unsettling to me as a parent.

A few months back, I posted this picture of my then six-year-old son stopping to read a street sign, and celebrated his new reading skills in the caption.Why I Don't Want My Kids To Be Early Readers

We’re homeschoolers, mostly unschoolers, in that we don’t have a set curriculum and my son does most of his learning while freely pursuing his own interests. He’s learned the bulk of what he knows by playing, rather than sitting at a desk and memorizing things. His obsession with dinosaurs has played a large part in learning to read. Once I explained to him that the library contains near-infinite books about dinosaurs, and he can read them endlessly, the switch was turned on and his hunger for the written word grew exponentially.

A lot of his reading skills have been developed while out and about: reading street signs, reading product labels at the grocery store, paging through books at the library, as well as reading books of all varieties at home. His love of reading has been inspired by his curiosity about the world around him. When reading really clicked for him, it was like he suddenly realized that the world is comprised of signs and words everywhere for him to read. It was a beautiful thing to witness.

But because I didn’t push it, he didn’t learn to read early. Nor did he learn to read late; he was pretty much right on track with his peers. When I posted this picture, though, some of the comments struck me. Basically, it was a consistent refrain of “How old is he?”

I could be wrong, but the fact that so many people asked how old he was left the impression that somehow his age should factor into the level of celebration afforded to his achievement. Like, if he was two or three or four, that would be really impressive. But six years old? Isn’t that just… average?

It is average. We have some workbooks that my son enjoys doing during quiet time, and according to those, his math is around a second-grade level while his reading is approximately first-grade level. This is normal for his age. Not right or wrong, but common.

So why was I so excited for him, if it’s just average? Why did I post a picture celebrating his reading skills, when it wasn’t anything particularly impressive, like a toddler learning to read?

Our society has a fascination with kids who read early compared to the rest. Most of us are familiar with the gimmicky product, “Your Baby Can Read,” a now-defunct organization devoted to enchanting parents with the idea that their infant and toddlers can read, if only this specific program is followed.

Related: Should Your Child Read In Kindergarten?

While it may sound like a fun party trick, it is not common, necessary, or even healthy for babies to be reading at such a young age. Your Baby Can Read was eventually involved in lawsuits with the Federal Trade Commission, who accused them of making false claims not evidenced by any research.

But this fallacious program does not stand alone. Other attempts to push reading onto young children might not start as early or be as much of a ruse, but the idea of early childhood education consisting of much else aside from playtime is sadly misguided.

Play time, not calculated reading, is the most important part of early education, and it happens naturally, not contained within a desk or a classroom or a program you can buy.

While some parents and educational establishments focus on encouraging early reading with the belief that it will somehow enhance a child’s early learning, there is evidence that early education as it is usually implemented often backfires, and the benefits of free play are well established.

The Finnish school system has been getting a lot of attention lately due to its philosophy about play time and reading: unlike American children, preschoolers, kindergartners, even 1st-graders are not expected to read. They are expected to play. To sing and dance and build and use their imaginations, during which they learn social skills and cooperation, among other important attributes. They often go on to excel at reading.

So I’ll celebrate my children learning to read, whether early or average or late. I’ll celebrate because literacy is important; reading is life-changing, and there is an endless amount of knowledge and wisdom to be gained from the texts throughout history. But such value can also be found in the simple act of a child freely playing to their heart’s content.

Consistently, research tends to show that pushing our children to read at earlier and earlier ages may not only be disadvantageous, but harmful to them. Sure, many of our children are rising to the occasion and reading sooner than we as their parents and grandparents were when we were their age.

But at what cost? More middle schoolers are facing depression, cutting, suicide attempts and more, and we have a generation of children who are diagnosed with more ADD/ADHD and personality disorders than ever before. We’re tasking our children to do things neurally they simply were not designed to do this early, and we all know it.

This is why more families are choosing private schools or homeschooling, and one of the big reasons recruiting and retaining quality teachers is getting harder and harder. Teachers don’t get paid squat, and are expected to push expectations on babies who simply aren’t ready for it. Who deals with the repercussions?

We do. The teachers and families and friends of children who are pushed to do things far before they should be tasked to do so.

Children reading in kindergarten used to be an anomaly; a unique ability of possibly gifted children, but definitely motivated and ready to do so.

Now, if our children are not reading on a 1st grade level by the end of kindergarten, we claim they’re behind and offer tutoring, taking away even more of the already restricted unstructured playtime they may have.

Our children are paying significant prices, and if we don’t stop expecting them to perform beyond what is developmentally appropriate (note the difference between capable and appropriate), we will too as the generation they’ll be caring for.


Photo:Tatiana Bobkova/Shutterstock

15 thoughts on “I Don’t Necessarily Want My Kids To Be Early Readers”

  1. Great article. I also celebrate my “average” children and value offering them time to play and even be bored at home with their family. I hope I can support them to find a way outside the “normal” on-the-go society we have created so they can be more mindful as adults. But, most importantly, I hope to offer them a childhood full of joy, wonder and love. Thanks for your writing. It is wonderful to be inspired and supported by other parents.

  2. I agree with your article wholeheartedly… I’m dismayed that my daughter has been pushed to read earlier than I thought she was ready for it by our school system… But in that photo your child looks about 10 (to me) which might have prompted the questions of how old he is. (Of course, 10 year olds might still be learning to read if that’s their personal learning curve… but it would be unusual). Anyway, just offering that perspective.

  3. My daughter learned to read this year at age 6. I didn’t push it before since we homeschooled and I didn’t see a reason to push it. Now that she is in a montessori school I get a lot of comments from her teachers about how she has a love of learning that they don’t often see anymore and I think it’s because I didn’t push traditional academics too early. I still get friends and relatives asking her if she is getting better at reading, implying that she was bad at it before and it drives me crazy.

  4. Agree! I am a second grade teacher and have first-handedly watched the change. Kindergarten is a time to push reading, and the state now plans to push reading in preschool. Countless kids that probably would have been fine readers in another year or so if left to the basics and their own time tables are being shoved into interventions and resource. My grandmother, who retired from teaching 1st grade in the 80’s and who firmly believes you can’t make a kid read before his time, is disgusted.

  5. I tutor children in reading in my daughter’s school. It is a tiny farm school and there isn’t a push to read. I have seen countless children who “struggle” with reading suddenly click in the fourth grade so around age 9 or 10. In a public school these children would be given intense help from kindergarten but here they are just read with an extra 1 or 2 times a week for 10 minutes along with regular schooling which is pretty organic and they are fine. Out of a couple hundred children, I have only really seen 3 that have a significant issue.

  6. Agreed wholeheartedly. I celebrate my average home schooled children. My 7 year old second grade daughter has just finally picked up on reading this year. She was very slow to take to it. While my 5 year old Kindergarten son is pretty much the same level as her. He picked up on reading quickly. I celebrate that both of my children can read. I am not more proud of my son for learning faster. My daughter is a math whiz. We all have our strengths and weaknesses to be cultivated.

  7. I agree with you whole heartedly. I am a un-schooling homeschooler of two, and I love letting them learn at their own pace. Every so often I feel the pressure from society and I have the children sit at the table to do more traditional school work, and each and every time we all end up frustrated. My kids (and I think almost all children) learn best when they are interested in something that is happening at that moment. When your son was reading the sign, you were excited because he was excited! Of course he is going to pursue reading more after feeling that happiness. Why on earth should people ask you what age he is? Shouldn’t they be applauding you for being with your son, supporting and encouraging his love of reading? You are doing an amazing job, thank you for fostering your son’s love of learning.

  8. This is wonderful! Why wouldn’t you celebrate ANYONE learning to read, regardless of age?! My daughter is 5 and we don’t do anything at all academic for her and we are constantly ‘scolded’ for it, especially by those who know we home school. So funny to me because even we did go the public school route, we wouldn’t send her until she was 7 anyways! It’s sad to me that preschoolers are now expected to read. My eldest taught himself to read when he was four, but for my third son, reading didn’t really click until he was 9. Had he been in public school, I can’t imagine how much would have gone into ‘fixing’ him, when really he just needed a little time to develop his natural abilities. He loves books now!

  9. This is an excellent article. I have been working hard to get my 4 year old twins to start reading and even writing because that’s what our preschool is trying to do. It always seemed counterintuitive to focus on structured learning when all they wanna do is play and all I want to do is play with them. I never understood the benefit of early reading. I was not an early reader and I did well in school and am successful. I’ve been getting so stressed out worrying that my kids will get behind. They get so frustrated and I’m thinking to myself how ridiculous this all is. They’re 4 years old! They have their whole lives to read but they will not always be children. This article has really given me peace of mind. Thank you.

  10. I think our educational system needs a revolution. This crazy early push toward reading is not based on science or common sense. If you really need to spend hours drilling preschoolers and kindergardeners on phonics instead of letting them play, then they shouldn’t be learning those phonics.

  11. Lovely article and congrats on your success at homeschooling! I just want to comment as a public school teacher. It is easy to react (I do) to the incessant demand for early reading and early learning, but in defense of Federal efforts, particularly Obama’s recent focus on Pre-school and elementary school readiness, I feel that it is COMPLETELY a response to poverty. Poverty has come to school and it is a terrible thing to see a kindergartner with absolutely NO CONCEPTS OF PRINT (book held in a certain direction, eyes moving left to right, page turning, sequences), poverty strips homes of literacy wealth, no books, no mags, self-babysitting which usually translates into screen time and real interactive either independent or collective play time. The child doesn’t have to BE reading but to have a clue about reading is REALLY IMPORTANT! The greatest predictor of early reading is being read to as a small child, it’s really that simple, but I teach in environments where NONE of that happens and as a result children are unable to deeply explore or connect with any kind of content let alone their personal passions,
    There! Stepping down from my soap box! Onward to child centered teaching and learning!!!

  12. My son started in a waldorf kindergarten but we had to move and i couldn’t find an acceptable replacement for schooling and had to work out of the home… I didn’t put any pressure on him while he started 1st grade among many children who could already read well… then we went traveling the world for a few months. When we cam back to his school he was so determined to catch up with his peers.. and he did! I love the idea of letting them read and learn when the passion is ignited. For my son it was a competitive nature which was fun to witness <3 Let's celebrate their achievements all the time 🙂

  13. Thank you for this. I needed to hear that. My son is in first grade. It was so different from Kindergarten were they did a lot of play learning. Now in first grade they are expected to sit in there seats all day and barley get up. Only have 1 15 maybe 20 min. recces. Every thing seems to be about the tests and were they rank. I don’t feel like my son is a bad reader or not reading to his level he is in first grade. NOW they want him to stay after school to get reading help. Which I feel is to much. We read to him every night and he reads us some books too. I needed to hear other moms with the same struggle. Thank you.

  14. I retired from teaching kindergarten/1st grade in an alternative public school in 2014. Over the years, I watched the system change at all grade levels. Our school, which had operated independently of the district curriculum, was forced to adhere to the academic standards that the rest of the schools were following. This meant that teaching reading in kindergarten became mandatory. By first grade in my multi-age classroom, those who weren’t picking up reading skills were targeted for intervention. Across the district, play was being phased out. Most of the schools’ kindergartens banished the play kitchen, dress up, and free time. Until the very end, I held on to one hour of ‘choice’ time, a completely free, open time for children to explore and play in the classroom. My heart broke for those who couldn’t sit through reading instruction, many of whom developed a sense of being somehow inferior as they watched others acquire the skills easily. My district has made all kindergartens full day. For 15 years, I taught a morning kindergarten. There were still many, many children who would have benefited from a half-day program (which included the hour of free play). In 1994, when I first taught these youngest children, writing was not a part of the curriculum except for practicing how to form letters. When I left, the Common Core standards dictated that by the end of kindergarten, children would be able to write a short paragraph. That’s right, a paragraph! While some children were thrilled with being able to write sentences, for others it was torture. I’m so glad I retired! I am so, so sad that public education has traveled this route. If I had to start teaching now, I’d go to Finland!

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