Why not let kids be kids?

“Spontaneous reading happens for a few kids. The vast majority need (and all can benefit from) explicit instruction in phonics.”

Apparently this quote popped up on the Twitter feed of Carol Black (of the Schooling the World movie fame); she wrote a long article in response which appeared on my own Facebook feed today.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about new (and new to me) research into how kids learn and how to best support them.  The gist of Black’s very long and interesting article (that you should read, especially if you have kids) is that the American educational system is broken.  “Well duh,” I hear you say.  But the premise is that it’s not just broken in failing to achieve a worthy goal; it’s broken in what it determines that worthy goal to be in the first place.

Parental preference seems to be – and national scholastic standards explicitly state – that not only must children learn specific (reading, writing, math) skills, but they must learn these skills as early as possible to ensure the best possible educational outcomes.  To which I ask, why?

The trend among parents to accelerate learning was underway as early as 1963, when Glenn Dorman published Teach Your Baby To Read (revised edition still in print and available on Amazon!).  Few experts supported Dorman’s claims that babies could learn to read, but he sold five million copies of the book anyway.

I wasn’t a parent yet when the Baby Einstein DVDs were released, with their not-so-tacit assertions that they could turn your baby into a genius.  (Surprise: it didn’t work, and now you can get a refund if you still have those old DVDs kicking around!)  The DVDs are still on the market, with less language about how “educational” they are and more about how they “introduce” your infant to concepts like shapes, but to what end?  Why do we push these things on our kids before they are ready?

A recent NPR piece discussed how ‘talking toys’ are not only not useful in helping young kids to learn language; not only not neutral in effect, but actually result in negative language-learning outcomes.  The more the toys talked the less the parents talked, and language learning is a social thing – the more parents and babies interacted, the more language the kids learned.

Finally, a recent report by Defending the Early Years (DEY) has called into question the idea that teaching kids to read early has beneficial learning outcomes after all.  Driven by No Child Left Behind and its successor Race to the Top’s competitive grants based on children’s performance, kindergartens have become “the new first grade.”  The Common Core State Standards for kindergarten require that children are able to  “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding” (cited in DEY p.2), a learning outcome that some children may not be ready to achieve until they are several years older.  The new study’s authors could find no preexisting research on which this Common Core reading standard was based, and the current CCSS website simply defends the standard as being based on unidentified “scholarly research.”

The DEY report goes on to cite a study which concludes:

…that there is no solid evidence showing long-term gains for children who are taught to read in kindergarten. In fact, by fourth grade and beyond, these children read at the same level as those who were taught to read in the first grade. (p.3)

Another study (also cited by DEY) found that:

The most compelling part of the reading research is that by the end of third grade, early readers have no advantage over later readers. Some later readers even go on to become the top in their class. Reading early is not an indicator of higher intelligence. In fact, children at the top of their class in kindergarten only have a 40 percent chance of being at the top of their class at the end of third grade. (DEY p.5)

Which presumes, of course, that you consider being top of the class a worthy goal.  What if you just want a motivated learner?  Bad news there too, I’m afraid:

Most children are eager to meet high expectations, but their tools and skills as learners as well as their enthusiasm for learning suffer when the demands are inappropriate. High-stakes assessments are adding to their anxiety. They feel less in charge of, and invested in, the learning process — and their internal motivation is thwarted. They begin to feel that learning, and its deep satisfactions, do not belong to them. Many early childhood experts agree that the current pushdown of teaching of reading skills to 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds that used to be associated with older children is demoralizing young learners. (DEY p.9)

So, to summarize: you can’t teach an infant how to read.  You can’t make a baby smarter by plopping them in front of a DVD.  Devices that talk don’t teach babies how to talk.  Teaching kids to read before they are ready to meet arbitrary standards can backfire in terms of later learning outcomes.

Playing in the rain

Playing after the rain

At the end of the day, I think this speaks to one underlying issue: we parents are trying to achieve outcomes that we want for our kids, not that the kids want for themselves.  Nowhere in all of these battery-operated toys and desire for early reading outcomes is a ‘pull’ from kids; a statement of “hey, this is useful to me and I want to learn how to do it!”.

Back to the original article: Carol Black asks us to remember how we learned to use a computer, positing that it was likely a mix of strategies we pulled together ourselves because we wanted to learn how to do it.  My own experience speaks to this: I learned to use my Dad’s computer (could have been a Mac Plus – at least that’s what I recall it looked like) when I was 12 because I wanted to write a story about how my sister the princess was rescued from a muddy puddle by her beloved dog.  Dad taught me how to use the mouse and how to drag and drop clip art, and then I was off.  At 16 I taught myself to touch type from a book, because I thought it would come in handy someday.  At 18 I discovered the internet on a Canadian friend’s computer (phone line-based internet connections were charged at the same high rates as calls in England for a long time, significantly hampering its uptake) and was fascinated by the way a series of links could take me from one place to the next, ending up in a completely different place from where I started.  All self-driven; none of it pushed on me.  I learned what I needed to learn to accomplish what I wanted to do at the time.

I toured a preschool a while back which had two swings in the play area, and a sign-up sheet in case children were waiting.  A sign-up sheet for the swing?  The idea was that kids would realize that making their mark (any mark; it didn’t have to be a legible word) on the paper conveyed something useful to someone – that their turn was next – creating ‘pull’ from the child to want to learn more about making marks on paper.  Similarly, if the children had a project in process at the end of the day that they wanted to save, someone would suggest putting a sign on it saying ‘Please Save.’  Older kids and teachers who knew how to write would be drafted to help, and the younger kids again saw the value of communication via writing.  More pull; no pushing.  Learning happens.

By all means, if your three- or four-year old is keen to read (as I was) then provide appropriate materials and support.  Poor later learning outcomes are not linked with early reading, but with pushing kids to read before they are ready.

The DEY report advocates for more play-based education in schools, while Carol Black goes a step beyond this and discusses alternative learning methods and outcomes that are not geared toward being at the top of the class.  These include telling stories and using hands-on experience rather than lecturing and demonstrating; giving tools and allowing just allowing to play, and simply waiting to give a child a task until she is ready.  Perhaps these methods will help children develop into less self-centered, single-minded individuals focused only on being the best:

It turns out that Americans are at the far end of the spectrum in their preference for competition over cooperation; for self-promotion over humility; for analytical over holistic thinking; for individual rather than collective success; for direct rather than indirect communication; for hierarchical rather than egalitarian conceptions of status. So in school we urge our children to strive to be better than their friends and we praise them publicly if they succeed, where many other societies would consider this to be extremely bad manners. We focus on our children directly and tell them exactly what we want them to know, where in many other societies adults expect children to observe their elders closely and follow their example voluntarily. We control and direct and measure our children’s learning in excruciating detail, where many other societies assume children will learn at their own pace and don’t feel it necessary or appropriate to control their everyday activities and choices. In other words, what we take for granted as a “normal” learning environment is not at all normal to millions of people around the world. – Carol Black

So, what kind of learning outcomes does you child want for him/herself?  And how do your daily activities support these?

For us, at the moment, we introduce non-prescriptive activities we know or think Carys will enjoy.  She lets us know whether that’s the case or not (scooping beans: big hit.  Playing in oatmeal: not a big hit when we first introduced it, but very exciting now).  As she gets older we will keep a log of her questions, which will guide the activities we provide.  She will pull us in the direction she wants to go, and we will willingly follow.

Finger Paint

Finger painting on paper and a tray (photo by Nanny Meg)

FYI, there’s a follow-up to this piece here.

Do you want to understand how your child’s brain is developing?

If there's just no way you can get to all the reading on your child's development that you want to do, check out my free four-page summary of Your Child’s Growing Mind by Jane M. Healy, Ph.D.

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Letting kids be kids (Part 2)
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  • Reply
    Alan Timms
    January 21, 2016 at 3:33 am

    ….I’m pretty sure you were reading Ladybird books before you were two. I don’t think you were “taught” – you looked at the book when we read to you, and after a while you didn’t need the adult any more. I did much the same thing, but a year or so later. I remember saying “I can read” and being asked to demonstrate it. I don’t recall the process, I just could do it: anything to compete with The Sibling.



    • Reply
      January 21, 2016 at 9:19 am

      I don’t remember that far back:-) I do remember a teacher pulling me aside at the end of school (preschool, I think?) and asking me if I wanted to learn how to read. I was soooooo excited, and then soooooo disappointed when I got home to ‘read’ my first book only to find it said “Look!” on every page, and my task was to describe the picture.

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