Friday, March 6, 2015

Is Early Reading a Problem?

Robert Pondiscio appeared on US News this week to stick up for the Common Core's demand that kindergartners learn to read.

He's responding to the recent report from Defending the Early Years and the Alliance for Childhood. The report (which I covered here) makes a case that the Core ignores developmental experts.

Pondiscio engages in a subtle but significant misrepresentation of the criticism of CCSS's early reading requirement when he says "What critics seem to be saying is that Common Core is simply too hard for kindergarten."

Well, no. Not exactly.

I can't think of a single person I've encountered on any side who has said, "For the love of God, whatever you do, don't let kindergartners learn to read!! Don't even let them get ready to read!" Nor do I know of anyone in education who doesn't recognize the value of learning to read. I do look askance at statements about early reading success being predictive of "a child's academic trajectory" because it smells a great deal like one more person confusing correlation with causation. But even if I don't buy the usefulness of that observation, it doesn't make me value reading any less.

However, there is a world of difference between saying, "It's a good idea for children to proceed as quickly as they can toward reading skills" and "All students must demonstrate the ability to read emergent reader texts with purpose and understanding by the last day of kindergarten."

The development of reading skills, like the development of speech, height, weight, hair and potty training, is a developmental landmark that each child will reach on his or her own schedule.

We would like all children to grow up to be tall and strong. It does not automatically follow that we should therefor set a height standard that all children must meet by their fifth birthday-- especially if we are going to label all those who come up short as failures or slow or developmentally disabled, and then use those labels in turn to label their schools and their teachers failures as well. These standards demand that students develop at a time we've set for them. Trying to force, pressure and coerce them to mature or grow or develop sooner so that they don't "fail"-- how can that be a benefit to the child.

And these are five year olds in kindergarten. On top of the developmental differences that naturally occur among baby humans, we've also got the arbitrary age requirements of the kindergarten system itself, meaning that there can be as much as a six-month age difference (10% of their lives so far) between the students. [Edit: As correctly pointed out by some readers, depending on how your local district handles kindergarten registration, that age spread can be as large as a full year.]

Saying that we want all students to grow up exposed to rich environments that promote reading-- that's a great idea. Setting an arbitrary cut-off standard and then labeling everyone who doesn't meet it a failure is a terrible idea. The Common Core does not present its reading standards (developed without input from any early childhood learning experts) as suggestions; it presents them as a list of Things Students Must Know By the End of the Grade. That's what Pondiscio tiptoes around in his piece-- that we are going to tell five year olds who aren't at the standard that they are failures (and probably on a path to be failures for life).

And I'm not even starting on how the Core encourages the use of standardized testing to show how students have met the standard. What earthly good does it do to subject a five year old to a standardized test?

Giving each child the earliest best possible shot at learning to read is an admirable and worthwhile goal, but demanding that each and every child meet a One Size Fits All standard is not, particularly when that standard has not taken into account the realities and varieties of early child development.


  1. I have to wonder whether it's actually *detrimental* for students to learn to read too early. I read Dehaene's Reading in the Brain a while back, but this is what I recall. Of course, correlation does not indicate causation, but based on reading his book, I think that forcing reading too early onto children has a possibility of mis-wiring the brain in such a way as to mimic the dyslexic brain. Because I can't copy and paste from my Kindle app, please attribute all spelling errors to me. Similarly, I have no page numbers for you, but you could search a Kindle edition of the book for key phrases. I have quoted below:

    Proposition 1) Reading rewires the brain:
    “During schooling, a part of this system rewires itself into a reasonably good device for invariant letter and word recognition.”
    Proposition 2) Mis-wiring is possible
    “A narrow window of plasticity, which lasts a few weeks in cats, a few months in nonhuman primates, and a few years in humans, allows for fine adjustment of connections in the primary visual area. ... In this instance, nature leaves only a short window of time to nurture.”
    “When we spend time on reading ... we also trade in cortical space. This obviously reduces the brain resources available for other skills--and our face perception abilities may suffer.”
    "...children who do not learn letters and graphemes suffer from reading delays. These are often far from negligible and persist for many years..."
    Proposition 3) There is an optimal time for learning to read:
    “Before children are exposed to their first reading lesson, their prior linguistic and visual development should play an essential role in preparing their brains for this new cultural exercise. around the age of five or six, when a child begins to read, the key invariant visual recognition process is in place, although it is still maximally plastic. This period is thus particularly conducive to the acquisition of novel visual shapes like letters and words.”
    Proposition 4) There is an “optimal” reading network that does not activate early
    “Initially, written words, like any other visual language, lead to a bilateral activation pattern. Activation then progressively tapers down to a narrower focus that is presumably optimal.”
    "as early as the age of seven, the normal reading network begins to activate at the sight of text."
    “... A few years later, in second grade, a burst of activity appears for printed words when compared with meaningless strings of geometric shapes. When a clearly lateralized response from the left letterbox area first appears, at around the age of eight, specialization is still far from complete. Even in ten-year-olds, the negative waveform...seems to be seen only for words that are frequent and well known by the child. ... The letterbox area only reaches full maturity at the beginning of adolescence...”
    Proposition 5) Early readers do not use the “optimal” reading network
    “Eden...did not find a left-occipito-temporal activation increase during reading acquisition. However she did observe a clear decrease in right occippito-temporal activation, at a location in the right hemisphere that was exactly symmetrical with the letterbox region...“
    “...during the earliest reading stages, the right occipito-temporal region appears to differentiate words from consonant strings. “
    Proposition 6) Dyslexics do not use the “optimal” reading network
    "...the left occipito-temporal region does not seem able to simultaneously recognize all the letters that constitute a word...weak lateralization of the activation to the left hemisphere. Their brain activity, moreover, is much greater than normal in the right temporo-parietal region...not typically seen in normal readers"
    "efficient intervention strategies for dyslexia...most...aim at increasing phonemic awareness by helping children manipulate letters and sounds"

  2. Learning to read early isn't a problem - it would be awfully hard to prevent some kids from doing so. What's problematic is *teaching* kids to read early.

  3. Learning to read early isn't a problem - it would be awfully hard to prevent some kids from doing so. What's problematic is *teaching* kids to read early.

  4. There does seem to be a heck of a lot of work indicating that the type of focus a preschool has is fairly indicative of boosts in later skills that are related to those slillsets.

    Focusing on math, and reading tends to yield good recults in those fields, and in fields which rquire good reading comprehension and numeracy. Focusing on developing social and play skills yields benefits too.

    Focusing on developing fine motor skills seems to positively impact on math ability.

    The links and mechanisms seem pretty solid there.

    These need not be exclusive.

    Put bluntly, there does seem to be a lot of evidence indicating a highly probable link between prechsool literacy and numeracy focuses, and later abilities in those and rerlated fields. The likely mechainsms are well understood, and standing behind developing good literacy in preschool does not involve arguing that every one else is against teaching kids to read.

    The height analogy is limited.Actually, it;s plain wrong. If we accept that kids will reach their own markers at particular stages., and we figure there's damn heck all we can do about it, then we probably shouldn't intervene at all. We should probably run a Lord of the Flies version of prechools, and let inevitable development take it's unalterable path. Kids with glasses beware.

    But we can and do change their devekopmental pace with the educational choices we make, and focusing on developing literacy, and social skills, will probably have positive repercussions for most kids. Curiously, it will probably have even better consequences for disadvantaged kids.

    A better analogy than height is nutrition.

    All kids will reach their own particular heights, at their particular stages. This does not mean we get to ignore the food they eat, or our responsibility to feed them well. Teach preschoolers to read, and they will probably do better at school generally. Feed preschoolers well, and they will probably grow taller.

    We can't guarantee either outrcome, but that's no reason to give up and focus on a diet rich in coco pops.

    Also, I can think of one pedagogy which does insist on stalling literacy development till later. Steiner Waldorf. But heck. There's outriders, and then there's Rudolf Steiner.

    Re the standardised testing. Wow. I take your point about failure, and about taking into account age differences. We can;t just be targeting some developmental markers, skills, and contexts. It would be nice if we let our 5 year olds be both clever AND sane.