As mothers, we navigate a proverbial minefield of controversial subjects regarding our parenting decisions. While your child is still in the womb, your food choices and name preferences will be the subject of scrutiny – sometimes from total strangers. And, sadly, if you homeschool, these wonderful displays of unsolicited wisdom will only intensify.
But even before your child is old enough to begin formal school, you may marvel at what an incredibly brilliant little human you have made. And you may decide you want to take the initiative to feed her burgeoning mind as much as possible. And – heaven help you – you may have the inclination to begin teaching your preschooler to read.
Well, if this is you, read on for some actual real encouragement and helpful advice. You see, I wrote this for you because I feel you. AND I feel for you – because the current homeschooling culture out there is not always supportive of teaching reading early.
Sadly, if I hear a question from an enthusiastic Mom of Littles in a playgroup about which is the best phonics program or where to find fun worksheets, I cringe because what is likely to follow – far more than any actual help – is something like this:
*horrified gasp* “There is plenty of time for that later. ”
“Just let him play!”
“You are going to ruin learning for her by pushing too early.”
And here’s the worst logical fallacy of ’em all. “They just need to have fun at this age.” . . . *face palm*
*bubble of enthusiasm burst* And Mom of Littles is left defending her mothering choices and searching for explanations as to why she would even think about doing such a horrible thing.
Now I’m going to be really real here and ruffle a lot of feathers.
All of these responses are wrong.
Or perhaps better said – all of these responses are unhelpful, discouraging, and assume the worst. Although, there is truth to the fact that there is plenty of time to teach reading, this is not the advice this Mom of Littles is seeking.
Now, please allow me to share with you my vision of teaching preschoolers to read – based on years of personal experience and research – and how natural, fun, and beneficial it can be.
Teaching Your Preschooler Is What You Were Born To Do
One of the biggest arguments against teaching reading early is that it is somehow unnatural, forced, and coercive. My belief is the precise opposite of that. Nothing could be more natural than a mother teaching her child and a child learning from her mother.
In fact, at the same moment your baby was born with the instinct to learn and absorb information – a mother was born with an instinct to teach. But that strong maternal drive is not just an urge to sooth your crying baby or protect her from danger. The drive includes the sense of needing to impart necessary skills and information to your child. This is a good thing!
An actual popular trend in educational thinking is to be anti-intellectual or “anti-knowledge’ (more information on this later) Meaning, knowledge and processes thought to be “academic” are given an inferior place to skills considered to be more “natural.” Let me give you an example.
Not many moms bat an eyelid at teaching their children to pick up their toys and put them away themselves. Parenting blogs are full of articles about what a great skill this is to teach your child and how “even a one-year-old” can learn it. Now this is not something that children are born instinctively knowing how to do. It takes parental guidance and instruction, repetition, and structure (just as academic skills do). However, this is completely socially acceptable to teach a child as soon as they can physically manage it. This is considered a “life skill” and thought of as “natural” – even though it is not – so it is pronounced approved to teach to very young children.
Then you have skills considered to be “academic.” Think they are treated the same way? Not so much. What about the skill of knowing what sounds the letters make? Oh, heck-to-the-no! Try and teach a three-year-old their phonics and you are pushing “developmentally inappropriate” material, stifling their natural love of learning, and many other heinous crimes. And if you are insidiously slipping a worksheet in there (no matter how much they might enjoy them)? *horrified gasp* You are probably not fit to have children. [strong sarcasm]
But let me ask you this. Isn’t one of the first things we teach babies the sounds that animals make? Are teaching letter sounds any different? Really?
Wait for the shocker! . . . No. No, it’s not any different.
And it’s not that different from teaching them to tidy up either. Now I do understand it involves different parts of the brain, etc. However, it is not different in that:
- Both of these skills involve structured teaching.
- Nither of these things involve an arbitrarily “correct” age at which to begin teaching them.
- And both of them are wonderful skills to teach preschoolers that will not ruin them for being taught early.
Teaching your child phonics will not destroy their love of learning any more than teaching them to tidy their toys will teach them to hate playing with them.
And – back to my original point – both are things that mothers may have a natural drive to teach their children. And. that’s. OK. Full stop.
Teaching Your Preschooler IS Fun – For Both of You!
As I mentioned, attempting to teach your toddler anything considered “academic” will often be seen as tantamount to torture. This is the most illogical notion I’ve heard expressed in opposition to teaching reading early. And it is probably the most frequent one as well. “Just let them play and have fun!” is a constant refrain.
These naysayers must be imagining some kind of world where a three-year-old is forced to endure hours of seated work a day as mom paces the floor tapping a ruler on her hand and popping surprise quizzes on gerunds and present participles.
This is – of course – NOT what you are talking about doing, is it? I hear you. You WANT to make it fun. And that’s not hard because it IS fun to little ones. Learning is natural and what they were born to do. Just as teaching them is natural and what you were born to do. (see above) And so it should naturally be enjoyable for you both – like ducks swimming.
Let’s go back to the tidying up example. Again – no one will hesitate to tell you how much a young child will enjoy helping you put dishes away or sweeping the floors. But these are considered non-academic “life skills” and somehow natural and acceptable to teach them. “They will have fun with these tasks,” you will hear.
But learning to identify lowercase letters or phonics sounds? What are you thinking?! HOW could that possibly be fun? HOW could that possibly do anything other than stifle their love of learning?
Because it is really no different than sweeping the floor. Learning and intimating adult behaviors – from putting away dishes to reading – IS play to children.
Learning academic concepts can be fun for all the same reasons learning life skills can be fun:
- It’s an activity that they can do with mom (or dad). Boom! That’s fun!
- It is a skill that they can grow in proficiency in – something they crave to do. Yay! Fun!
- It is something that will give them a sense of accomplishment and capability. FUN!
Colorful, intriguing books. A variety of mediums to color and stamp and paint and draw with. Incorporating learning into everyday activities. Using movement and music in learning time. All great ways of finding the FUN in teaching your preschooler to read.
The Importance of “Prior Relevant Knowledge”
You probably know of E. D. Hirsch, Jr., even f you don’t recognize his name. In fact, you may already own some of his books. He is the author behind the massively popular works, What Your Kindergartner (First Grader, Second Grader, etc.) Needs to Know. But I believe his most useful work is found in his more academic books, which I highly recommend every parent read. If you chose only one, I would suggest The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them where he discusses, with much more depth and expertise than I possibly could, topics such as the anti-knowledge movement and the “naturalization” trend in education.
But my favorite part of this book is that he clarifies the tricky and often misleading subject of “developmental readiness.” I am not even going to attempt to duplicate the full and complete discourse that Dr. Hirsch gives the topic here. But the gist is that there is no magic age at which children are “ready to read” OR, perhaps better put for this discussion, there is no arbitrary age which is developmentally too early for children to learn to read. What IS important is that they have mastered the prior relevant knowledge necessary to begin reading.
Let’s look at another analogy. Before you can begin to make a cake, you need to know how to follow the recipe, what the names of ingredients and tools mean, how to measure and mix ingredients, how to operate an oven, how to check to see if a cake is done baking. Your success in baking a cake depends much more on your grasp of this “prior relevant knowledge” than some ambiguous age of “developmental readiness”.
Teaching reading, for example, requires its own set of prior relevant knowledge: letter recognition, phonetic awareness, sight words, left to right and top to bottom progression, punctuation, etc. And just like in cake baking, you can begin teaching these skills quite young . . . or wait a while. But what determines success in reading is, by and large, the extent to which these underlying skills have been grasped.
Is that not – perhaps – an argument for beginning to teach them early?
So what do you do with all this?
Well, if you believe that learning to read can wait, you might expect me to frown on that. But nope. Not at all. That’s right. I wholeheartedly believe that if waiting on formal reading instruction is right for your family – go for it! And your child will be just fine. *Although, I hope that you still read to your child often.*
But my personal opinion is that there is no reason not to incorporate learning to read as soon as my child is able to identify letters. I have seen – with my own eyes – the confidence and joy young children get out of reading.
And there are so many other benefits too. How about something for them to do when they need a quiet activity (that isn’t electronics!)? Or the increased understanding they get of their world as they begin to be able to read signs around them at the store? And that brings me to the best benefit, which is – the more you learn, the more you learn. Early learning/reading exposes your child to a wealth of new information. And their vocabulary snowballs, building on itself. Knowledge begets knowledge.
A good place to start is by doing some reading yourself – on homeschooling methods, teaching reading, and how children learn. And with that, the most important thing you can do is choose books from a variety of sources with a variety of different ideas. But I am not here to sell you a particular school of thought or convince you that my way is the right way. I am here to encourage you to never just base opinions on hearing one side of the story. And, because of trends in educational thought (even among homeschoolers) in the past century, you can read hundreds of popular books and still get a very one-sided philosophical approach. This is why I recommend E.D. Hirsch, Jr. to you. His work will give you food for thought that is based on sound research and facts and presents a different side to the topic of education than is found in most of the popular culture today.
Lastly, have fun with your child and be the mother you want to be. You don’t need anyone’s permission to do things in the way that’s right for you and your child – rather that’s teaching reading early or not.