By Marli Naidoo
Preschool children are being increasingly pressurised to learn to read as early as possible. Teachers, who have to see to it that it happens, also experience this pressure. However, does this contribute to the child’s long-term success?
In 1967 David Weikart and his colleagues launched a well-controlled study where 68 poor children were divided among three different nursery schools. One of the schools was a traditional play-based school, one was a high-scope school (also a play-based school but with much more adult guidance), and one was a school with direct instruction (where the focus was on instruction in mathematics, reading and writing and included worksheets and tests).
During the course of this study homes were visited where parents were shown how to help their children. During these visits the focus was in line with the type of school in which each child was. Home visits with parents whose children were in traditional schools, focused on the value of play and socialising, while in the case of home visits with parents whose children were in direct-instruction schools the emphasis fell on academic skills and assignments.
Initially everything went smoothly for the group with formal instruction. They showed fast academic growth, but did not stay ahead for very long. A few years later, when the children in the traditional schools started formal instruction, they caught up fast. All of them went to the same types of primary school from then on.
The study was continued when the children were 15 years old. At the age of 15 the children from the direct-instruction group had already committed twice as many misdeeds as the children who came from the traditional and high-scope nursery schools. At the age of 23 the differences were even more dramatic. Among the young adults from the direct-instruction group there were more cases of friction with other people, more emotional weaknesses, and they were less inclined to be married and living with their spouses. There were also many more cases of crime: 39% had already been arrested for crimes, whereas only 13,5% from the other groups had already been arrested. 19% from the direct-instruction group had already been summonsed for assault with a dangerous weapon, while there were no cases among the other two groups.
This study therefore found that the initial school experience laid the foundation for later behaviour. Children in nursery schools where they could plan their own activities and play with other children were better prepared to someday accept personal responsibilities and practise positive social behaviour.
Other more recent studies also showed more specifically that it was much better to teach your young child language than to teach him to read. Language development is a better predictor of later reading ability than early reading instruction.
The best foundation for future reading ability is laid by playful conversations, story times and reading aloud. This will prepare your young child much better for decoding and understanding printed text when the time comes.
Science Alert: https://www.sciencealert.com/late-readers-close-learning-gap
Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201505/early-academic-training-produces-long-term-harm