Early Literacy: In Our Culture

[This is the second post in a five-part series on early literacy.] 

I would like to start this series with at look at how prevalent the push for early literacy is in our culture. Sometimes it seems that every conversation I have with other moms of three- and four- year olds turns to reading and the skills their kid is learning in school. Just the other day I went to a birthday party and a mom began telling me how much she loved her son’s school because he was learning so much and she was so happy that he was “finally reading.” He’s four. 

On a parenting listserv, I see posts all the time from parents looking for ways to enhance their toddler’s academic skills. For example:

I would be interested in a play-based math tutor for my toddler as well. There are a wealth of story hours and rhyming songs to prepare for reading readiness, but I find it much harder to gain exposure to math skills, which I think are equally if not more important… If anyone knows of a toddler math facilitator, eg. someone who can take a systematic approach to making math skills fun, please let me know.

And another:

I want to help her to continue to learn things to prepare her for school, i.e. letters, numbers, reading, etc. So my thought is, is there anyone out there that tutors this age? … I’m talking about once a week for an hour. I realize she’s just 3ish and I don’t feel the need to have her graduate Harvard in a couple of years but I would like her to have the educational component that she had at daycare.

Toddler math facilitator, tutor for a three-year-old… Posts like these are common. Why do parents feel pressure to get their three-year-olds reading and doing math? 

Perhaps the pressure stems from the focus on these skills in daycares and preschools. Here are excerpts from the websites of a few daycare and preschool programs for children under the age of five. Please note that I have selected (and bolded) the references to literacy and academic skills in order to make my point - these programs do also emphasize play, outdoor time, etc. 

AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School

implements a research-based instructional program that supports the development of young children’s language, literacy, and behavioral skills as well as their understanding of the world around them. 

Bright Horizons Early Education & Preschool

Our hands-on toddler program promotes the development of age-specific skills in children ages16 months to 3 years by: creating learning centers that include language and reading, math, fine motor, art, dramatic play, science and sensory exploration, and outdoor learning. Our preschool program for three to five year-olds engages children intellectually, physically, emotionally, and socially, inspiring curiosity and creativity by: targeting developmental and academic milestones in the areas of language and literacy, mathematical reasoning, and scientific investigation.

Reba Early Learning Center

Our literacy areas in each classroom include many materials for writing, books, and a computer. In addition we create a print rich classroom with stories dictated by children, written information related to the topic the class is exploring, and labels including the children’s names. We encourage children to use literacy materials in all other learning areas during their play. A child may writte SV or ask a teacher to write SAVE to make a sign to put on a block structure to make sure that it is not knocked down.

TotSpot Preschool

TotSpot Preschool incorporates  and Handwriting Without Tears® into the daily curriculum. The weekly lesson plans created by the teachers will emphasize a theme, letter, number, color and shape. The students will also have the opportunity to explore math and science concepts.  Music and movement, group games, journaling and cooking crafts are also a part of the curriculum. Field trips may be scheduled at the discretion of the teachers to further explore and reinforce concepts learned in selected units. TotSpot Preschool maintains a very low student/teacher ratio to allow for optimal learning and individualized instruction. Students are assessed throughout the year to determine areas where additional help may be needed. Parents are encouraged to be involved in classroom parties, events and field trips and are welcome in the classroom to observe or volunteer!

I certainly don’t intend to criticize these programs as they do appear to be well-rounded and nurturing, I only wish to highlight the presence of teaching literacy skills, as well as a focus on other academic instruction, that typically occurs in early childhood programs. 

But perhaps the most obtrusive push for early literacy comes from the toy industry. “Educational toys” that will help your young child learn to read are all over the place. And here I do intend to do a little bashing… Actually, I don’t need to write anything, the toy descriptions say it all. I’ll just highlight the gems.

Tag Junior Get Ready for Preschool

Get set for preschool! Between the ages of three and five, children acquire the skills necessary for school. This bundle helps toddlers explore books and build confidence as they begin their reading journey toward academic success


The LeapFrog Text and Learn is designed to let little learners play in a grown-up way. Children can exchange text messages with their puppy pal Scout and check Scout’s planner to see what his week entails in the pretend browser mode. Other learning modes offer practice with letter matching, shape identification and QWERTY keyboard navigation through silly animations and sound effects. Children also explore letter names and sounds. 


Teach My Toddler is the iParenting award-winning, first all-in-one pre-school learning system for toddlers 18 months+. The kit has 17 teaching tools to help toddlers master the basics; alphabet, numbers, shapes and colors. Each section is fully-coordinated with a total of 5 puzzles, 4 board books, 4 posters and 4 sets of flashcards. The tools are neatly organized in a portable and storable carrying case. The aim of Teach My Toddler is to give toddlers a head start and to encourage one-on-one time between toddlers and their parents, grandparents and caregivers. It only takes 20 minutes a day, making Teach My Toddler the ‘smart’ educational toy for toddlers.   

It’s not just plastic, battery operated toys that push toddler literacy. We have a lovely set of wooden blocks… with the alphabet carved into them.

 And these fine nesting boxes, which we also have and love! 

Even products that are not specifically designed to teach toddlers to read can’t help but sneak in the letters. Like these floor mats. 

I think I’ve made my point. Our culture places great importance on teaching literacy skills early. 

If parents, early childhood programs and the toy industry all believe in the importance of developing literacy skills in 1-5 year olds, surely there must be an abundance of research supporting this drive, right? Next week I will take a look at the research on early literacy, specifically on studies that investigate the long term benefits of teaching literacy from an early age.

Spoiler alert: there are no such studies.