Early Literacy: Series Introduction

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

Early literacy* has become a trend in the U.S. and most people seem to think that earlier is better. Pre-schools and daycare centers advertise curricula that focus on developing pre-reading skills, the toy industry markets products as educational, many claiming to help your child learn to read, and six-year-olds are expected to be able to read when they enter first grade. I’ve even seen posts on our local listserv from parents seeking reading tutors for their three-year-old

I understand why this “early literacy” movement has taken over our education system. We want to improve our nation’s literacy rates, support No Child Left Behind, and compete with other nations’ educational standards. But we have a responsibility to our children to be thoughtful about their education and we are failing to ask some very important questions.

First, what are the goals of early literacy? Is the goal to have all six-year-olds reading at a certain level or is it to improve overall literacy rates in our country so that more adults read better? 

Second, when is a child developmentally ready to read? Are we spending three years teaching 3-5 year olds to read when a seven-year-old can learn to the same ability in one year?

Third, is there a critical period for reading? Do early readers end up better readers as adults than non-early readers? If yes, at what age does the long-term advantage disappear? 

Fourth, what are we losing with early literacy? What are 3-5 year olds not doing with their time because of the focus on early literacy? Developmentally, is reading the most appropriate skill to be focusing on? 

Fifth, what are our other options? Surely pushing early literacy isn’t the only way to develop strong literacy skills. Many countries with literacy rates similar to or higher than our own (Finland, Sweden, Japan, Australia, to name a few) don’t begin teaching children to read until age six or seven, when mandatory schooling begins. What are 3-5 year olds in these countries doing?

These are the questions I will address in this series in order to better understand the benefits and drawbacks of the early literacy approach. Here is a brief outline of the posts. 

  • Early literacy in our culture
  • Review of the research
  • Literacy in the classroom
  • Literacy in other countries
  • Conclusion & discussion


*I understand people may use this term differently, so I would like to clarify what I mean when I use the terms “early literacy,” “pre-literacy,” and “pre-reading.” “Early literacy” refers to the ability to read/write at an early age (by ‘early’ I mean ages 3-5, and by read/write, I mean words, if not sentences), whereas “pre-literacy” refers to the period of time before a child has the ability to read, so typically ages 0 - 4-6. “Pre-reading” is synonymous with “pre-literacy”. Under these definitions, the term “pre-literacy skills” refers to skills that are developed in preparation to teach a child to read, such as learning the alphabet, raising phonemic awareness, and learning to write and recognize printed letters. The term “teaching early literacy” refers to teaching children ages 3-5 to read and write words and sentences.