Early Literacy: Other Countries & Conclusion

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

I haven’t spent any time observing pre-school or early grades classrooms in other countries and it is difficult to get a good sense of how things are done by searching the internet. However, from talking to friends and reading over a few sites, it seems our early-literacy focused society could stand to take a look at when children of other countries learn to read. 

Here are a few points about Finland’s educational system curriculum, taken from the Finnish National Board of Education:

  • Compulsory education starts in the year when a child has his/her seventh birthday
  • Pre-primary education is provided minimum 700 hours per year, maximum 4 hours a day.
  • The objective of basic education is to support pupils’ growth towards humanity and ethically responsible membership of society and to provide them with the knowledge and skills needed in life. 

Regarding pre-primary Education:

The general principles set forth in the core curriculum emphasise the child’s individuality and the significance of active learning and the importance of acting as a group member. Pre-primary education is based on the child’s own knowledge, skills and experiences. Its focus is on play and a positive outlook on life. From the educational point of view, working methods that accustom children to teamwork are of the utmost importance. Another central consideration is to promote the child’s own initiative and to emphasise its significance as the foundation for all activities.

The methods and activities in pre-primary education are as varied and versatile as possible. The core curriculum does not divide instruction into subjects or lessons, but it does include various subject fields and objectives. These subject fields are: language and interaction, mathematics, ethics and philosophy, environmental and natural studies, health, physical and motor development and art and culture.

Note there is not a single mention of literacy - from a country with one of the highest literacy rates. 

In Sweden, it is a similar story:

Sweden’s attitude to teaching nursery children seems incredibly relaxed and informal. There’s little structured learning, play is paramount… 

Most Swedish children who leave pre-school at six can’t read or write. Yet within three years of starting formal schooling at the age of seven, these children lead the literacy tables in Europe.

Again, a play-based curriculum for preschool and kindergartner. Literacy instruction begins at age seven.

To conclude this series, I would argue that we do not have adequate evidence to justify an early-literacy curriculum. Furthermore, I would argue that early-literacy instruction results in a significant loss of imaginative and physical play time for children age five and under. 

The type of evidence that would justify an early-literacy curriculum would show that (1) early learners have a long-term advantage in literacy skills as compared to non-early learners and (2) the decreased time spent on imaginative and physical play had no negative long-term effect on cognitive and physical development. Only when research-based evidence for both of these conditions has been shown should we move forward with an early-literacy curriculum. In the meantime, I sure wish we could hold off on the early-literacy and follow the Finnish and Swedish models: let young children play!

What are your opinions on this topic? 

Early Literacy: In the Classroom

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

The purpose of this post is to take a look at the (pre) literacy activities that take place in early childhood classrooms, in other words, how a child spends his/her time when it comes to language arts instruction. (The purpose is not to describe or critique how literacy is, or should be, taught.) 

To get an idea of what 3-5 year olds are doing in their classrooms, I talked to two teachers. Sarah teaches young children in a public school that aims to have children start reading in kindergarten, and Angela teaches young children in a school that begins literacy instruction in first grade. I asked them to tell me about what young children in their schools are doing. 

Sarah’s School

Teaching pre-literacy skills begins in pre-k, where children are expected to learn the letters and read and write their name. In kindergarten, children learn to read and write words and sentences. A reading test is administered at the end of kindergarten to ensure the rising first graders are capable of reading simple words and sentences. By third grade, reading instruction is complete and children are expected to read to learn. To meet these literacy goals, language arts is a main component of the pre-k and kindergarten curriculum. Here is a snapshot of what might take place in a pre-k and kindergarten classroom at Sarah’s school:

In a pre-k classroom…

Children are taught phonemic awareness and the alphabet. From what I understand from talking to parents with children in these classes, children learn that “bee” starts with a “b” sound, “cat” starts with a “k” sound, etc. Teachers may point out the sounds words start with and ask the children to identify the letter that makes that sound. This is done with pictures, objects, and stories during a dedicated circle time, through coloring in pictures that have the word-initial letter printed at the top, and during other activities throughout the day. For example, a teacher may point out a bird while on the playground and ask a child what sound “bird” starts with, and then ask another child what letter makes that sound. Children are also taught the alphabet song and to recognize and produce printed letters. 

In a kindergarten classroom…

Children have 90 minutes of uninterrupted language arts instruction. During this time, children may sing the alphabet song, listen to a story and answer comprehension questions, then sit at a desk and complete a worksheet. Early in the year children practice writing upper and lowercase letters and identifying “sight words,” such as matching the picture of the cat to the word “cat.” Further into the school year, a worksheet may have sentences such as, “I like to______, I like to eat_____, I like to play______.” The worksheets progress from drawing to writing, with an early worksheet requiring the child to draw a picture of what they like, then moving to selecting a word from the word bank at the bottom of the worksheet, to writing in the word, and finally writing the entire sentence. As they move through the school year, the children will read simple printed stories and answer simple questions, such as “Find the word ‘said’; What letter does ‘said’ start with?”

In addition to language arts instruction, pre-k and kindergarten children have math instruction, music, physical education, recess, time for classroom “centers” (sand table, housekeeping, blocks, drawing/painting, etc.), and imaginative play.

Angela’s school 

Children do not learn how to read or write until first grade. Children continue learning to read through fourth grade, at which point they begin reading to learn. 

In the pre-k and kindergarten classrooms…

In terms of pre-literacy activities, teachers work to develop phonemic awareness. Children learn songs, verses, and finger games that incorporate rhyme and specific consonant/vowel sounds. Often sound patterns correspond to finger, hand, and whole body gestures that the children act out together. Children also listen to stories that include rich language and infrequent words. In other words, the language used to tell the stories is not simplified. Stories may focus on certain sounds to develop awareness of those sounds, but the main purpose of story telling is to allow the child to imagine the world in which the story takes place.  Children do not learn to read or write letters or words, nor do they use worksheets. 

However, the majority of the school hours are spent on activities that require movement, balance, physical awareness, and imaginative play. Children spend at least half the day outside running, climbing trees/jungle gyms, swinging, walking on balance beams, jumping rope, digging in the sand box, etc. Indoor play centers around building blocks, rocker boards, play kitchens and houses, drawing and painting, baking, etc. 


The above descriptions are just snapshots. They are intended to give a feel for what children in these classrooms are doing, not provide a daily schedule or detailed account of all the activities children do throughout the year. 

The questions I’d like to consider now are: 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? 

The children in the school that includes (pre) literacy instruction spend a lot less time exploring their world through play and physical activity. Two to three hours of each school day is spent sitting still working on a cognitive skill, often in the form of a constrained task with pre-determined responses. That adds up to 10 -15 hours a week of unimaginative desk time… for 3-5 year olds. 

I haven’t dug into the research on child development during these ages, but I would say there is enough physical and cognitive growth taking place naturally that adding instruction is not necessary. In other words, plain old exposure to language through stories and songs, and opportunity for imaginative play provides a very rich and stimulating environment. Furthermore, because the natural world offers so much to a young child, taking time away from it in order to provide (pre) literacy instruction may actually inhibit a child’s cognitive and physical growth. 

To summarize, the question isn’t whether 3-5 year olds are capable of learning to read (many are), but rather whether learning to read is the best use of their time. I think we need to consider the possibility that early literacy is disadvantageous. Before we become too entrenched in an early literacy curriculum, we owe it to our children to ask and answer these questions.

In next week’s post I’ll write about what literacy curriculums in other countries look like and conclude this series.

Early Literacy: Review of the Research

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

I am not a specialist in literacy, child development, or early education, but from my (somewhat cursory*) look at the research in this area, I’ve come to the following conclusion: a lot of work has been done on factors that contribute to literacy development, but very little work has been done on age effects and literacy. That is, we know what skills and abilities a person needs in order to develop literacy skills, but we don’t know if/how the development of these skills and abilities is affected, or constrained, by age.   

I won’t go into what skills and abilities are needed for literacy because that is not the focus of this post. But for those interested in reading about it, I think the Handbook of Early Literacy is probably a good place to start. As for studies on the role of age and literacy, there are few, and they tend to focus on either children of low-income families or children with speech delays.  I did come across one study, Phillips et al. (1996), that showed early literacy predicted higher reading proficiency. However, this study looked at reading proficiency of the students when they reached fourth grade. Therefore, they are basing their conclusions on students who are nine years old and just transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn. In order to look at “ultimate attainment” of reading ability based on the age at which instruction began, studies need to look at differences among children who are at least ten years old. 

In the article, Starting school at age seven ‘can boost pupil’ reading skills, the author, Graeme Paton, critiques the British education system for beginning reading instruction at age five. Paton points out, “Academics suggested that infants given more time to naturally develop their language skills in the early years had a better foundation when they started conventional tuition at seven.” He cites a recent study showing that not only do students who start reading before age six not have an advantage over students who begin reading at age seven, but students who don’t begin reading until age seven show an advantage over their early reader peers by age 10.  I decided to read the original studies cited by Paton to determine whether these statements are representative of the data. 

In the 2009 study looking at 2006 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) data, Suggate looked at reading proficiency in 15-year-olds from 55 countries, with the age of school entry ranging from age four to age seven. The data showed no significance difference in reading proficiency at age 15 among any of the age-of-entry groups, nor did entry age predict reading achievement for any given country. This study controlled for a number of social and economic characteristics, but one major limitation, as noted by the author, is the unknown cultural factors that may have played a role. 

Addressing these limitations, Suggate et al. (2012) conducted a more controlled and focused study. The authors looked at reading proficiency over the first six years of schooling of children who started reading instruction at either five or seven years of age. By age 11, differences in letter naming, non-word, word, and passage reading, and decoding had disappeared between the two groups, and interestingly, students who began reading instruction at age seven outperformed the students who began reading instruction at age five in reading comprehension. The authors conclude, “Around age 10, children learning to read at seven had caught up to those learning at 5. Later starters had no long-term disadvantages in decoding and reading fluency. For whatever reason, the later starters had slightly better reading comprehension.”

As with any research question, it is important to conduct replication studies to ensure the results are reliable and generalizable. Based on the limited number of studies I found on age effects in literacy, there is a lot of work to be done before we understand the optimal age to begin teaching reading. However, from what I have read, I would conclude, at the very least, that staring earlier does not provide an advantage over starting at age six or seven. 

In next week’s post I will write about what happens in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms that incorporate reading instruction and those that do not. Specifically, I will explore how children spend their time and consider the development of skills - other than literacy - that typically take place during these early childhood years. 

*Feel free to email me additional references on this topic!


Neuman, S. B., & Dickenson, D. K. (Eds.) (2011). Handbook of early Literacy, Vol. 3. The Guilford Press: New Yok, NY.

Paton, G. Starting school at age seven ‘can boost pupil’ reading skills. The Telegrpah. June 24, 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9289480/Starting-school-at-seven-can-boost-pupils-reading-skills.html

Phillips, L. M., Norris, S. P., Mason, J. M. (1996). Longitudinal Effects of Early Literacy Concepts on Reading Achievement: A Kindergarten Intervention and Five-Year Follow-up. Journal of Literacy Research, 28, 173-195.

Suggate, S. P. (2009). School entry age and reading achievement in the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). International Journal of Educational Research, 48, 151-161.

Suggate, S. P., Schaughency, E. A., & Reese, E. (2012). Children learning to read later catch up to children reading earlier. Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

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.

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. 

Early Literacy

Katherine is often asked if she knows (or is learning) how to read. I do wish people would stop asking this question. It is starting to get awkward when she says “no” because they expect her answer to be “yes”. They look to me for an explanation - why isn’t your five-year-old reading? My answer is always the same: Katherine’s school begins reading instruction in first grade. This is a simple answer, but of course I have a lot more to say about it.

Every Monday this month I will post about Early Literacy… stop by and join in!