Bethan Marshall: Children are not helped by reading too early

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In Sweden you will be at least seven, in Germany possibly the same, and in Finland you may be as old as eight. In England though you will be six or you will be in serious trouble, according to the Tories in a recent policy statement. I am, of course, talking about the age you learn to read. It seems that in England we are obsessed with the age at which you can decode these specks on the page print whether it be good as it was in 2001 or not so good, as was announced last week. In fact we are so keen on being literate that we start children early, at a mere four years of age, despite evidence that it doesn't always work.

Hungary, for example, according to a 2006 study, has a very high literacy rate for children and they start to teach pupils to read at least two years after our poor scraps have been grappling with letters of the alphabet. A report, which came out a few years ago, suggested that theirs was a sensible course to follow. Literacy, it claimed, can come too early and it is better to teach children to play and be sociable than it is to try and din into them a skill that could and should come later.

The chief inspector of schools at the time, Chris Woodhead, thought this a spurious report and recommended that children should be taught the basics of reading and writing from the age of four. We can only assume that he thought two years of practice, before anyone else had started, would give our little ones an advantage. He ignored the fact that it taught pupils that school was all about reading; that if you could not read immediately, even at four, you knew you were at a disadvantage, and that possibly you increased problems in reading by starting so early. There is some evidence, for example, that the eye formation, in boys in particular, is not yet fully developed and that the risk of dyslexia is increased.

Little has changed. Politicians argue and grapple with the finer details of how a child should be taught to read but they do not really disagree as to the age. The Conservatives thought, for example, that synthetic phonics was a fine method of teaching children to read and said so in their manifesto. Then Labour won the election and believed it was a good idea as well.

So synthetic phonics became the nation's new reading scheme. Out with look and say a method of memorising words; farewell to analytic phonics another way of teaching the sounds of letters this time by rhyme, and goodbye any combination of the two, or three if you add in aspects of synthetic phonics. Most teachers used the last of these a blend of all three methods because they found different children approached reading differently. In other words not all children learnt to read in the same way.

But from this term, our nation's four-year-olds have been chanting out letter sounds, then groups of letters and, finally, words before being introduced to books. Tiny children are forming the 44 phonemes, the sounds of the English language, until they have mastered them. Only then are they able to look at carefully selected texts. These they are looking at a year or so before almost everybody else in the world.

Of course other countries are also neurotic about children learning to read, particularly the United States. There they have introduced legislation under the title No Child Left Behind. Again the mantra is that no one is to be left illiterate. It targets those children that the system thinks are struggling. These pupils have a programme that is, at best, repetitive and, at worst, damaging to their desire to read, but it does vary from state to state. Even these pupils, however, are older than their English counterparts.

Most children in this country learn to read fine. By the age of 11 they get a level four or above, in the national curriculum tests that are set for children of that age, an indication that their reading is adequate or better. But a substantial minority do not. It may be that we require too much too young. Indeed some of the pupils who achieve a level four may also feel inadequate about their reading ability or have given up on reading for pleasure the ultimate aim of being literate.

The 2006 study showed that reading for pleasure outweighed every social advantage, including a parent's income, in the future success of the child. It showed too that children in this country scored low on this indicator. Perhaps it means that we should concentrate less on whether a child can read and more on whether or not they like it.

The writer is senior lecture in education at King's College London

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