Q.My daughter has been in preschool since she was 2 1/2 years old. I'm interested in teaching her to read before she enters kindergarten.
She is now 4 years old and I know when I read to her she is highly excited to learn how to read. I've gotten some information from a book about "raising a brighter child," but please advise me further. A.You're probably not going to like this advice very much: Slow down.
The book you cite -- not an Almanac favorite -- makes early teaching at home seem easy, right and almost compulsory for all good parents. This isn't so.
Your child may be one of the 1 to 3 preschoolers out of 100 who are so academically precocious that she can pick out words on billboards and signs and decipher simple books on her own. If that's the case, fine. You'll only have to help a little with offhand answers and perhaps take a few minutes to explain something, but basically your child will teach herself to read the way she taught herself to walk or talk.
Most children, however -- including others just as bright -- aren't interested in learning how to read until they are 6 or 7. They follow their own timetable, at a more normal pace. Their progress, like the born readers, will be based on their ability to learn concepts in a sequential fashion. Research has found the gap in this conceptual understanding is no more than two years all over the world, no matter how slow or advanced the culture of the country. Learning comes from within.
It's true that a normal 4-year-old can be pushed into reading, but why do it? She may be reading before everyone else in first grade, but by the third grade they'll catch up with her.
Moreover, early readers often keep their ability secret when they get to school. If they don't, they will seem different from everyone else and conformity is mighty important at this age. Or they don't say anything because they think the teacher may resent it if someone else has already done her job. Children are quick to catch nuances.
When we make unfair intellectual demands on our children, they'll pay a price. Studies show that children who are pushed to read early may not be such avid readers when they're older -- which is when it matters -- while their classmates who started slower may read often and spontaneously. If reading is going to be fun, the child must be able to relate the stories to her own experiences. It's not just a matter of decoding symbols. When it takes a shove to get a child to read, you'll find that reading may lose its attraction.
There can be other unfortunate effects.
Children who are urged to read early are apt to be more subdued, more withdrawn, even apathetic. This is how they resist when they think they're being taught to please the teacher (or the parent), rather than themselves.
Some experts (but not all) even think a child may develop learning disabilities if she learns to read before she can master basic arm and leg movements -- a matter of programming some circuits in the brain before others. Whether or not this is true is moot, but dance and gymnastics lessons do make it easier for learning disabled children to achieve in reading and writing by giving them a better sense of order and space.
You also can prepare your child for reading by encouraging her to climb and balance herself on a gym set and by teaching her phonics. A four-year British study found that the best readers (and spellers) were those who were taught their sounds before they went to school, particularly when it was combined with plastic letters. There's only one important caution: Don't even teach this to your little girl if you think she is bored by it or feels pressured, or if in your heart you think you might be doing it so she will make you proud.
As parents, we all want to give our children the best, but this sense of possession is a temptation to be fought. It's hard to remember that what is best for us may not always be best for them. Your child is neither an extension of yourself nor a toy, nor do her achievements belong to you. If you put her in that position, the lessons in reading will be full of tension and tears.
You don't want to jeopardize what's going well. Right now you have an eager reader, but perhaps this is because you're doing the reading. She knows books mean a lot to you and so they mean a lot to her. It's a good way to be with someone she loves.
If your little girl would tell you what she wanted more than anything else, it would be the time and attention of her parents.
She knows you're the only ones who can encourage her interests, her sense of responsibility, her love of adventure, her delight in games, her aptitude for sports, her interest in the arts, her extraordinary curiosity.
It's her curiosity that will carry her into a thousand fascinating adventures -- including reading -- but only if it isn't suppressed by unnecessary do's and don'ts.
She has so much to learn, so much to do, and you're the ones to teach her. Learning to read is among the least in her young life.