Relax, Parents: It’s Okay If Your 5-Year-Old Doesn’t Read, And Here's Why

by Jessica Smock
Originally Published: 
5-Year-Old kid sitting in the library and reading a book
FatCamera / iStock

Comedian Crystal Lowery recently shared on Facebook why she wasn’t teaching her 5-year-old kid to read.

She wrote:

“Don’t get me wrong, we read him books all the time. We’ve imagined ourselves in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and we’re 170 pages into Harry Potter’s Chamber of Secrets. We’re teaching him to enjoy stories, to get lost in characters.

“But we’re not teaching him how to read. Not just yet. He’s too busy learning other things.”

She explained a little bit about what those “other things” she’s helping her son learn are: how to be a good sport, how to build, how to take care of his stuff, how to forgive and apologize, how to study animals, how to try new things without getting frustrated, how to make friends.

In short, a lot of things that can’t be taught using any phonics worksheet, flashcard, or spelling drill.

She’s received a great deal of support for her position, as well as much criticism.

Turns out people have a lot of strong feelings about when kids should start reading and what it means when young children can’t.

I know a little bit about this because a year ago I wrote my own viral-ish post about why I did not want my son to read in kindergarten. I have a doctorate in educational policy, but I still knew very little about how dramatically our expectations for our youngest students in schools have risen in just a decade or so, particularly in relation to reading and literacy. I was shocked and saddened.

Explaining why I decided to wait a year before sending my son to kindergarten, I wrote: “My son is not ready for kindergarten in 2016. Kindergarten — which means ‘garden for children’ in German — is not kindergarten anymore. It’s yesterday’s first grade, or even second. Kindergarten’s academic standards are dramatically more rigorous than even a decade ago (‘find textual evidence’; ‘read texts with purpose and understanding’; ‘distinguish between similarly spelled words by identifying the sounds of the letters that differ’).”

A 2014 study from the University of Virginia compared kindergarten teachers’ expectations for their students in 1998 to today. The differences were striking. In 1998, 31% of teachers thought that kindergarten students should be able to read by the end of the year. By 2010, that figure was now about 80%.

My post was republished by the Huffington Post and Washington Post, among others, and shared tens of thousands of times. Like Crystal Lowery, I was told by many commenters and in angry emails from many others that not teaching my 5-year-old to read was ignorant and abusive and would cause him to suffer academically for years to come.

Do you know who wrote the most supportive comments to both my article and Crystal’s piece? Teachers, administrators, early childhood experts, and researchers. Because they have seen and studied how different our kindergarten classrooms are from a generation ago, when kindergarten focused mostly on precisely the sorts of socialization and coping skills that Lowery is teaching her son.

Here’s the thing: We aren’t doing our kids any favors by keeping them from spending most of their day engaged in play, by forcing little kids to read before many of them are developmentally ready, and by adopting curricula for our schools that ignore what early childhood experts know about how young children learn best.

Here’s why no parent should panic if a child isn’t reading in kindergarten and why no parent should judge another parent if they want to wait before teaching their kid to read:

It’s developmentally normal for kids to learn to read at a wide range of ages.

We all know that children reach developmental milestones at different ages. Just as it’s developmentally normal for a baby to learn to walk at 9 months or at 15 months, there’s a huge range of what’s “normal” for when kids begin to read. You can’t force a baby to walk at 10 months, and similarly you can’t force a young child to read if her brain isn’t ready.

Research demonstrates that kids who learn to read earlier ultimately end up no better off than ones who learn to read late.

Late readers catch up by age 9 or 10. In many countries, such as Finland, students are not taught any formal academics until age 6 or 7. Yet even accounting for differences in socioeconomic status, these countries outpace ours in academic achievement.

Play and exploration are the most efficient and effective ways for young minds to grow.

They form the foundation upon which academic skills should later be built. Research consistently shows that kindergarten-aged children should be engaged in active, hands-on play. As Erika Christakis, early childhood researcher and writer, states, “It’s naive to assume that meaningful learning is actually happening in high-pressure, worksheet-laden classrooms where teachers tightly control the content and pacing of instruction. Decades of research suggest the opposite: Children are little learning machines, true, but they gain all the complex skills in crucial cognitive zones in joyful classrooms full of informal conversation and playful exploration.”

We need to abandon the idea that childhood is a race. We need to stop pushing formal academics on younger and younger children.

As Lowery writes, “And though someday his hours will be filled with phonics, and penmanship, and fractions, we aren’t worried about all that today. Today he has more important things to learn.”

My own son starts kindergarten next week. I think he’ll do just fine, with an extra year of play and fun under his belt.

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