Most people have the best intentions when they try to give their children a head start in an academic area. Academic competition begins at an earlier age than ever, with tests to get into pre-school and tracking programs starting in the early grades. Kids who get to the head of the class early in their lives tend to stay there. They get a reputation for being smart or gifted and the reputation sticks.
Since reading is the foundation of teaching and learning in our school system it makes sense that people would push the envelope to get their kids to read at an earlier and earlier age. And there are many stories of smart and successful people who say they were early readers. I am not against teaching children to read at an early age as much as I am against the side effects that so often accompany this behavior.
As a former elementary school teacher I have often had parents approach me about helping their children learn to read. If the child was already behind I would offer many tips and suggestions that could help catch the child up. But if the child was already reading above grade level I would usually counsel parents to be patient, back off, and make sure their child continues to enjoy reading.
Parents who try to teach their children to read too much too soon set up the real possibility that their kids will burn out. They might come to see reading as a chore. They might begin to feel that reading is a “parlor trick” and they might eventually resent performing this trick for family and friends. They may associate reading with stress rather than enjoyment and learning.
The danger exists that an early reader can get too advanced for school. Remember, unless you are going to homeschool, by age five capable teachers will be paid good money to teach your child how to read. A reading kindergardener will be bored while her classmates are rehearsing letter sounds and sight words. And good reading ability does not automatically qualify kids for gifted programs. Intelligence tests for such programs are based on more than reading ability.
It is relatively easy to teach children the sounds that letters make and how to combine them into words. it is also easy to get them to memorize “site words” at an early age. These two activities are reading, technically, but they don’t do much for reading comprehension. Early readers can give the illusion of reading proficiency, but in fact they may be understanding very little of what they are able to sound out or recite from memory. I have personally administered many reading tests that were technically flawless, but as soon as a comprehension question was asked the answer was only a blank stare.
My own daughter is a very smart 4-year-old, but my wife and I (both teachers) have not pushed her into reading. She loves books and hearing stories but the time for the nuts and bolts of reading will come later. I want her to develop a love of literature. If she does that she will certainly become a reader.
If you’d like to give your child an academic head start I suggest helping her develop social skills, critical thinking skills, and most importantly encourage a voracious desire to learn new things. Remember that the goal is to develop a life-long learner. Treat learning as a marathon, not a sprint.