Two skills are being focused on too early in a child’s journey into school.
The skills of reading and writing.
On my daughter’s first day of school as a nervous child of three, we were welcomed to Kindergarten (in Western Australia but known as PrePrimary in most other states of Australia). There was a printed activity on every desk. My husband noted the instructions of the activity to write their name using a tripod pen grasp. When our daughter grasped a pencil, too small for her developing hand, he encouraged her to hold it like the picture on the instruction sheet. With the voices of my OT colleagues and my own personal belief that development progression is critical to the well-being of a child, I fiercely told him to ignore the instructions on the desk and let her write her way.
(Internally, I was also freaking out. This did not bode well for the journey I wanted her to take in her first year of school).
We watched as she doodled some lines resembling some of the shapes in her name. As she moved on to colouring a picture, a teacher swooped over the top of our shoulders saying “Oh no, we hold our pen like this” while manipulating my child’s hand. I quietly stated, “please don’t correct my daughter’s pencil grasp – it is perfectly acceptable for her age”.
I would have liked to have had a more robust discussion. But the response I got made me realise this wasn’t going to encourage an amicable parent-teacher relationship.
I spent the next five years advocating against excessively high literacy expectations in every year. Meeting with teachers and administrators who used the throw-away lines – “it’s in the curriculum”, “other parents like our program”, and “other parents think we don’t work the kids hard enough”. The last was from the principal when I advised him I was removing my daughter from the school.
This all seemed to be coming from a weird perception that faster was better for reading and writing. The perception was so prevalent it made me question my own understanding of the learning journey needed to support long-term literacy goals.
The journey of letting children move through their developmental phases at the rate their brain and body needed.
The journey of developing big strong muscles through movement that eventually supports handwriting outcomes.
The journey of building an understanding of the meaning of words that adults use. The journey of using those words to express our ideas in increasingly complex ways.
The journey of building a huge pool of words we say when we talk. So eventually we can use those spoken words to make sense of written words and to express ideas in writing.
So, I committed to not turning my youngest child off reading by introducing it too early and too fast.
I refused to do reading logs with her (strong evidence this dilutes reading enjoyment).
I didn’t sign the IEP.
I skipped to the back of every report from school and read the comments about how she engaged in the learning process. I had zero interest in her “grades”.
But I had to reach out for reassurance from external sources. My teacher sisters, speech pathology gurus I admired such as Alison Clarke, and the actual research around learning to read and write. It was so hard to hold the line against what seemed endemic expectations and judgement of very young children.
My issue with too early an expectation for literacy?
Explicit teaching of literacy and phonics is not the most engaging process and takes motivation and effort from the child. Developmentally not all children reach this level of readiness at the same time. (Explicit teaching is also essential but not at the speed we are seeing in schools).
While some children can learn to read at an early age there is no evidence that this benefits them later in life. None!
Early introduction of literacy instruction means at a time when children are still developing their self-concept, they start to see a competition around literacy. Self-defeating doubt creeps in when they are at a different level to others (kids recognise that levels are in play regardless of how adults try to “hide” it with book group colours or special names). When they are not emotionally ready to understand that progress looks different for different people, they internalise a belief that they can’t read or write like X,Y, Z can. That’s when we lose them. That’s when they start opting out.
There is in fact, lots of evidence that instruction in academic skills too early, hijacks the child’s natural learning capacity. It undermines motivation. Our community needs to understand that for literacy and maths instruction – ‘early is worse’ when expected from a young child at a developmentally inappropriate time. Just because some can learn early doesn't make it ok to expect everyone to learn early.
It is mentally draining for parents and teachers to advocate against this push-down on a one-to-one basis. It is mentally damaging for children who need more time to learn. They are forced to catch up, catch up, catch up.
Year 9 literacy statistics will improve if school administrators embrace a developmental approach for the first four years of school.
But if the push-down mentality remains we will continue to see literacy in later years plummet as young children falsely buy into the message schools send them. That they can’t read, they can’t write and they can’t learn.
You know what contributes to this terrible outcome – grades for any child under the age of 8. Grades for children under the age of 8 describe developmental progression out of their personal control. Grades promote parental competition. They establish a false sense of achievement or failure unrelated to academic input or potential.
The interesting outcome of holding the line for developmental progression for my child. She suddenly didn’t need a literacy IEP in Year 4. The sad reality I see every day as a therapist is too many children in Years 4 and 5 believing it is too late for them to learn to read. Just when they are really just hitting their developmental window of readiness. If only our first years of school gave all children the opportunity to engage in big, complex body movements and rich conversations that establish the essential platform for improved longer-term literacy and numeracy outcomes.