How Forcing Children to Read Before They're Ready Can Badly Backfire


How do we teach children the joy of reading? I’ll confess up front I am not a reading specialist, just an educator with 30 years of experience and a parent and grandparent of kids who love to read. And I’m concerned about the way the Common Core State Standards are promoting reading instruction by recommending the close reading technique for young children.

I’ll concede thatclose readingstrategy, in which children read a nonfiction passage several times to extract key concepts, can be a valid tool when used appropriately with children who are old enough. The process calls for readers to reflect on the meanings of new words and make inferences based on what they have read. But my intuition tells me that this is neither the best way to teach young kids to love reading nor a method that will close the infamous achievement gap in our schools. If children don’t derive any joy from reading, they will see reading as a chore rather than a lifelong pleasure. When this happens, everyone loses.

In a recent Washington Post blog, Valerie Strauss highlights a rather sad resignation letter from Susan Sluyter, a kindergarten teacher in the Cambridge Public Schools and an educator for over 25 years. It’s a must-read for anyone who is concerned about what is happening to 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds in our schools. Sluyter shares:

When I first began teaching more than 25 years ago, hands-on exploration, investigation, joy and love of learning characterized the early childhood classroom. I’d describe our current period as a time of testing, data collection, competition and punishment. One would be hard put these days to find joy present in classrooms….The overall effect of these federal and state sponsored programs is the corrosion of teacher morale, the demeaning of teacher authority, a move away from collaborating with teachers, and the creation of an overwhelming and developmentally inappropriate burden imposed on our children.

Truth in Education confirms that child development experts are rightfully worried about our inappropriate approach to teaching young children.

I, too, lament the loss of developmentally appropriate teaching practices for our youngest students, especially those who are more vulnerable, less privileged, and less likely to learn the joy of reading at home. Recently, parents of second graders in my economically and racially diverse community received a note, co-signed by their school principal and PTA, extolling the virtues of close reading. The underlying message was that the teachers needed to “challenge each child to reach high levels of academic performance and personal achievement" in reading. The note said, in part,

Our 2nd grade team has started a cycle of inquiry focusing on a reading strategy called close reading. The team, through observation and data analysis, noticed that students were challenged in the following areas: vocabulary and extended response, difficulties locating textual evidence when reading, and low stamina when reading and conversing about text. Throughout the remainder of the school year, the 2nd grade team will monitor the effects of their shift in teaching practices through data collection and observation. This is a very exciting process for our teachers.…

Once I got past the education-speak, I wondered if this process is as “exciting” for the 7-year-olds who are supposed to derive a love of reading through this method as it supposedly is for the adults teaching them. But then I remembered: enjoying reading is beside the point here. The real point is for them to learn to achieve, both academically and personally. (The cynic in me can’t help but wonder if this isn’t just not-so-cleverly disguised test prep, in anticipation of a reading/writing test to be given soon.)

Parents’ comments on a Facebook page where this letter was posted included worries about competent young readers who now felt stressed about reading. There were concerns voiced about children who had become resistant to reading altogether because, thanks to the close reading method, all of the pleasure has been removed. The page also included a link to a slideshow about close reading, sponsored by McGraw Hill Education, a textbook publisher.

That power point quickly lost my interest (no fun reading there), so I queued up a YouTube video to see what the technique really looks like in practice.

Watch the video for yourself and you may be inspired to ask: are these children or robots? What you’ll see is mainly a teacher giving direct instruction to a class of first-graders about a passage on kidney transplants as an example of friendship. The kids repeat his words like little parrots. Watching it, several questions came to my mind:

  1. Does the topic of kidney transplants seem appropriate for first-graders? Does such a procedure make sense to 6- and 7-year-olds? Should it?
  2. Is the child who says, “I respectfully disagree with you, Lindsay” for real? And should kids be encouraged to “respectfully” put down their classmates’ ideas? 
  3. Does every child have to recite, “The main idea of the story is about…” or repeat the question word for word before answering it? Why does every child have to stand up to speak? What about shy kids?
  4. Why does the teacher ignore the child who excitedly offers, “I know what [surgeons] do,” after the teacher tries to explain what transplants are? When other kids suggest looking up “transplant” in a dictionary, why does the teacher reply, “I don’t have a dictionary”? When a child says, “Yes, you do,” why does the teacher ignore him? Is it wrong to turn to a dictionary to understand a word in a book?
  5. Why does the teacher ignore raised hands with an instruction to “hold on” and continue lecturing the class? How does he know what the children understand if he doesn’t let them speak?
  6. Will children this young be able to transfer these skills to another unique reading?

Eventually, the teacher gives the kids the “right” answer after asking them to infer what “transplant” means from the reading. It is doubtful they could have done this themselves. Why? Because kids this age are not abstract thinkers, and most cannot make inferences well. Children can reason at a higher level when the information is familiar. But in this case, the concept of an organ transplant is not part of their typical experience and would probably not make sense to many of them.

Even more upsetting, the teacher is so wrapped up in deploying the close reading technique through his lecture that he ignores what is really meaningful to the children: talking about what friendship means to them. Instead of cultivating that aspect of the lesson, he continually pulls the students back to the text about the kidney transplant. Some of these young children can barely read; their focus should be on actually decoding the text, rather than being asked to infer what organ transplants are all about. In the three days the teacher spent on this text, I wonder how many important teachable moments like this he missed?

Like many aspects of our current educational policy, using the close reading technique with such young children puts too much emphasis on the end goal and too little on the most appropriate way to get there. The result of this approach is the developmentally inappropriate pushdown of curricula more suited to older children. If close reading of texts is important for college and high school, the thinking goes, let’s start teaching it in middle school. But wait! If we want children to be ready to do it in middle school, shouldn’t we just start in third grade? Or maybe we need to start in kindergarten so they are ready for third grade… Never mind: let’s just start in preschool so they’re reading by kindergarten.

It’s a foolish idea, one that would rarely be applied to other, non-academic milestones. For example: imagine you hope to have your child riding a two-wheeler by the time she is 6. Age 5 would be even better, and there is a kid down the block who did it at 4. So to reach your goal, you put your 18-month-old on a two-wheeler and ask her to work at it until she is 5 or 6. You skip the scoot toys and trikes and training wheels that are more developmentally appropriate because you believe that the more she practices riding that two-wheeler—even though she is neither physically nor cognitively ready to ride it—the sooner you might get to your goal.

Hopefully, most parents would agree this is absurd. It’s hard work and no fun for the child. And the kid who didn’t learn until he was 7 rides just as well as the one who learned at a younger age. (Watch a group of 10-year-olds riding bikes and try to pick out the one who learned earliest.)

Research consistently shows that child development is neither linear, nor can it be accelerated. Children develop at their own pace and the range of what is normal is broad. At age 7, some children are beginning to understand logical thought, but only in relationship to themselves and their world. Some will be closer to 10 or 12 years old when they can think this way. Yet, we delude ourselves that kids will “learn more” if we teach them close reading through direct group instruction in first grade.

This approach to teaching young children reading ignores everything we know about child development and how kids learn best. It transforms learning to read from a magical experience into a rote chore. And it ignores a simple truth: If children hate to read, they won’t read those texts closely when they are older. In fact, they won’t read them at all.

Here’s my thought about a more developmentally appropriate way to bring the joy of reading to young learners. Like adults, children will want to read about things that interest them and are in their developmental wheelhouse. They will learn more if the reading matches their natural interests and abilities. The problem occurs when curriculum more appropriate for an older child is pushed down so younger children will learn sooner and faster. Instead, how about making sure our 6-year-olds are motivated to read for the sheer joy it brings to their lives? How about allowing them to learn on their own terms?

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