Governments approach to early reading may not be evidence based


 Dr Richard House, co-founder of the Open Eye campaign which opposes recent reforms to the Early Years Foundation Curriculum, claiming it is not based on empirical evidence and may even harm young childrens development, will be among those who draw some comfort from recent research published by the University of Otago, in New Zealand

.A University of Otago researcher, Dr Sebastian Suggate, claims to have uncovered for the first time quantitative evidence that teaching children to read from age five is not likely to make that child any more successful at reading than a child who learns reading later, from age seven. Starting in 2007, Dr Suggate conducted one international and two New Zealand studies, each one backing up the conclusions of the other; that there is no difference between the reading ability of early (from age five) and late (from age seven) readers by the time those children reach their last year at Primary School by age 11. Comparing children from Rudolf Steiner schools, who usually start learning to read from age seven, and children in state-run schools, who start learning to read at five, he found that the later learners caught up and matched the reading abilities of their earlier-reading counterparts by the time they were 11, or by Year 7.Significantly perhaps Steiner schools in the UK have sought exemption from the controversial new Early Years Foundation curriculum.

Dr Suggate is challenging head on the previously unscientifically tested and widely held view that children should learn to read from age five, In three years of studies, involving regular surveys of around 400 New Zealand children, he found no statistical evidence of any advantage in reading from the earlier age of five.

 Most worrying, bearing in mind recent changes to the curriculum in this country and a new push to encourage earlier reading in our children, he could not find any quantitative controlled study within the English-speaking world to ascertain whether later starting readers were at an advantage or disadvantage. He found only one methodologically weak study conducted in 1974, but nothing since that time. Yet people regularly insist that early reading is integral to a child’s later achievement and success.

He admits to being surprised, therefore, by his own findings that this is not the case. “One theory for the finding that an earlier beginning does not lead to a later advantage is that the most important early factors for later reading achievement, for most children, are language and learning experiences that are gained without formal reading instruction,” says Dr Suggate. “Because later starters at reading are still learning through play, language, and interactions with adults, their long-term learning is not disadvantaged. Instead, these activities prepare the soil well for later development of reading.” “This research then raises the question; if there aren’t advantages to learning to read from the age of five, could there be disadvantages to starting teaching children to read earlier (at age 5). In other words, we could be putting them off,” he says. “This research emphasises to me the importance of early language and learning, while de-emphasising the importance of early reading,” he says. “In fact, language development is, in many cases, a better predictor of later reading, than early reading is. Secondly, this research should prompt educationalists, teachers and parents to reconsider what is important for children at age six or seven to learn, and third, it may give heart to parents whose children have initial difficulty learning to read. The picture is more complicated than simply early mastery of reading skills.”

The Academic world is badly split about approaches to early years learning.

The Government has long claimed that its approach to early years learning is based on sound scientific evidence and is supported by most experts, although the Open Eye campaign contests this.

 What is clear is that other countries higher up the international education league tables have different approaches. This research surely suggests that in some respects at least the Governments current approach is not based on clear scientific evidence. This is worrying

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