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Teaching Toddlers to Read? Not Always a Good Idea, Say Some Maryland Educators

Teaching toddlers to read before kindergarten is a trend among parents increasingly concerned with giving their children a leg up, educators say.

Some suburban Maryland educators are concerned that parents are teaching children to read too early, and the practice has some youngsters lacking other skills--like how to hang up their coats–by kindergarten.

Lynda Potter, head of the primary school at in Ellicott City, is among those who have noticed the trend. She said it comes as parents look to position their children “so they’ll be a star.”

“Parents have been highly successful,” Potter said. “Now they have a child that is their next project--to make them as perfect as their other projects.”

Potter said some reading instruction at home, such as that provided by programs such as  Hooked on Phonics, can be superficial learning, and other skills are not being taught.

"Sometimes we tend to overprotect our children, don't make them put on a coat, put away toys," she said. "Most of our pre-K come in without the ability to put coats on, knowing how to hang them up."

The boom in teaching toddlers how to read comes amid a torrent of products aimed at doing just that. LeapFrog’s $24.99 Leaptop, which looks like a mini-laptop and is targeted to children ages 2 to 4, is designed to teach toddlers how to use e-mail, explore the alphabet and download music for a custom playlist, according to the company’s website.

Another company, Your Baby Can Read, sells a television kit for $199.99 that includes flash cards and interactive videos aimed at babies.

The push for increased reading skills among toddlers is occurring as children spend less time at home with parents. Moms and Dads are, instead, enrolling children in school programs at younger ages, said Karen Wootton, admission and financial aid director at Glenelg.

“I think parents misunderstand what the term ‘reading’ really means,” she said. “Some children can memorize books at a young age, and it appears they are reading. Some children can decode the words …. but they can’t comprehend the main ideas of what they are reading.”

Patricia Appel, a learning specialist at Glenelg's primary school, said that many times, if pre-kindergarten children learn a word, it's simply a picture they’re internalizing.

"Then, as they enter school, it's almost re-learning," she said. "We still have to back them up and teach them phonics and syntax."

She added that with early readers, teachers try to even out the other skills the children need to be successful in the classroom.

"This year we have two pre-kindergarten boys who can't hold a pencil and write but read at a first-grade level," she said. "We try to boost up the areas that are weaker to make a child more balanced."

Tara Carey, a Columbia parent, is among those who made teaching her toddler how to read a priority.

She said her son, Micah, 4, could recognize some words at about 18 months and LeapFrog and other electronic toys taught him some phonics and word sounds.

Carey, who is considering home-schooling, said she’s worked to make sure her efforts with Micah are part of his play and aren’t onerous.

For example, she said she points out words as they are reading books and uses flash cards with pictures of common household items and the word corresponding to it.

“Kids are great at memorizing,” she said, “but we try to tie that in with understanding language rules and phonics, and make it fun for him. It’s so competitive here. I have friends with [young] kids in private school with tutors, and I think, ‘Oh my goodness. A bit much.’

“I want education to be fun for him…. He’ll let me know if it’s too much. He’ll give me the wrong answer as a game.”

The inclination among parents to teach toddlers to read varies among school districts.

Stephanie Dale, the supervisor of elementary reading and language arts in the Carroll County school district, said she doesn’t see parents pushing their toddlers too hard in advance of kindergarten.

By mid-kindergarten, children are essentially expected to be able to recognize all of their letters and many sounds, she said.

Experts advise concerned parents to read to children from birth, work on phonics and sounding out letters, and play rhyming games in the car, she said.

“I would not say, ‘Stay away from it’ [teaching your toddler to read] for sure,” she said. “But I also think it needs to be child-by- child. As a parent, you can sense what your child is ready for. If you sense frustration, then you need to back off a bit.”

Dana Tofig, spokesperson for the Montgomery County school district, also said early pressure for reading is not an overwhelming issue in Montgomery County. He said if parents want to “go the extra mile” and teach their pre-kindergarteners sight words (words that children don’t sound out, such as “the”), he has no objections.

“But when they get to kindergarten, they get a comprehensive education,” he said.We certainly have students with differing levels. Some come into kindergarten reading. Some are still developing the skills. What makes our teachers outstanding is they are able to differentiate that instruction for different kinds.”

Zibby Andrews, head of the lower division schools at , a private school in Owings Mills that serves students from around the region, said she’s seen more parents try to teach 3 and 4-year-olds how to read.

Her response?

“[An] early reader is not a better reader,” she said. “If you’re taking away the time of reading great literature and spending it on sight words, it’s not going to hurt anybody, but there are only 24 hours in a day. And, if you’re going to help a child to read, the best thing to do is read good literature. Parents don’t realize how much vocabulary kids get from great picture books.”

Appel said the best thing parents can give their babies and toddlers is a lot of face-to-face time and a lot of talking and reading, but with parents doing the reading.

"The impact of reading to a child is better than any program to show them at 2 or 3," she said, explaining that parents can talk to their children about how characters feel and develop, as well as set a good example themselves by reading books, rather than simply being plugged into to their own electronic devices.

Read Aloud Dad February 20, 2011 at 12:17 PM
Great advice. I wholeheartedly agree with this: " the best thing to do is read good literature". This will help instill a desire to read in your kids. And from there, it is much easier. Read Aloud Dad www.ReadAloudDad.com
Simon Morrison February 20, 2011 at 11:36 PM
What caring parents are realising the (English speaking) world over is that if they don't teach their children the basics they can't be at all sure anybody else will. That is the hard truth of the matter. When I went to school in the fifties in the uk my parents could be absolutely sure that I would come out of primary school literate and numerate. This is not the case now ANYWHERE in the English speaking world - neither in state nor in private schools. The stats are simply appalling compared to Russia or China or even little Singapore. There is a brief opportunity to MAKE SURE yourself that your child WILL be literate and numerate and that is when they are pre-school toddlers. I taught my own daughter to read(10 minutes a day) when she was just two and as a a result she won a bursary, has always been interested in literature and is now a lawyer. Had I not done that - well, I don't dare think about it...
Tamsyn February 21, 2011 at 05:36 AM
I know several mothers who have taught their children to read early. None of them were pressuring their children or trying to give them a leg up. We just want to help our children reach their full potential. The children love it. Hmm. What is the logic behind the argument that if you teach your child to read, they will somehow not be able to hang their coats up in kindergarten? So what if they are don't comprehend all that they are reading as tiny children? I don't understand everything that I read, and no one challenges my literacy. Reading is great for vocabulary growth. Tamsyn Spackman www.professional-mothering.com
P. Appel February 21, 2011 at 12:27 PM
Great posts! To be fair, the question posed was do all parents of toddlers need to teach their children to read before kindergarten? The concern expressed was that today's parents are feeling pressured to do so and worry that their child may not be successful in life if he/she is not an early reader. It is important that parents take the lead from their child when it comes to learning to read, while being careful to schedule time for playing, reading aloud, and promoting the overall development of the whole child. To clarify, our point was that in this busy world parents should know that it is not necessary for their child to enter a kindergarten program as a reader. In fact, some experts claim that it could be better in the long run if they are not taught to read early. The debate and research on that topic will continue. In the meantime, while acknowledging that each child 's developmental timeline will differ, we should consider recent research that says young children still need physical play and experiences to build critical neurological pathways within their still-developing brains. When time is limited, swinging, skipping, and playing together may be a more productive use of time together than practicing flashcards. Here's one interesting recent article on that topic that provides food for thought. http://www.youandyourchildshealth.org/youandyourchildshealth/articles/teaching%20academics.html P. Appel
Grandma January 07, 2013 at 04:26 AM
I am a mother of 4 grown children now at different universities, and taught them how to read early. I was not trying to create a star of give them a leg up. I personally believe that my children are successful now in their education because they learned the amazing concept of reading early. I did not allow them to scribble in reading books with crayons, or rip them up. They were provided coloring books, and knew the difference early. Now, I am a grandmother and am teaching my 2 year old grandson his alphabet. My daughter told me that she can learn anything because she was to taught to love reading, and how to understand it. That is just my personal experience. Reading opens up a door to children that gives them the freedom to go anywhere by themselves. Even early picture books do that. Why would we want to wait if the child is capable? As for time to play, well of course. But can't they do both?

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