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.
“[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.