For the past four and a half years, since my now 7 year old daughter started attending nursery, I am puzzled by some aspects of American educational system. In particular, I do not understand the need to start as early as required. I might have blogged about this before, but as my now second child is in preschool, my perspective has not changed much, quite the contrary. The more I see and know, the more puzzled I get, and the firmer I believe that something is seriously wrong.
A bit of a perspective. I am a product of a Soviet educational system. From everything I know, Soviet system resembled most educational systems in Europe. We started school pretty late by American standards - 7. While there was 1 year of preschool, it was not mandatory (though most attended). The preparatory for school work consisted of the last two months in the year teaching us how to use glue and scissors and count. That was about it. A good number of students - and my pool might be a bit skewed as I went into a specialized school with children more academically gifted or who had well connected parents - have been taught at home how to read before they started first grade.
In my case, I have absolutely no recollection when and how I learned to read. I just know that I could some time around 6. The family tradition states that it was my grandmother who taught me during a summer vacation I spent with her. I am stressing the point of not remembering learning to read to point out how painless the process was. I am sure that if it had been very hard, I would have some recollection, as I do about other things, which happened at the same time of my life. Funny enough, quite a few people with the background similar to mine, also have no recollection of learning how to read. I am hardly unique. Those who learned how to read at school, did this rather quickly. Alphabet was introduced in September, and by winter time we were reading stories. Those who had problems reading were just reading slower than expected, not unable to recognize letters or sounds they made. By the end of the first grade, everyone could read, albeit at different speeds. Being an avid reader was source of pride.
Now enter American schooling system. The mandatory age of school enrollment in the state of New York is 5. Being enrolled in some form of preschool since 3 is almost universal. And while in the USSR all we did at that age was playing in the sandbox and having story times, here a three year old is starting a serious preparatory work of getting ready for school. Abilities to sit (one of the most important skills here), listen, pay attention, hold a pen or pencil properly, and draw within the outline get stressed all the time. This is also the time when alphabet and numbers are introduced. Among many other topics. Being ready for school is stressed beyond belief to the parents of the 3 and 4 year olds. Child's inability to recognize letters at 4 is considered a major problem. And I can't blame pre schools for being overly ambitious because schools expect this level of preparedness from kids as young as 3.
And I know this from the personal experience. My daughter started learning alphabet before she turned 3. At four she went to a pre-school, affiliated with the school of our choice. She had a hard time sitting through a circle time. She had a hard time memorizing letters. The concept of a letter representing a certain sound was very hard to grasp for her for the first half of the school year. My very bright, independent daughter was a candidate for being left behind. Eventually we realized that the problem lay not only in my daughter's ability, but also in the teaching style. (The teacher, in her all-American attempt not to discourage the child, gave the same cute reaction to both right and wrong answers. So DD, who at home had a 90% success rate in letter recognition, could barely recognize half the letters when asked by her teacher. The kid figured that being wrong was cute, and cute is important to many four year old girls.) I knew there was nothing wrong with our child. After all, I did not recognize letters at 4 either. Nevertheless, we went through the entire evaluation by the Board of Ed, at the teacher's recommendation, only to hear from every specialist that the child is either hitting her milestones or exceeding the average.
At the same time, I started doing some independent research on the net. I had looked over many, many articles on child development, and none of them listed letter recognition as an important milestone until 5, most were listing the age of 6 and 7. Quite a few thought that most children younger than 6 are not developmentally ready to be taught alphabet, and introducing material too early is not only of little benefit, quite often it is harmful. I am talking about articles written by child psychologists, not entries by mommy bloggers like myself.
So what do we have here? Child psychologists feel that teaching how to read (and write, and count) before the age of 6 is useless and potentially harmful. Parents who are frantic that their child is an educational failure even before the child starts first grade and consumed with guilt that they haven't done enough to prevent this. Children who are stuffed with material they are not ready to comprehend at the expense of playing and spending time outside of a classroom. So why do schools and the Board of Ed are pushing reading so early? What is the rush? Who is gaining from this system, which is ill-suited for everyone involved?
As I said, I often ponder that question. When I see my 5 year old son having a hard time with alphabet, and every night we do homework reminds me of Lenin's "One step forward, two steps back." When I hear my co-worker describe the horrors of doing math with his otherwise very able 5 year old daughter, who simply cannot grasp the concept of addition just yet. When I see how my daughter, who not only caught on, but is now one of the best readers in her class, is not attempting to read anything on her own, beyond classroom assignments. When I hear and read the same complaints from parents pretty much anywhere I go: shabbat lucnhes, PTAs, afterschool acitivities, blogging or Facebook. When I calculate that the skill it took me and my peers only months to acquire, is taking my children 3 years on average. When I wonder whether high school drop out rate has anything to do with starting too much and too early and killing the interest in learning before it has a chance to develop. When I hear that the Board of Ed once again stresses the importance of 3 R's and considers standardized tests and introduction of these subjects at an even earlier age.
P.S. I am not trying to put down the entire American educational system here. I am also not trying to show Soviet system as the ideal. G-d knows, there were many things in that system I wouldn't want my children to experience. What I am suggesting is following our children's best interests and educating them at the good time for them. For some kids it would be learning to read at home, because they are ready earlier than their peers. For most, starting later than 4. Much later. And what should they do in preschool between the ages of 4 and 6? Let them play in the sandbox.