Early Literacy – is Early Important?

There is an interesting article on early literacy on the Pacific Standard written by Janet Hopson (contributor to Scientific American, Smithsonian, and Psychology Today) titled: “Infant Intelligentsia: Can Babies Learn to Read? And Should They?” It is a very long article but a very good read (if you care to take the time to go through it, otherwise you can read the general conclusion I have derived from it below). There are a lot of articles about infant reading – whether it’s good, whether it’s bad, whether it’s possible, etc. This article gives a well-balanced view to the whole argument putting forward the science, the misconstrued beliefs, and the bottom line.

So what’s the bottom line?

Early Literacy: Early readers are smarter later in life

Early literacy

Although children who learn to read from age 6 onwards are not necessarily doomed to be mediocre readers or possibly even be susceptible to dyslexia, they are still disadvantaged compared to children who learn to read earlier (during the critical period for developing spoken language, that is, from birth to age 6). Early readers end up being smarter later in life because:

“A fast start to reading unlocks an upward spiral of skills, achievement, positive attitudes, and willing practice. Conversely, a slow start tends to touch off difficulty, discouragement, dislike, and avoidance.”

From: Early Reading Acquisition and Its Relation to Reading Experience and Ability 10 Years Later (Developmental Psychology: 1997, Vol. 33, No. 6, 934-945)

And here’s the critical paragraph highlighting the reason why:

The early reader’s steady ascent can explode into a towering geyser of literacy because, Cunningham explains, reading is largely self-taught and begets its own mastery. Only through reading—not listening to talk—can a youngster expand his or her mental lexicon enough to allow truly fluid reading, with its rapid line-by-line scanning and its effortless absorption of meaning. Cunningham and Stanovich cite earlier statistics showing that a fifth grader in the lowest percentiles for time spent reading typically devotes less than a minute per day to independent reading and encounters 21,000 written words in a year. A classmate at the 50th percentile will spend an average of about five minutes per day reading independently and encounter 282,000 written words. A fifth-grader at the 98th percentile will spend more than an hour a day and input almost 4.4 million words that reinforce the mental dictionary. “Those who read a lot will enhance their verbal intelligence,” write Cunningham and Stanovich, “that is, reading will make them smarter.” And, they add, this goes for good readers and struggling readers alike.

Twin studies from Edinburgh and King’s College London following 1,890 pairs of identical twins over nine years found that the children who were better at reading had “higher general intelligence and were more adept at spotting patterns, observing trends and completing pictures“.

Study Source: Does Learning to Read Improve Intelligence? A Longitudinal Multivariate Analysis in Identical Twins From Age 7 to 16 – Child Development (2015)

Promoting Early Literacy

So what can parents do to help their children get started on the road to early literacy?

  • read actively to their children daily
  • play simple alphabet and phonics games

BUT!

Don’t pressure! A child who feels pushed into early reading and senses parental impatience or disapproval could become discouraged. Far worse than reading at a later age would be missing out altogether on the wonder and fountain of learning that reading brings.

In other words, do it as a fun activity in a pressure-free environment. Do it as a way to spend more quality time with your child and don’t worry about whether your child is picking up any of it because (s)he will (as long as you don’t obsess about it).

Early Literacy: Handwriting Practice helps Reading

Early literacy

There was also another point that the article highlighted that I thought was very interesting. It is the question regarding writing skills. In this day and age of technology, it is easy to overlook handwriting skills because it seems almost unnecessary now, but learning how to write letters can help reading skills.

“French cognitive scientist Stanislas Dehaene and others have been methodically scanning kids and grown-ups to see where the ability to read resides in the brain. Dehaene nicknamed a region in the left hemisphere’s visual cortex “the brain’s letterbox.” In a fluent reader, this small area recognizes strings of letters, then rapidly signals to nearly a dozen other left-brain areas. The result is the lightning-fast decoding of letter and word sounds but also the retrieval of word meanings from a potentially vast mental dictionary. Readers need phonics to sound out unfamiliar words, but they also need vocabulary and general world knowledge to comprehend text. Recent research by Karin James at Indiana University also shows that a learner’s “letterbox” works most actively while printing letters, not just recognizing ABC’s or touching them on an iPad. This, James explains, is because the child must imagine each letter mentally before creating it on paper.

The paper by Karin James is rather technical. For an easier read, you might like to check out this article instead: How Handwriting Trains the Brain by Gwendolyn Bounds.

So there you have – learn to read early and practice handwriting.

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