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How important are early reading skills in a child’s academic performance?
As a parent, I am constantly tricking myself into thinking that developmental milestones are important. I keep thinking that if my daughter doesn’t crawl soon enough that she won’t be a physically fit person. If she doesn’t recognize colors that there’s something wrong with her. Then I remember that I didn’t start talking until I was 3.
My mother took me to specialists. They thought I might be deaf. Then they thought I might have a mental disability. Then a specialist told them to quit worrying and that I would talk when I was ready. When I started talking, I skipped all of the stages before and started by talking in complete sentences. Some kids are just late bloomers. As parents, we need to stop worrying so much about developmental issues unless they’re serious. That cautionary tale out of the way, we need to help our children develop.
I would say that literacy is the number one indicator of future academic performance. Regardless of our increasing acceptance of non-book (and thus non-textual) learning, we will likely always be bound to text in a major way. I’m not saying that if a kid doesn’t start off as an advanced reader that he or she will fail and never make it to college. Conversely, I’ve had lots of student who were bookworms who didn’t pass my class, preferring instead to read some vampire novel under her (it’s always a her) desk.
I’d like to say something really classy and profound here like, “literacy is the currency of education,” but I’m not that kind of writer. Instead, I will retreat back into a cliché from ’80s and ’90s public service announcements and just blurt out “Reading is fundamental.” It’s true.
When we look at young children, we often get worried that they aren’t doing well reading those chapter books. We forget that literacy is also a multifaceted jewel. A student might not understand fiction very well, but might do really well with history, math, or any other discipline. We forget that fiction requires certain cognitive factors which are not present in other kinds of reading. As an example, there’s a reason why my wife does our taxes. It isn’t because I cannot do the math. I just have a rough time with filling out forms. Fiction? I can grok with the best.
When we look at the sum total of literacy, though, there is one thing which is highly interesting. There is a developmental stage which occurs late in elementary or early in junior high. It is a step in complexity. Some really good readers stumble on that step. I have lots of students who were doing well through elementary, decently through junior high, and completely flame out when they reached high school. Their parents get very upset with teachers because something changed, and their kid was doing so well before.
My best advice here is to go back to that earlier thought. We need to stop worrying so much about developmental issues. That doesn’t mean to give up or not to have expectations. Instead, I mean that we should calm down and do some thinking about how we can help our children. There are lots of programs out there, but that’s a tale for another night.
Daniel Kaplan is a high school teacher and is dedicated to lifelong learning. He has a master’s degree in literature and a minor in education. You can read more Quora posts here:
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