Public elementary schools are federally mandated to teach reading almost from Day 1. But private schools in New York, many of which sent out their admissions decisions on Friday, set their own curriculums, and even some of the most prestigious choose not to teach reading until first grade or later. So as more and more children are being encouraged to read before they are out of Pull-Ups, these schools’ deliberate approach is causing friction.
At the Calhoun School, also on the Upper West Side, Steve Nelson, the head of school, said a week rarely went by without a parent expressing fears about the pace. “Those who get anxious think that education is like a race and you’ve got to get running fast, and if you don’t you’re going to fall behind and then you’re going to lose the race,” he said. “That’s not the right way to look at education.”
At Allen-Stevenson, an all-boys private school on the Upper East Side, tasks like decoding, or putting letter sounds together to figure out how to pronounce words, start in first grade — even for students already able to read, said David R. Trower, the headmaster. In kindergarten, the children do what educators call pre-reading or reading-readiness activities: listening to books read aloud, name-writing or making up stories.
The school speaks pointedly about its approach in each admissions interview and in open houses, to avoid clashes with parents who think “my kid is really good at this and I want him to move faster and I want him to get more,” Mr. Trower said.
“That kind of approach is pressured in my view,” he continued. “There’s enough of it to follow in their lives.”
Schools like Calhoun and Allen-Stevenson point to studies showing that early reading does not necessarily guarantee future success. “Being able to decode words is not a direct line to heightened I.Q.,” said Dr. Stephen Sands, a pediatric neuropsychologist and assistant professor at Columbia University Medical Center. “Reading is part of academic achievement, but intelligence is part of a different dynamic.”
And small children who can read are not necessarily comprehending the text they rattle through, said Peggy McNamara, a reading and literacy specialist at Bank Street College of Education on the Upper West Side. Language-rich environments, like classrooms where children must speak in full sentences or are asked to make up their own tales, are what foster learning, she said, not the ability to breeze through “Hop on Pop.”
These arguments are not stopping the steady push toward earlier reading, with some preschools like Garden House and several Montessori programs specializing in producing tiny bookworms. Junior Kumon, which offers reading and math instruction to children ages 3 to 5, says its enrollment in young reading classes has tripled to more than 6,000 since it opened in New York City in 2007.
Dr. Jane Ruman, a fertility specialist whose daughter Annamaria Bacchetta, 4, takes weekly Junior Kumon reading and math classes after preschool, sees early reading as a pre-emptive measure. Annamaria is applying to private schools this year, even some that wait to teach reading. “I don’t have to worry that my child will get left behind if she’s not quite up to that non-interventional education,” Dr. Ruman said.
She also echoed the belief of some parents that the ability to read will bolster her child’s chances of being admitted to a top school. Officials of some of these schools insist that this is not so, and the E.R.B., the standardized test required by most for admission, does not have a reading component.
“It’s not as though we have two extra points for reading Dr. Seuss,” said Mr. Trower, the head at Allen-Stevenson.
Calhoun goes further: If a family seemed fixated on Junior’s uncanny ability to read James Joyce, Mr. Nelson said, “that would probably be a liability in our admissions decision.”
It's fascinating to see how at many elite public schools, socialization and imagination take precedence in kindergarten while in the public schools, reading by rote and test prep drills take precedence.
The parents who aren't smart enough to know that teaching reading at age 2 doesn't ensure Little Johnny is going to be a genius can send their kids to the schools that focus on early reading all they want.
There is enough research to suggest that the children who spend the earlier years focusing on imagination, creativity and socialization will bypass the children who got the test prep and drills and develop into more well adjusted, socially and emotionally adept human beings who can take the vicissitudes of life with aplomb.
Unlike the children who were taught that life is a "race" and OMIGOD, YOU'RE FALLING BEHIND!!!!! YOU'RE TWO AND YOU CAN'T READ!!!!! WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU!!!!"