No Reading Until You Are 7 Years Old!

- the 4 Reasons Early Reading Hurts Your Child’s Chance of Success (Part I)

You think I’m joking, don’t you? I know, I’ve cried wolf before, but this is serious and real. I have a rant about Early French Immersion and the potential to interfere with deep language acquisition and facility and now neuroscience is showing that early reading (before about age 7 or 8 also has the possibility to mess up long-term reading success.)

I’ve discovered a new, smart neuropsychologist. The link to the right, is her Psychology Today blog. (Yes, that Psychology Today.) I’m going to distil a little bit of what she says about the dangers of early reading and add a little about what I know. Check out her article for her perspective.

In terms of the enthusiasm parents have for Early French Immersion, like early reading, the studies to suggest that it offers any long-term advantages are inadequate. Yes, they exist, but look at them carefully. Early, early (like in infancy) acquisition of two languages, like hearing your parents speak to you in Hindi and English will grant you brain benefits.

As the infant brain develops, neural pathways are more “pruned” than grown – although both words are necessary to describe the process. When the baby hears only one language, the pathways that exist for hearing and making other types of sounds atrophy without stimulation. It is why, to this day, rolling my ‘r’s is so difficult for me. However, once a child is talking the most important wiring is syntactic.

Syntactic? What?

Syntax describes how our language is put together. Why we raise our voices at the end of a question; the rhythm of adverbs following or preceding verbs; how every sentence has a subject and a verb. Even the youngest speakers “know” this about English: “Me want,” with elaborative pointing. “Kitty sneeze,” followed by rollicking laughter.

As children acquire greater command of English, their sentences increase in sophistication. At about 6 to 8 years old this sophistication deepens. A typical grade 2 student will find puns and jokes endlessly amusing. They have become powerful users of their first language.

Early Immersion Robs Them of Language Power

Unfortunately, the children in early language immersion programs are forced to use a language with different syntactical rules just as their competence and delight in the ones they have been using begins to solidify. And, then, rather than help them find their syntactic power in the new language through play and patterning and mimicry and rhyme, we ask them to read. Read in a language for which they have yet to develop syntactic competence.

The resulting wiring is a confusion that is unlikely to ever wire as efficiently as it would have otherwise. This is not to say that the inefficient wiring won’t get the job done. Obviously, it does for most children. Remember, however, that in many cases, early French immersion programs are admitting children from higher socio-economic backgrounds, and this and parent participation (especially from Dads according to one study) is the greatest predictor of scholastic success. Even with some odd wiring, these kids have enough advantages to succeed.

However, regardless of background, late language immersion (grade 5 or 6, at age 10 or 11) works much better because, not only is oral syntactic power automatic, but reading skills are generally up to the shift into the fun of a new language. Late immersion programs boast fluency levels that equal those of the early immersion programs – and there are fewer casualties of the program. Fewer children drop out of late immersion (likely for a complex of reasons, including being given more choice.)

Part II next post: “What About Reading?”

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