Should children learn to read and write before five years of age? – Two ISASA schools weigh in

Paving the way at the preparatory

By Donna Marucchi

We know that some of them are able to learn these skills, but what is sacrificed when time is spent on these formal pursuits? The Grade 1 teacher will teach these skills in a fraction of the time when the preschool child is delivered to Grade 1 with all the necessary ‘pre-skills’.

While teaching kindergarten in the USA for two years, I taught fourand five-year-olds to read and write. Many of them were unable to reach the expected goal for reading, while others learned to read in ‘rote’ fashion – without comprehension. It was sad to see little hands trying to grip a pencil and form letters when those fingers were not strong enough to do so.

How I longed to spend the time doing creative activities – cutting, tearing, rolling, playing with play dough, drawing and painting with thick brushes and wax crayons to strengthen fingers and develop fine motor skills.

There was simply no time in the school day for these very worthwhile and age-appropriate activities. Their body-image drawings were extremely immature, a sure sign that they were not fully ‘integrated’. No attention was paid to this red flag, and no assessments were carried out to monitor the children’s mastery of basic skills. The foundation was not laid correctly, and cracks were bound to show later in their formal schooling.

Focus rather on age-appropriate activities

If we spend time teaching the preschool child to read and write, we limit indoor and outdoor free-play – building puzzles, playing in the fantasy corner, building cities and towers with the manipulative toys, paging through a story book, running, jumping, crawling, climbing, pouring and measuring at the water troughs, sand-pit play and exploring at the senso-pathic tables. I remember the kids I taught had underdeveloped fine and gross motor skills, their hands would tire as they wrote and they were not able to maintain a correct writing posture for any length of time. More importantly, they were not developing socialisation skills, acquired through free play, to stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.

Phonics, stories and accidental reading

In Botswana, I worked in a primary school owned by Debswana Diamond Company Ltd. Our mining community was made up of many expatriates, mainly from Britain. Our curriculum focused only on teaching the pre-reading skills. Even though the ‘British’ parents expressed concern that we were not teaching their children to read and write at the age that they would be doing so in England, we received glowing reports of how well they were doing once they returned to their home country.

I experienced the same phenomenon when I headed up a school in Pretoria. Our pupil body comprised the children of parents working in surrounding embassies. We kept in contact with many of these families, and they told us how easily their children fitted back into their peer groups, even if they went from a current Grade R class here to a Grade 1 equivalent class ov erseas. At Thembelisha Preparator y School, our pupils are bright, energetic Swazi children.

We spend a year doing phonics with the very young for 10 minutes a day. By the end of the year the sounds are so entrenched that learning to read will not be a chore or a frightening experience, but an activity children enthusiastically embrace in Grade 1. At the pre-prep, we also instil a love of books and stories in our young students. The preschool classroom is also set up in a way that encourages accidental reading. Names are al ways written on the top lef thand corner and everyday objects are clearly labelled. Children who are ready will begin to make sense of the written word in this way, having already acquired all the necessary pre-skills.

South African students benefit from sensible system

A challenge facing teachers today is the misperception that any child who is able to read and write at a very young age is ‘ highly intelligent ’, and so these skills are actively encouraged and coached at home! So why do children in the UK and USA, and in some other countries, start formal schooling a year sooner than we do? Is there anything to be gained? I truly believe that our southern African children are the privileged ones – they enjoy a full additional year to de velop their pre-skills and build a solid scholastic foundation. Having taught at preschools for 21 years, in four different countries, across different cultures and languages, I am convinced that that the most important task of the preschool is to prepare the child thoroughly to enable them to soar in the capable hands of teachers in the upper grades.

Donna Marucchi is Head of Thembelisha Pre-Preparatory School in Simunye, Swaziland.

Filed Under: Summer 2011

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  1. Peter says:

    Thank you very much for writing this article Donna. What you say makes great sense!

  2. Fausia says:

    I am keen to know whether a child should learn how to read before 5 years. I have been advised not to do so and would therefore appreciate an informed opinion.
    Thank you
    Fausia

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