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Don't Say "Your Child Can't Read"

Tammy Spencer

Teacher Educator, Child Advocate, and Sleep-deprived Mom of Twins
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A closeup of a young boy in a blue striped shirt against a white wall reading a book

As someone who has been fortunate enough to spend much of her professional career working in elementary schools -- both as an early-childhood (K-3) teacher and university-based teacher educator -- I'm often struck by the difference between how young children and teachers talk about literacy in the earliest years of school. Whether they're drawing pictures and asking you to "read" their latest story or eagerly inviting you to listen to an account of a favorite book, young children enter school enthusiastic about learning to read and write. In a world where they see print all around them -- scrolling on phone screens, in the books that they love, on the billboards they ponder -- learning to read and write makes a young child feel independent and capable.

Yet early-childhood teachers point to the pressures associated with the Common Core State Standards and the accompanying standardized testing culture as deeply affecting classrooms, often characterized by a heightened focus on teaching young children to read and write as early as possible.

Early Indicators of Literacy

It is not uncommon to hear stories of materials that once embodied the early-childhood classroom -- building blocks, water tables, play manipulatives -- being replaced with worksheets, letter tiles, and homework reading logs. With such pressure, early-childhood teachers are forced to change the ways that they assess and qualify children's abilities and learning processes. A child once described as a risk taker, imaginative, or a leader is now described as a level-B reader or conventional speller. And all too often, this means that before parents hear any other impactful messages from teachers or school, they might hear the words: "Your child can't read."

While the early years of school are critically important to short- and long-term academic success, children enter school inherently curious and intellectually ready, such that being a reader should be just one part of their academic identity. So, before describing a young child as a "non-reader," consider these three suggestions for honoring our longstanding commitment to developmentally and culturally responsive pedagogy, even as the ground under our feet shifts.

1. What do you know about the child's oral language development? Does the child bring an understanding of more than one language to his or her learning?

Increasingly more young children are entering kindergarten with an understanding of more than one language. While both research and human experience demonstrate the value of multilingualism, the benefits are often attributed to adult characteristics like future employment or global travel. The misconception that I most often hear about early childhood is that it's confusing for multilingual children to communicate or learn to read and write. This statement is anything but true! As young children navigate uncharted cognitive pathways, they make sense of their world through the filter of more than one language, and research suggests that requires sophisticated social and critical thinking skills. So think of multilingualism as an opportunity. Inquire about the child's language diversity, and use the opportunity to meet with the parent and make a chart like the one below to deepen your understanding of the family's linguistic diversity:

2. Does the child "pretend" to read and write? How does this relate to his or her literacy development?

Play is the blueprint that young children develop to construct meaning within their world. In addition, play can be a linguistically rich space for children, as their desire to participate in a playful experience supports a learning context to engage in more sophisticated language use. For this reason, play becomes a powerful means for young children to develop and expand on their understandings of reading and writing.

One way that children often do so is through pretending to read and write in their social interactions and play. Rather than dismissing these practices as non-conventional literacy knowledge, teachers should carefully observe a child as he plays. Is he making strings of letter-like formations and saying that it "reads" as a story that can be shared? This is profoundly symbolic, revealing his understanding that a story is something represented in text, narrated, and communicated with others. Does a child "memorize" a book but have difficulty decoding a word in isolation? Praise her for expanding her memory, recognizing that words work together to produce meaning, and use that memorized text as an opportunity to teach her about the concepts of print like directionality, letters, and words.

So watch that child at play, whether on the playground or in class, and be ready to record the many ways that you might connect the play with your reading and writing instruction and goals.

3. Is the child interested in printed text both in and out of school? How can a teacher and parent build on that interest?

For some children, reading and writing instruction in school can be difficult. However, children come to school with many different life experiences and often reveal interests that can support our traditional reading and writing instruction. Rather than limiting our knowledge of early literacy to letters and schoolbooks, a deeper understanding of children's out-of-school experiences can serve as a resource for uncovering their literate lives. For example, does the child enjoy playing video games or cell phone apps? What print accompanies those apps, and how might a teacher use that knowledge to support her reading instruction? Does a child love a particular toy collection with an accompanying leaflet that describes the figure in detail? How can such an expository text be used as leverage into a discussion about nonfiction reading and writing? While the curricular programs used in our schools often govern our instruction, by understanding our students' literate lives, we begin to understand how we can become more fully inclusive.

The Language We Use

With each of the examples discussed above, it's critically important to have a range of different data, acknowledging the variance of demonstrated reading and writing skills and knowledge from child to child. Assigning the harmful label "he cannot read" is an example of why this matters so much. It's also important to recognize that some children have legitimate learning and reading difficulties. However, when these cases arise, it requires even greater attention to these types of considerations, as well as sensitivity to the language that we use with parents. Let's establish a safe and inclusive space to partner with them -- for the good of the child.

How do you encourage young learners to explore and embrace literacy?

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Judy Yero's picture
Judy Yero
Author of Teaching In MInd: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education

PLEASE read the research on the damage being done to young children by pushing literacy onto younger and younger children. This is just one of those reports.

Just because the government says to do something doesn't mean it's developmentally appropriate. Clearly, policy makers haven't read the research and are feeding the myth that the earlier a child reads, the smarter he or she is. Other research suggests that the optimal time for child learn to read is between 7 and 10...when the child WANTS to learn to read. This is also consistent with Piaget's formal operations stage.

Certainly, we need to provide young children with an environment in which they are exposed to words and numbers...and to read to them...but making literacy a STANDARD by a given age is nothing less than educational malpractice.

Tammy Spencer's picture
Tammy Spencer
Teacher Educator, Child Advocate, and Sleep-deprived Mom of Twins

Thank you for your response. The "academic" movement is making early childhood classrooms unrecognizable and this has serious consequences, some we know and some I worry we have yet to see. I wrote this, precisely so that teachers--especially those in classrooms where the CCSS and standardizing testing culture is the norm--still find ways to press the pause button and see the whole child.

Mark Bracey's picture
Mark Bracey
Teacher of new entrants (5-6 year olds) at a public school in Auckland, New Zealand.

Thanks for writing this. It is a timely reminder of the need to take care of the interests of the whole child. I am making an effort to bring this issue out into the public realm; to let educators and parents alike appreciate that first and foremost, learning is a human endeavour.

Holly Fraser's picture

Such a great post, thanks. Teaching in a Play Based Early Years program has been a challenge--sometimes not so much the day to day interactions with the children--that's the fun part--it can often be the feeling that one needs to justify to the parents, other teachers, and the world in general, that this (play, open exploration) is exactly what children this age need to grow and develop.

At nearly every parent teacher conference session there is one parent who asks how we can add a little more "numbers and letters" into our day or for "homework" later on...Often I think they are simply asking for more direct instruction, not fully understanding the value in the oral language development and symbolic understanding that develops as a result of "free play."

I thank Judy Yero for linking to the above article "Reading in Kindergarten--Little to Gain and Much to Lose"
--with nice summaries at the beginning and end of the article highlighting key findings. This is the kind of paper I like to slide across the table to parents after such questions.

That being said, I really like the suggestions in the main article about building on budding literacy interests--pretend writing, story telling/memorising, interest in symbols relating to technology--all big themes in my room this year.

I often encourage my students in similar ways--bringing in favourite books and "reading" them to the class, set up letter writing stations or post office in our role play area and encourage the students to "write" letters to family and friends. Once a parent came in with a pile of cooked spaghetti and hidden letters--the students had fun playing and eating through the spaghetti in order to find the letters in their names!

#saydyslexia's picture

I am disappointed in Edutopia for printing this article. It does not mention any of the signs or indicators of reading disabilities or dyslexia. Instead it implies that exposure to printed text, rich language, and tapping into a child's interest is what makes them readers. While this may be true for some, many students, including typically developing students need explicated instruction. Asking them to read the text associated with video games, or a leaflet about a favorite toy will not make them readers. The implication is that learning to read is about motivation; it is about teaching, using scientifically proven methods is the way most students learn to read.

With fewer than 50% of 4th graders reading proficiently nation-wide. I would urge you not to print articles that imply that teaching reading is simply about finding ways to engage students' interests, and instead print articles that address the importance of teaching using evidence-proven, effective reading strategies.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.


"However, children come to school with many different life experiences and often reveal interests that can support our traditional reading and writing instruction."

I think the article's core is in this statement. It's just support for motivation to read and write. Of course you are right in the fact that most kids need to learn to read in a systematic way when they are ready to do it.

Thanks for the comment.


Tammy Spencer's picture
Tammy Spencer
Teacher Educator, Child Advocate, and Sleep-deprived Mom of Twins

Hi #saydyslexia,

Thank you for your comment. The presence of children with reading disabilities is an incredibly important factor in reading instruction---as I stated at the end of the article, there are certainly children who have difficulty learning to read. And, I agree with you that explicit instruction is also an important part of reading instruction. Many have written on the variety of methods and approaches for doing so.

This piece had a different purpose, however. It's emphasis is on the considerations needed to teach "the whole child" as we draw conclusions about one's reading abilities. It was not proposing these factors as curriculum; it was proposing them as considerations. Any "scientifically-based " reading research for all children (including children would disabilities) would also stress the importance of having a deep understanding of children's literate lives in and outside of classrooms. There any many great interest surveys and observation protocols available to go about and do so, for example. Indeed, researchers and practitioners of children with reading difficulties are also of the most sensitive when it comes to the language we use to describe a child's abilities as well.

Thanks for reading the piece and providing feedback.


#saydyslexia's picture

Thank you for your thoughtful response.

My objection to your piece, which is all about early literacy, is the absence of any mention of the red flags for dyslexia. Knowledge about a students background, exposure to language, interests, or pre-literacy play, while important in understanding the whole child, is not sufficient to indentify students who are at risk for reading struggles or reading failure due to dyslexia.

With respect to learning disabilities you state, "However, when these cases arise, it requires even greater attention to these types of considerations, as well as sensitivity to the language that we use with parents" In fact, when cases of learning disabilities are suspected or arise greater attention to the variables above are of limited use. Knowing that a student is interested video games and sharing related text or suggesting that they look at leaflets about their favorite toy will not in any way mitigate the disability. No matter how great the interest or incentive, a child with a learning disability will not learn to read without direct, explicit evidence-proven instruction.

Learning disabilities have nothing to do with which or how many languages are spoken in the home, or how eager students are to engage in pre-literacy play, pretending to read as they string letters together.

I believe it would have been more accurate and responsible to write that when cases of learning disabilities are suspected, it is important to be aware of early warning signs, and screen for dyslexia and other learning disabilities, rather than pay greater attention to the variables you mentioned in your article, as you suggest.

Research indicates that the earlier these difficulties are identified and addressed with evidence-based instruction, the better the outcomes.

Thanks again for your response.

Tammy Spencer's picture
Tammy Spencer
Teacher Educator, Child Advocate, and Sleep-deprived Mom of Twins

I appreciate your feedback and you've offered another critical lens for this work.

I think a key distinction here is that the topics mentioned were not meant to be positioned as ways to "mitigate disability" or teach reading. They were simply listed as other angles to get to know the whole child.

I appreciate your attention to making sure that people always have learning disabilities in the front of their mind as a possibility. Given the audience of this piece is for teachers of very young children, it is important, however, that we don't make immediate assumptions about a child either--over diagnosing or assuming challenges when developmental research indicates that a 5-year old child is also still emerging in their understanding of print and reading.

I should also add, as a former reading specialist who worked with children with reading difficulties and disabilities (slightly older children), I agree that systematic instruction is critical when it comes down to the business of teaching some aspects of reading. However, when communicating with the child and parents, it still remained critical to deeply understand the"whole child" (even if it didn't immediately impact instruction). The parents and children sometimes feel different, less understood, judged or insecure. Having a keen understanding of the child--and all his/her strengths--demonstrate a deep interest and commitment to the family and child's knowledge-base, something that can sometimes (and unfortunately) get overlooked in general classrooms. Knowing things like children's out of school interests also becomes a really useful tool when teaching other aspects of reading such as: text genre, vocabulary, text features and structures, independent reading and writing practices and comprehension.

Thank you again for keeping the conversation going--

meganann0403's picture

As stated - young children enter school enthusiastic about learning to read and is so important that we keep these children feeling that enthusiastic and eager to learn. I do agree there is a lot of pressure to teach children to read and write as soon as possible - I definitely feel that pressure in Kindergarten. But it is more important to go at an appropriate pace when teaching. If you push them too hard, they will become frustrated and lose that enthusiasm. I can imagine how discouraging the words "Your child can't read" would be to a parent. I absolutely believe it is beneficial to tap into the children's' interests when teaching reading and writing. My students show much more engagement when it is a topic of interest or relevance to them. I also try to pull from students' experiences and relate content to the real world. The learning is much more meaningful when they are able to make their own connections. The students enjoy reading and writing about topics they already have a connection to.

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