I’m a literacy specialist. Over the last forty years, along with battalions
of other literacy specialists, I’ve earnestly researched the way children
learn to read and helped devise teaching methods and materials for use in
primary classrooms. You’d think that, with all this applied brain power,
we’d have found ways to turn the majority of children into enthusiastic
Unfortunately, we haven’t. As standardised testing proliferated in primary
schools, we certainly got better at teaching children how to pass literacy
tests – although, even in this limited field, quite a few still don’t make
the grade. But sadly, in the twilight of my career, I’m forced to conclude
that children’s chances of becoming fluent, committed readers are
significantly lower than they were fifty years ago. Which is really
worrying, because neuroscience now confirms that reading fluency is
probably the single most important factor in overall educational success.
Part of the problem is, of course, down to technological and cultural
change. Today’s children have access to many amazing sources of information
and entertainment – ways that involve minimal need for literacy skills – so
there’s little motivation for them to settle down with a book.
And motivation is essential because it takes a lot of practice to achieve a
level of reading fluency that makes it easy – and pleasurable – to read
full-length texts. Unless children actually want to read, they’re unlikely
to put in that effort. Endless lessons in “phonics” and “comprehension”
won’t make them any keener.
In fact, the most motivated children are those who learn to read without
much explicit teaching, as a result of pleasurable experiences before
starting school. These are the ‘lucky’ children who:
share loving interactions with their carers from the moment they’re
born, including lots of songs and rhymes and stories
enjoy plenty of opportunities for active, creative play with adult
carers and, from the age of about three, with other children – as often
as possible outdoors
regularly share picture books with adults, thus discovering the
pleasure of ‘a good read’
aren’t pushed to read and write, just gently supported, at their own
level, when they show an interest.
It’s not as if these ingredients of literacy luck are unknown. Indeed, the
Scottish government has done a great deal to publicise them through its
Play Talk Read project for the parents of children under three. The trouble
is that most parents are now out at work for most of the day and don’t have
much time left over for playing, singing and sharing stories with their
offspring. And even the luckiest children don’t usually start reading by
the age of four or five.
This too has been widely known ever since schooling began. It’s why the
Ancient Greeks didn’t send children to school till they were seven and why
formal education in the vast majority of the world doesn’t start till at
least six. It’s also why the European countries with the best record in
terms of literacy today provide play-based kindergarten education for the
under-sevens, with plenty of time for
stories and song
, as well as lots of opportunities for active, outdoor play. In a
kindergarten, children who show an interest in reading and writing are
supported at their own level but there’s no formal teaching till they start
school. In fact,
has shown no long-term advantage in starting literacy instruction before
the age of seven but plenty of potential for long-term damage – physical,
emotional, social and cognitive.
The kindergarten approach is, of course, also highly beneficial in terms of
physical and mental health – especially for twenty-first century children,
who usually have limited opportunities for active, social, outdoor play
during their early years. Play is children’s inborn learning drive, and the
natural way to develop physical coordination and control, social skills,
creativity, emotional resilience and a love of learning for its own sake.
So I’ve concluded that the best way to improve reading standards in
Scottish schools – and thus to start closing that shameful attainment gap –
is to stop obsessing about reading and writing during children’s early
years. By introducing a kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds,
with the focus on nurture, play, health and well-being, Scotland could give
all young children the best possible start in life, including the soundest
possible foundations for reading and writing when formal education begins.
We know what makes children “lucky” in terms of literacy – and of learning
in general – so we should provide it for every one of them.
This article was originally published on the Upstart website. Used with permission of the author.
Sue Palmer, a former primary head teacher in Scotland, is a literacy
specialist, writer, presenter and “childhood campaigner”. She has written
over 200 books, software packages and TV programmes for schools on aspects
of literacy and many hundreds of articles for the educational and national
Over the last ten years, her books on child development in the modern world
(second edition 2015) – have led to frequent media appearances and comments
about changes in children’s lifestyles. Her latest book,
Upstart: the case for raising the school starting age and providing
what the under-sevens really need
, was published in 2016.
Sue chaired the Scottish Play Commission, served on the Scottish
Government’s Early Years Task Force and currently chairs the Upstart Scotland campaign. Connect
with Upstart Scotland on Facebook and