When should more formal skills, such as reading, writing & numbers be taught?

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of four year-olds admitted to reception classes. In fact, most English children now start school at four because of the growing practice of admitting children to reception class at the beginning of the year in which they become five (Sharp, 1998). Current evidence suggests that autumn born children do best at school and that summer born children do least well. This trend has brought about the need for greater research as it is likely that there is no one single explanation but rather a number of inter-related factors.

The International Association for the Evaluation for Educational Achievement (IEA) measured reading standards in 32 educational systems (Elley, 1992). Against expectations, this showed that the top ten scoring countries had a later starting age (the mean school starting age of these countries was 6.3, compared with a mean of 5.9 in the ten lowest scoring countries). But the top-achieving countries were also the most economically advantaged (Sharp, 1998). In a Channel 4 Dispatches programme broadcast in 1998, early childhood approaches in England were compared with those in Hungary, German Switzerland and Flemish Belgium. The reporters noted that although these other countries began teaching reading and writing later than we do here, the children’s skills in these areas developed rapidly once they were taught (Mills and Mills, 1998). Mick Brookes, of the National Association of Head Teachers, asked: “Why are we going increasingly against the trend which works so well on the continent? Most countries start compulsory schooling later than us yet by the age of 11 their children have overtaken ours.”

Trying to determine an optimum age to begin teaching reading and writing is difficult. There is considerable variation in the age at which children are developmentally and neurologically ready to read and write (Blythe, 2007). Many experts contend that children should only be taught to write, read, and spell when their neurological pathways for writing, reading, and spelling have fully formed (Blythe, 2009). Children will develop these pathways at different times and problems or difficulties noted by parents and teachers alike may not necessarily be linked to intelligence. Factors such as physical maturation and gender differences may have an enormous impact on a child’s ability and willingness to learn. For example, young boys may take longer to develop the fine motor and language skills needed for reading and writing in early years, yet show increased maturity in spatial skills from an earlier age (Blythe, 2009). As teachers and parents, it is imperative we are aware of these differences in neurological development and allow our children to develop the cognitive skills they will need throughout their schooling life and beyond.

We must also be mindful of placing too great an emphasis on formal literacy teaching at such a young age. In fact, a child who is introduced to formal reading and writing skills before they are ready is at risk of losing confidence and more importantly, a love of learning. By forcing a child into reading and writing too early, parents and teachers run the risk of creating specific learning difficulties, under-achievement and behavioural problems (Blythe, 2009). In a report presented to The Open EYE Policy Seminar in October of last year, the author concluded that based on sample groups previously assessed, it is in fact possible that nearly half of children in the UK are not ready in terms of their physical abilities to meet the demands of formal education at the time of school entry (Blythe, 2009). In the Cockroft Report Mathematics Counts, published by HMSO, WH Cockcroft stated: “A premature start on formal written arithmetic is likely to delay progress rather than hasten it” (Cockroft, 1982. p. 89)

The first ABC a child learns is the ABC of the body – the foundation on which cognitive learning is built and the mode through which it is expressed:

A = Attention
B = Balance            = developmental readiness for educational achievement.
C = Coordination

This physical maturation is vital for children as they require significant levels of balance and co-ordination as they develop their reading and writing skills. These basic skills may be developed and nurtured through free play and social engagement, for it is the movements of their body that create the pathways in their mind for reading and writing. By focusing on formal learning skills in the present, we may in fact be harming their learning and literacy progress in the future.

In conclusion, it seems far greater research is necessary as there is no definitive evidence from experimental studies charting the progress of children who started school earlier or later (Sharp, 1998). The best available evidence suggests that teaching more formal skills early (in school) gives children an initial academic advantage, but that this advantage is not sustained in the longer term (Sharp, 2002). In fact, early introduction to a formal curriculum may increase anxiety and have a negative impact on a child’s self-esteem and motivation to learn (Sharp, 2002).  Young children (aged five and under) seem to do best when they have opportunities to socialise, make their own choices and take responsibility for their own learning (Sharp, 1998).

Further Reading:


Note: An extremely concise and conclusive powerpoint presentation can be viewed as a pdf here. This document deals with some of the more technical aspects of a child’s brain development