Reading, says just about every icon and achiever you ask, is the best way to get smarter, accelerate your success, and even become a better citizen. The more books you read, the more accomplished (and even empathetic), a person you're likely to become. It's no leap then to insist that one of the best things you can do to help your kids be successful in life is to teach them to read.
How do you do it? Most of us have a simple answer to that: we send them to school. Reading to your kid is essential to giving them a strong start in life, but most of us think the actual nuts and bolts of teaching children to translate letters into meaning is best left to trained professionals.
Only there's one big problem with that according to Columbia University linguist John McWhorter. Most schools don't actually use the best, research-backed technique to teach reading. In fact, parents can often do a better job at home in just 20 minutes a day.
What did you do this summer? Taught my 4 year old to read.
In a recent Atlantic article McWhorter explains how he and his wife taught their four-year-old daughter to read at an eighth grade level over just one summer. And no, they didn't turn her vacation into some nightmare of spelling drills and flash cards. All that was required was one book and 20 fun minutes of instruction a day.
McWhorter, presumably a pretty smart guy with a PhD, is at pains to insist his technique doesn't just work for the brainy offspring of professors.
"Did my daughter, as the child of two hyper-literate people with doctorates, have some kind of leg up? I doubt it. Some kids pick up reading with minimal guidance as early as 3; she wasn't one of them, nor had she given indication of any impending breakthrough," he writes.
How is possible to teach an average kid to read so well at such a young age? Because, McWhorter explains, science has great data on how to teach children of all backgrounds and abilities this essential skill. It's just lots of schools don't use it.
Academic infighting strikes again.
Experts' understanding of how best to teach reading dates back to a 1960s government research project called Project Follow that tested nine possible methods of teaching reading on no less than 75,000 kids.
"The results," McWhorter explains, "were clear: The approach that proved most effective was based on phonics-teaching children how to sound words out, letter by letter, rather than encouraging students to recognize words as single chunks" The results of this system were even more impressive for disadvantaged kids, and many studies in subsequent decades have backed up the finding.
One of the researchers behind this report, Siegfried Englemann, wrote a book called Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons explaining the technique. It's the same book McWhorter and his wife used to teach their daughter. Take all this together and it seems like this is a highly effective technique. So why can't parents just sit back and trust schools will teach it at the appropriate time?
The short answer is academic squabbling. Another approach to reading, known as the "whole word" technique became trendy over the years with many educators. The technique is focussed on lovely sounding qualities like creativity, discovery, and flexibility, but unfortunately science says it just doesn't work as well.
"The general expectation is that students will marvel their way into reading via assorted individual pathways. That sounds good, and kids from book-lined homes can often manage under this system, but again, Engelmann's method has worked on kids of all backgrounds. It's designed to," writes McWhorter.
The bottom line for parents is that educators are often not using the best, research-backed methods to teach your child to read. But you can. And according to McWhorter at least, it's neither painful nor hard. "The process wasn't difficult in the least; it was joyful," he claims.
If you're keen to give your preschooler an early introduction to the magic of books, consider giving Englemann's method a try yourself this summer.