My four-year-old daughter is illiterate. She can only sight read her own name, has not memorized short board books, and can barely write five letters of the alphabet. I am more than fine with all of this. In fact, I am proud.
Don't get me wrong, my husband and I read to our children, daily. They love books, and on any given day would be more than happy to spend hours lounging on the couch with a stack of Pinkalicious and Frog and Toad stories.
However, I am not spending time teaching the girls letters, phonics, and sight words. The older daughter does not practice tracing her name, and the younger one believes that all letters spell her sister's name. We send our daughters to a play-based Jewish preschool, where the alphabet is not introduced until they enter the pre-k program. Their days are spent experimenting with paint, sand, clay, dressing up in costumes, romping outside with friends, planting seeds in the garden, and singing songs about fall leaves, the colors of the rainbow, and Moses.
Unfortunately, living in this supermommy environment, where all children are untapped tiny geniuses, I cannot visit the playground without overhearing a mother brag about how her three-year-old spends hours reading to herself and her younger brother. And, as an overly self-critical mother, whose mommy guilt only swells with each BabyCenter milestone email, I am constantly second-guessing these choices.
For only $200 the Your Baby Can Read series (as seen on TV!) promises to give your child "increased communication styles, enhanced learning ability, greater confidence, and future success!!!" The program states that parents can begin putting their baby on the path to literacy at a mere three months of age. Using their "scientifically proven" (and patented) instructional materials, parents need only to force their infants to lie in front of a TV screen for an hour or so a day, and let the magic ensue. In a matter of months, your young, bald, slobbering baby, will be able to identify simple words like: dog, drum, boy, and car (even though she may not be able to pronounce these words yet).
As enticing as it may seem to brag to all the other mothers at your playgroup that little Max has memorized over fifteen written words, most experts do not endorse this program. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed a complaint against the company with the Federal Trade Commission, claiming that the company uses misleading marketing techniques and that its program teaches babies to memorize, not read. The CCFC alleges that this program is not only deceptive, but harmful, since it encourages abundant television time for infants when the American Academy of Pediatrics explicitly states that children under the age of two should be allowed no screen time.
Infants and toddlers have much more valuable things to be doing with their time: finger painting, running in circles, jumping on couches, pot-and-pan beating, and annoying their siblings (to name just a few). Children, especially at this young age, learn through everything they do. Playing with dirt and water inspires scientific discovery and dipping their fingers in yogurt to smear across the freshly washed table motivates undeveloped artists. There will be plenty of time for them to learn i before e, except after c when they are sitting in school desks for the next seventeen plus years of their lives.
As for me and my girls, I know that I am instilling in them a love of literature without pressuring them to read and write before they leave toddlerhood. By making storytime an enjoyable and cherished part of our daily routine, I have every confidence that they will learn to read by the time they hit puberty.
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