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Why Johnny Can't Read: Redux

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Strolling down Broadway on New York's Upper West Side recently I observed a shocking event. A small child, likely a year old or so, was sprawled on the sidewalk, sobbing uncontrollably. An apparently anxious mother, quite well dressed if it matters, grabbed the poor girl by the hand and yanked her upright yelling, "Walk, dammit. You are supposed to walk." The mother released the child's hand, and she collapsed once again in a teary heap, bleeding from both knees.

Well, not really.

But I use this small fabrication in the admissions process when talking with parents of young children about the insanity of much early childhood educational practice. Before this intentionally grim fiction I survey the crowd. "How many of your children began walking at 9 months?" A few hands go up. "10 months?" A few more. "11 months?" Well, you get the idea. A graphic representation of the show of hands would form an elegant bell curve, starting at about 9 months, peaking between 12 and 13, and tapering off after 15 months or so. Every roomful of parents around the world would yield the same bell curve.

I ask folks if this is surprising to them and, of course, it never is. Everyone knows that children walk at different ages and that a late walker is not a worse walker. In fact at least one old study indicated that world-class runners tend to be later walkers.

Other developmental benchmarks are similarly well understood. All studies on toilet training suggest patience, and most parents heed the advice. Not all children talk at the same age. (One might chuckle at the image of a clinician in a white lab coat trying to coax a sentence from a reluctant toddler!). My son, for example, waited until he had an entire speech prepared before he said a word (and he hasn't stopped).

But when it comes to school, especially reading, we have designed an entire educational system around the unsupportable and harmful assumption that all children will read at the same time. Educational policy and its expectations for young children create an emotional climate that is analogous to my opening description of child abuse. The only missing piece is the bleeding knees. But small hearts are broken as small children feel the shame of failure and the bitter sting of parental or school disapproval.

Parental anxiety is exacerbated by stupid (sorry, couldn't think of a more dignified word that would retain accuracy) public policy. The anxiety is compounded by the "intervention industry" (Sylvan, Huntington, Score) who make millions on the needless worries of parents. There is scant evidence that aggressive intervention to speed things up does much good. There is greater reason to believe that aggressive intervention does some harm. Read Frank Smith's exceptional book, Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices if you doubt that claim.

Sometimes we are deceived by the false promise of pushing children to learn when they seem to be lagging. The Handbook of Educational Psychology offered an article several years ago that I summarize in this cliff note: "Remediation and drilling do indeed produce measurable improvements in performance BUT these gains apparently were a result of the passage of time and maturation as the remediation proceeded."

Some research suggests that placing children in a setting too advanced for their developmental (not chronological) age may actually delay or inhibit their mastery of reading and comprehension. Pressing children quite likely will create children and adults who consider reading a chore rather than a joy. But despite all of this, we do it anyway.

I write about reading because so much emphasis is placed on literacy and anxiety about reading is particularly high. But the same arguments can and should be mounted against the wrongheaded policies that are driving all kinds of pre-academic work earlier and earlier into children's school experience.

I'm not much on parables, but this one from Zorba the Greek is beautiful and apt. You may know it.

I remembered one morning when I discovered a cocoon in the bark of a tree, just as a butterfly was making a hole in its case and preparing to come out. I waited a while, but it was too long appearing and I was impatient. I bent over and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life. The case opened, the butterfly started crawling out and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly tried with its whole trembling body to unfold them. Bending over it, I tried to help it with my breath. In vain. It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear, all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand. That little body is, I do believe, the greatest weight I have on my conscience. For I realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.