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Some Private Schools Delaying Reading Instruction for Young Children

This is an article from the New York Times- I took it from a post at  This is an interesting read- well worth it!


When Drake Roth was 18 months old, he would read the names of characters in “Thomas the Tank Engine” videos from his playpen as they flashed across the screen. At 2, he was onto cereal box labels; at 3, his preschool’s director told his mother to watch what reading material was within his reach on the kitchen table.

Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Reading enrollment at Junior Kumon, which instructs children ages 3 to 5, has tripled since it opened in New York in 2007.

But in kindergarten at Ethical Culture School, a private institution on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Drake seemed to be losing ground, with assignments like learning a letter of the week. The Roths did what parents lucky enough to gain a toehold in an elite school might consider unthinkable: They pulled him out, anxious that despite Ethical Culture’s top reputation, the philosophy that the school shares with a number of its peers — that kindergarten is more of a social year, not an academic one — was not letting Drake bloom.

Public elementary schools are federally mandated to teach reading almost from Day 1. But private schools in New York, many of which sent out their admissions decisions on Friday, set their own curriculums, and even some of the most prestigious choose not to teach reading until first grade or later. So as more and more children are being encouraged to read before they are out of Pull-Ups, these schools’ deliberate approach is causing friction.

At the Calhoun School, also on the Upper West Side, Steve Nelson, the head of school, said a week rarely went by without a parent expressing fears about the pace. “Those who get anxious think that education is like a race and you’ve got to get running fast, and if you don’t you’re going to fall behind and then you’re going to lose the race,” he said. “That’s not the right way to look at education.”

At Allen-Stevenson, an all-boys private school on the Upper East Side, tasks like decoding, or putting letter sounds together to figure out how to pronounce words, start in first grade — even for students already able to read, said David R. Trower, the headmaster. In kindergarten, the children do what educators call pre-reading or reading-readiness activities: listening to books read aloud, name-writing or making up stories.

The school speaks pointedly about its approach in each admissions interview and in open houses, to avoid clashes with parents who think “my kid is really good at this and I want him to move faster and I want him to get more,” Mr. Trower said.

“That kind of approach is pressured in my view,” he continued. “There’s enough of it to follow in their lives.”

This is not much comfort for parents who expect that high tuition means accelerated instruction, and who find themselves torn between buying into a school’s methodology and fearing their children will wither on the vine. Drake’s mother, Sharon Roth, said parents “get very blindsided by schools’ reputations.”

“I don’t think any child should ever be told that they should wait to learn,” she said, “anymore than a child should be placed in an environment where the pace is too quick for them.”

After kindergarten, the Roths switched Drake to the Speyer Legacy School, a private school for gifted children on the Upper West Side that opened in 2009. The Ethical Culture School, which is affiliated with the Fieldston school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, would not address the Roths’ situation specifically, but affirmed its methodology: “We provide lots of informal instruction in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten and teach a variety of strategies for becoming fluent readers,” Ginger Curwen, a school spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “In first grade, our approach to reading becomes more formalized.”

Not all schools stave off formal reading instruction in kindergarten. “That stops the growth and could make education potentially a stultifying experience,” said Bo Lauder, the head of Friends Seminary in Lower Manhattan. At Trinity, another sought-after private school, reading instruction begins in kindergarten and is differentiated according to each child’s skill.

Stephen M. Clement III, who heads the all-boys Browning School on the East Side, said that “many of the early childhood programs are getting much more academic,” and as a result, “our curriculum has probably increased in its pace as well.”

“You meet the boys where they are,” he said.

But other schools hold fast to their slow approach. Melanie Griffith said her daughter Emma was reading chapter books at 4, but when she entered Calhoun, she was restricted to sing-alongs and teacher-led story time.

Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Simran Makker, 3, takes Junior Kumon classes.

At times Ms. Griffith, a fitness instructor, said she and her husband wondered, “Are we doing her a disservice because she is so capable, by not putting her in a situation where they are challenging her more?”

They eventually were convinced that Calhoun, which is known for progressive methods, was right for Emma, who is now 11; her two younger brothers also go there, one of them a second grader only now beginning to read. “It takes a little more trust in the process,” Ms. Griffith said. “A little more of a deep breath than sometimes New York City parents allow themselves to take.”

Schools like Calhoun and Allen-Stevenson point to studies showing that early reading does not necessarily guarantee future success. “Being able to decode words is not a direct line to heightened I.Q.,” said Dr. Stephen Sands, a pediatric neuropsychologist and assistant professor at Columbia University Medical Center. “Reading is part of academic achievement, but intelligence is part of a different dynamic.”

And small children who can read are not necessarily comprehending the text they rattle through, said Peggy McNamara, a reading and literacy specialist at Bank Street College of Education on the Upper West Side. Language-rich environments, like classrooms where children must speak in full sentences or are asked to make up their own tales, are what foster learning, she said, not the ability to breeze through “Hop on Pop.”

These arguments are not stopping the steady push toward earlier reading, with some preschools like Garden House and several Montessori programs specializing in producing tiny bookworms. Junior Kumon, which offers reading and math instruction to children ages 3 to 5, says its enrollment in young reading classes has tripled to more than 6,000 since it opened in New York City in 2007.

Dr. Jane Ruman, a fertility specialist whose daughter Annamaria Bacchetta, 4, takes weekly Junior Kumon reading and math classes after preschool, sees early reading as a pre-emptive measure. Annamaria is applying to private schools this year, even some that wait to teach reading. “I don’t have to worry that my child will get left behind if she’s not quite up to that non-interventional education,” Dr. Ruman said.

She also echoed the belief of some parents that the ability to read will bolster her child’s chances of being admitted to a top school. Officials of some of these schools insist that this is not so, and the E.R.B., the standardized test required by most for admission, does not have a reading component.

“It’s not as though we have two extra points for reading Dr. Seuss,” said Mr. Trower, the head at Allen-Stevenson.

Calhoun goes further: If a family seemed fixated on Junior’s uncanny ability to read James Joyce, Mr. Nelson said, “that would probably be a liability in our admissions decision.”

Even so, anxious parents are often unwilling to change tack. “You can’t just send your kid away and hope for the best,” Dr. Ruman said. “I am also doing this for me. I am doing it so I feel like I’ve done everything I can for my daughter’s education.”

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