Is Learning to Read Early Bad for a Child's Development?
Reading is good for the mind, right? It enhances early child development, doesn't it? After all, reading is one of the most important skills one must master, and it's an activity that requires serious mental effort. Correct? Indeed, reading is one of the best tools available for child development, and is proven so by numerous studies, and we'll discuss some here. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, there are some seriously misguided souls out that that believe learning to read early is detrimental for a child's development! Why? I don't know... Actual, I do have an idea, but it's just that their alarmist arguments are so shallow and ridiculous that I don't know whether to laugh or cry about it.
Here's a few "good" ones:
- reading early "messes up" the wiring of the child's brain.
- the young child might be reading, but does not understand what he or she is reading.
- we need to stimulate imagination at a young age. (Really? I didn't know that reading inhibits our imagination!)
- early reading doesn't convey long term advantages.
1) I had no idea reading early messes up our brain's wiring! And I suppose that learning to read early had enormous detrimental effects such that some of the smartest people who walked this earth were early readers by age 2 and 3. Sarcasm aside, I think it's a laughable and rather alarmist claim that reading early will somehow mess up our brain development. Really? Mentally challenging activities are bad? Where's the proof? Where's the supporting evidence?
I can't find any studies to back up the frivolous claims that reading early has disadvantages, but there are no shortage of studies which find the benefits of reading early and the disadvantages of not developing early reading skills. In a report published by researchers Cunningham and Stannovich titled "What Reading Does for the Mind", they stated that reading makes you smarter, and reading can even compensate for modest levels of cognitive ability in children. A Swedish study finds that children with reading difficulties at school entry scores significantly below average on reading in grade 4.  Studies have also found that grade 1 reading ability strongly predicts grade 11 results.  Having poor reading skills in grade 3 increases a child's chance to leave school without a diploma by 4 fold! 
2) If the child can't read, then that child certainly won't understand! With fluent reading and decoding skills, children will be able to understand what they are reading - as long as the words they read are currently within their vocabulary. Again, it's laughable that one would argue that there's no point in teaching a young child to read because that child will not understand what he or she reads! I'd like to ask, "based on what evidence?!"
On the contrary, a child who develops fluent decoding / reading skills early on will in fact UNDERSTAND PERFECTLY WELL what he or she is reading. The only stipulation is that the words they read are within their existing vocabulary! Let's say we have a 3 year old, that reads this simple sentence:
"The dog ran away."
Pretty simple and straightforward words and sentence. If the child knows what a dog is, knows what "ran" and "away" means, then that child knows that the dog ran away. Just as we adults will undoubtedly encounter unfamiliar words that we do not understand, young children will simply encounter these unfamiliar words more often, and it is through these reading encounters that one builds an impressive vocabulary! The bulk of a person's vocabulary growth comes from reading, and not oral language.
It's amazing to me that for whatever reasons, some argue that children should not learn to read early because we should be stimulating their imagination instead at an early age, or that children should learn through play. They make these arguments as if somehow that learning to read early and stimulating imagination or learning through play are mututally exclusive events! Of course not! Why can a child not learn to read and engage in imaginative play at the same time? Does reading hinder imagination? I think not. On the contrary, reading stimulates imagination! Is reading interesting and colorful storybooks not considered playing or fun? Strange world we live in today.
3) It's a shame to argue that a child should not learn to read early because it conveys no long term benefits or advantages. In fact, I've read one ridiculous piece that questioned whether "early training gets you anywhere?" The author argued that there's really no point to early training and cited a study about a pair of toddler twins where one twin was given earlier practice to climb stairs, while the other twin did not. The twin who got earlier practice could climb stairs, while the other twin could not, but after one week of stair climbing training, the other twin caught up.
Well, what a nice way to compare apples and cantaloupes! What bearing does citing that twin stair climbing study have on learning to read? Absolutely none! In fact, if you fell for that argument, you'd be remiss to later discover that your child might be behind in reading, because you did not engage your child in early literacy development. In fact, there's an effect called the "Matthews Effect" in reading which states that children who achieve early reading success will go on to achieve greater success in reading with age; conversely, a child who falls behind in reading will experience increasing difficulties in learning to read.
Take my children as an example. My daughter at 5 years old could read at a grade 5 level (85th percentile) with a reading age of 11.9 years. My younger boy at 3 years old could read at a grade 1 level with a reading age of 6.3 years. Both of my children learned to read before they were 3 years old. With that said, do you think a kindergartner that can read at a grade 5 level will have a huge advantage over another kindergartner who cannot read or is just beginning to read? That's a rhetorical question. Just think of the immense opportunities for learning and information gathering that opens up to a young child that learns to read early!
Here, below is a video of our daughter reading chapter books at just 4 years 11 months old.
Here's another video showing our boy reading at 2 years 9 months old.
In fact, studies have even found that early reading leads to greater additive effects as time progresses! I will be clear and explicit and say that this study is a 7 year study published by the Scottish Executive Education Department, and it is a study that looked at the effects of different phonics methods of learning. What this study found was that learning to read with synthetic phonics increased the learning gains 6 fold over a 7 year period, and that the reading gains were greater at the end of the 7 period - suggesting that the effects of initial reading training increases year after year! 
This brings us to the conclusion of this article dispelling the many weak and nonsensical arguments of why learning to read early can have negative effects for a child's development. Of course, if you tried to teach your child to "read" by sitting your child in front of the TV or computer screen, you're not engendering a real love of reading or creating an environment conducive to reading phonetically.
When I talk about reading, I mean REAL, PHONETIC reading - no silly word shape memorization that you get with the various TV or computer programs. Those absolutely do not work, and can lead to reading difficulties. When I talk about teaching a young child to read, I mean teaching by phonemic awareness and synthetic phonics - scientifically proven methods that teach children the necessary skills to decode and decipher printed text. Children who learn through these methods become superb readers, and these methods can be simplified enough to make it possible to teach children as young as 2 and 3 years old to read.
If you still think that learning to read early has detrimental effects on development, then I've failed in my effort to convince you, and you've just wasted a few minutes of your time. But if you believe in all the positive benefits of teaching young children to read, then you need to take a look at our super simple, step-by-step program that will show you exactly how to teach your child to read, and help your child become a superb reader.
1. J Learn Disabil. 1999 Sep-Oct;32(5):464-72.
Early language development and kindergarten phonological awareness as predictors of reading problems: from 3 to 11 years of age.
Olofsson A, Niedersøe J.
Department of Psychology, Umeå University, Sweden.
2. Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later.
Cunningham AE, Stanovich KE.
3. Double Jeopardy How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation
Donald J. Hernandez, Hunter College and the Graduate Center,
4. A Seven Year Study of the Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment Rhona S Johnston and Joyce E Watson Scottish Executive Education Department