Every year the National Union of Teachers conference can be counted on for some beyond-parody educationalist nonsense. I enjoyed this one today from the BBC News site. As part of the perennial moan that children are being tested too much an NUT delegate worried that:

Even nursery-age children were being taught to spell and write in readiness for the tests waiting for them at primary school.

Think of all that valuable finger-painting time being wasted on acquring language skills. How will the little plebs be kept in their place if they learn to read and write like the posh kids?

In related news, the Cuban government believes that by 2010 its people will be mature enough to buy their own toasters.


  1. Posted 26Mar08 at 01:02 | Permalink

    My parents were reprimanded by the state infant school I attended for teaching me to read and write before I arrived. Apparently, I had been taught to read the wrong way. As working class parents they thought they were doing the right thing educating their children. Imagine their surprise when they were told they weren’t qualified to do so!

  2. Adrienne
    Posted 26Mar08 at 07:12 | Permalink

    Not sure I buy this one, PG.. the quote is “spell and write”, not talk, learn letters or even read, the more reasonable verbal skills for kids to acquire at this age– assuming that “nursery school” means pre-kindergarten. Many 4 year olds don’t have the motor skills to write and will pick it up quickly and easily a year later.. which is presumably why kindergarten starts at 5. To make them learn writing and spelling at this age kills time that they could be spending playing, singing, imagining, doing drama and crafts, and yes, even finger painting (actually noone really finger-paints these days, who knows why). I do think it’s sad. Most nursery schools here in Seattle provide materials and assistance for kids to write if they are ready, but it isn’t required.

  3. Posted 26Mar08 at 08:02 | Permalink

    Learning to write at nursery school isn’t required in the UK either, but what disturbs me is the assumption that there is something wrong in teaching young children to write. A lot of four-year-olds have excellent motor skills and would benefit from a chance to refine them. We’re descended from tree-dwellers: right from birth our hands (and feet) are ready for gripping, and they acquire fine control surprisingly quickly if allowed to.

    You’re right: if a child isn’t interested then (s)he shouldn’t be forced to learn these things. But in the UK, the gap between the children of better-off and worse-off parents opens right at the start. One reason for this is that parents who educate their children privately can choose what and when their children are taught; parents who don’t frequently have to fight the unscientific prejudices of the state educational establishment or don’t have the time, resources, or inclination to teach their children other things outside the playing, singing, and imagining hours at school. I’m willing to place a large bet that, like me, when you were very young you learned more from the books in your house and at the local library than you did from the ones at school.

  4. Posted 26Mar08 at 18:58 | Permalink

    Think of all that valuable finger-painting time being wasted on acquring language skills.

    I do – and I think it’s a problem. I don’t think you should be comparing the present situation with what happens in the case of ‘posh kids’. Better to make an international comparison: with the exception of Ireland, British schoolchildren start formal education younger than anyone else in Europe. If you can’t accept this isn’t harming them – at least consider that there’s absolutely no evidence that it’s giving them a head start or, indeed, doing them any good whatsoever. The country that did the best in OECD comparisons was Finland and they don’t start formal education until they’re seven.

  5. Posted 26Mar08 at 19:00 | Permalink

    this isn’t harming them

    Sorry – that should say is harming them.

  6. Posted 27Mar08 at 00:16 | Permalink

    Finland is a lovely example of exactly what I’ve been talking about. Most children of seven in Finland start “formal schooling” with well-developed reading skills. They didn’t acquire them by some kind of mystic osmosis; they were taught by their parents.

    It also helps that Finnish is completely phonetic and consistent. Once they know the rules of the language, Finnish children never even have to think about how to spell a word. What would be the point of teaching spelling to Finnish nursery children?

    (The linked article also suggests that the Finns don’t seem to have bought into the cult of dyslexia. Before anyone starts, I should point out that I believe that dyslexia exists, but, like depression, it is massively over-diagnosed—to the detriment of respectively, those with reading difficulties and people who are unhappy.)

  7. Adrienne
    Posted 27Mar08 at 06:15 | Permalink

    I have one kid who was totally uninterested in reading and writing til starting kinder this year (although he loves and loved to be read long, complicated stories) and now is happily diving into it. On the other hand, my little one, who is less than two, has learnt all her letters– by constantly asking about them, not by us sitting her down with an ABC book unless she chooses it– and is working surprisingly successfully on writing them. Systems like Montessori are useful as they support both types of kids, provide a wide variety of activities, help kids learn to focus but don’t neglect “the whole child”. There are so many ways to learn, and different kids have different channels for learning. My experience as a parent says that what one decides to teach has very little to do with what a child of that age will learn, so the best strategy is to work with the child on what they want to do. Kids seem to learn to read almost spontaneously once they are ready. I was very wary about putting my son off “school” by pressuring him to do things he obviously wasn’t ready for, and I think we should guard the joy of those preschool years carefully. But I certainly don’t believe in holding a kid back when they are good to go.

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