Clare Sealy has written an amazing blog post explaining why rising 5s need to learn through a mixture of explicit teaching, whole class collective experiences, and play-based encounters. The early years isn’t an area of research for me, but it is a field I spend a lot of time thinking and reading about simply because my own children and those of my friends are currently so young.
Clare’s blog describes the controversies around the question of how we should educate in the reception year. However, I think questions of what and when we should teach young children are equally contentious. Reception year has moved from something that lasted only a few months for many (e.g. me) a generation ago to a de facto compulsory year of schooling and I’d like us* to conduct more empirical research on when it makes sense to teach complex skills such as reading and writing to children.
As an economist, whilst I am supporting my own children in learning new skills (potty training, arithmetic, reading, getting dressed etc…), I wonder why we don’t talk more about the opportunity costs involved in the decisions we make in reception year. What other opportunities must we give up when we decide to teach 4 year olds to read, or to learn some French words, or their number bonds to 20, or to learn a repertoire of songs by heart, or how to identify trees by their leaves?
Economists naturally think in terms of costs and benefits – here our costs are time costs. For example, we choose to potty train children about a year later than they were a generation ago. Why? By delaying we can invest far fewer hours in the process – hours that we then get to spend doing other things. We can afford this delay because disposable nappies are now cheap enough to use for extended periods of time. Equally, we now invest hundreds of hours ensuring children can read the word ‘mat’ when they complete the reception year. That has great benefits to the child, but it has also cost them time which they were then not able to spend doing other things that are promoted in other cultures, such as numeracy or memorising a repertoire of songs, dances and poems.
If an economist was asked how reception year should be organised, they would want some data on these time-investment trade-offs. For example, in the case of teaching a child to read through an explicit phonics programme, they would want to know exactly how the age at which a child starts learning affects the number of teaching hours that need to be invested. The chart below illustrates a trivial example of this. Suppose my daughter started a phonics programme at age 5 and it took her 300 hours of teaching time to complete. How many hours would it have taken if we’d started at age 3? 750 hours? 1000 hours? Would it be worth it? What about if we’d delayed until she was 7? 150 or 200 hours? Would these time gains make it worth delaying? Suppose we could draw a similar chart for a child who comes from a less book-rich home? Would the chart be steeper (i.e. the gap in time investment needed compared to my daughter closed somewhat over time) or flatter? I think we can be fairly sure the curve would be steeper for boys than girls, but by how much? These charts wouldn’t tell you when you should teach phonics, but they would make explicit one bit of evidence we need to decide at what age we should start teaching children to read.
Now, suppose we have two goals – learning to read well enough to pass the phonics test and achieving fluency in number bonds to and within 20. We can choose to start a phonics programme at the age of 4, but that doesn’t leave enough time to also achieve fluency in number bonds as well. Which should we prioritise in the younger children and which should we concentrate on later? An economist would say it depends on the shape of the curves. I suspect (based on my sample size of 2 children) that arithmetic has a flatter curve than reading so that the time investment for learning number bonds at age 4 is not vastly higher than it is at age 5.
These curves are fictional – I don’t know what they look like for real children. But I’d feel far more comfortable explaining to a foreigner why we teach our children to read soon after they are four if I knew the time trade-offs involved in this decision.
Economics is the coldest of the social sciences, but this analysis places every hour of children’s precious lives at its heart. It reminds us that we should take care in balancing the gains from learning new skills against the costly time investments of teaching new stuff to young children. And it reminds us that, whilst it might be more efficient to teach handwriting to four year olds through more explicit and formal methods, this fact alone doesn’t mean we should do it. We should also weigh up the relative time investments involved in choosing to bring forward the teaching of a new skill to the reception year, rather than deferring it to year 1 or 2. Indeed, I suspect much of the raging argument about how we should organise the reception year gets confused by private disagreements about the what and when.
(This is a slightly trivial New Year blog post that summarises everything economics has to say about the reception year. Economists shouldn’t decide what the reception year looks like. Don’t let them.)
* not me
Still reading? OK, here is the indulgent bit where I tell you about my personal views on the reception year:
- I only did a few weeks in reception class and I did OK in life – I can’t help feeling that if it were so critical to start things young then other countries would be doing it too
- Child-initiated play was great for my eldest in playgroup, where the adult-child ratios were high; it was pretty sub-optimal in reception year where there were necessarily frequent child-on-child interactions that could not be mediated by an adult, producing endless social/emotional issues. The thought of having to put my youngest through reception year doesn’t fill me with joy for this reason
- We aren’t ever going to get larger physical spaces and more adults in reception classes. With that in mind, my dream reception year for my children would be 2-3 hours a day at school for collective activities (singing, learning poems, games) and structured work at tables, then back to pre-school for lunch and afternoon play.