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Previous work on the long-term effects of early reading focuses on whether children can read early (i.e. capability) not on whether this is beneficial (i.e. optimality).The Luke Effect is introduced to predict long-term reading development as a function of when children learn to read. A review of correlational, intervention, and comparative research suggests that early reading shows only short-term effects for reading skills that later wash out. Based on different developmental trajectories of language and word recognition skills (WRS), it is hypothesised that: (1) children who learn to read later acquire WRS more readily; and (2) acquiring WRS earlier does not improve language development. Thus, reading instruction falling ‘on good soil [produces] a hundred times as much grain' (Luke, 8:8), but early reading skills do not improve the soil, simply withering until children's language is more developed.
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European Early Childhood Education Research Journal
ISSN: 1350-293X (Print) 1752-1807 (Online) Journal homepage:
The Parable of the Sower and the long-term
effects of early reading
Sebastian P. Suggate
To cite this article: Sebastian P. Suggate (2015) The Parable of the Sower and the long-term
effects of early reading, European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 23:4, 524-544,
DOI: 10.1080/1350293X.2015.1087154
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Published online: 26 Oct 2015.
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The Parable of the Sower and the long-term effects of early
Sebastian P. Suggate
Department of Education, Alanus University of Arts and Social Sciences, Alfter, Germany;
Department of Education, University of Regensburg, Regensburg, Germany
Previous work on the long-term effects of early reading focuses on whether children
can read early (i.e. capability) not on whether this is beneficial (i.e. optimality).The
Luke Effect is introduced to predict long-term reading development as a function of
when children learn to read. A review of correlational, intervention, and
comparative research suggests that early reading shows only short-term effects
for reading skills that later wash out. Based on different developmental
trajectories of language and word recognition skills (WRS), it is hypothesised
that: (1) children who learn to read later acquire WRS more readily; and (2)
acquiring WRS earlier does not improve language development. Thus, reading
instruction falling on good soil [produces] a hundred times as much grain
(Luke, 8:8), but early reading skills do not improve the soil, simply withering
until childrens language is more developed.
Keywords: decoding skill; reading development; age; instruction; language;
reading comprehension
A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path;
it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on rock, and when it came
up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which
grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and
yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown. (Luke, 8: 58)
In the Parable of the Sower from the Gospel of Luke, the right conditions have to be in
place before an abundant harvest is reaped. Applying the analogy to child development
and education, we teach children certain skills because we hope that the seeds of skills
and knowledge that we plant will blossom into flower and then fruit, so that children
may in turn bestow these fruit on society. Moreover, we seek to sow the skills in the
right season when children are best able to benefit from them. To illustrate through
extremes, we would consider it futile to instruct appropriate use of the subjunctive
tense before children can form subject-verb-object sentences or we do not ask children
to learn the rules of driving long before they are legally able to drive. Here I coin the
Luke Effect to reflect the developmental principle of teaching the right skills in the right
season, so that children can derive long-lasting benefit.
The purpose of this article is to apply this principle of the Luke Effect to when
children learn to read. Although neglected (Dollase 2007), this question has a huge
© 2015 EECERA
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Vol. 23, No. 4, 524544,
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importance in Europe in educational policy, psychological research and parenting
practice particularly amidst growing pressure on children (Hyson et al. 1991) and the
perceived loss of childhood (House 2011). Although arguments have been made based
on Piagetian, Montessouri, Steiner, or other philosophical perspectives here the intention
is to build primarily upon contemporary and empirical reading-based evidence.
In the first section, I introduce the key terms on what is involved in learning to read
and what the hopeful outcome is. Then I turn to consider a distinction between capa-
bility and optimality with respect to the question of a right season to introduce reading
instruction. After reviewing relevant evidence, I conclude that there is an optimal
season albeit broad and likely dependent on individual child and contextual factors
approximated by age (Rutter 1989) - and outline a developmental model to specify
the conditions for the optimal season to learn reading.
Defining key terms
To reduce this articles scope, discussion falls specifically on whether early reading
instruction might improve later reading comprehension and language development.
Unfortunately, this entails directing the scope away from the many important factors
enabling success at reading, such as engagement in reading, motivation, and academic
self-concept (Chapman and Tunmer 1995; Morgan and Fuchs 2007; Sonnenschein and
Munsterman 2002; Wang and Guthrie 2004).
The optimal season for reading skill acquisition
A key premise of this article is that there is an optimal season to begin learning to read.
Based on the view that skilled reading involves the development of language and word
recognition skills (WRS) (e.g. Gough and Tunmer 1986; Storch and Whitehurst 2002)
that initially develop from different experiences (Suggate, Schaughency, and Reese
2011), I suggest that this season must heavily relate to the development of these two
factors. Thus, I conceptualise the optimal season as being: (1) when WRS (i.e. learning
to read) can be learnt most effortlessly; (2) in harmony with and not in place of activities
fostering language, so long as this occurs in time for: (3) children to optimally derive
benefit from having reading skills over and above language skills for their further learn-
ing (e.g. from reading science or history texts). Theoretically, if this relation were
plotted as a figure it would approximate an inverse parabola because instruction
begun before the right season would be time consuming and may reduce time for
other important activities, such as language learning. However, if left too late then chil-
dren would be deprived of important learning opportunities arising from possessing
good reading skills.
Clearly, this optimisation depends on at least two factors on the individual childs
capability to acquire WRS and on the learning opportunities available to children, be
they reading or language based. Therefore, educators would ideally need to always con-
sider both individual (e.g. child language skills, eagerness, home environment) and
contextual differences (e.g. low presence of learning resources, second language learn-
ing) in determining what is optimal. A noteworthy contextual factor is that the different
orthographical features of languages affect reading development (Seymour, Aro,
Erskine, and COST Action Network 2003). To reduce the complexity of this work, I
focus on children learning English and speaking this at home, although the theory pre-
sented could also be applied to other European languages.
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Defining early and later while avoiding blanket ages
Given that the optimal season might vary greatly between children due to individual
differences in aptitude and environment, it is difficult to define early and later in a sat-
isfactory blanket age manner. Accordingly, I use these blanketterms of early and later
and their corresponding references only in the sense that a statistical mean is reported in
research papers under the premise that the reader understand that the mean is an
approximation for a larger sample, but that there are many exceptions on either side
of the mean. With this caveat in mind, the age range in which children receive
formal reading instruction in developed countries varies from around age four in the
UK or academically-focused preschools, to age seven in Sweden, Bulgaria, Brazil,
the Baltic states, and Russia, for example (Huebler 2007). To restrict considerations
to the age ranges in available data, earlyrefers to ages four and five (preschool and
kindergarten in the US, and preschool and primary school in much of the former
British Commonwealth) and laterrefers to ages six and seven. Thus, the difference
between early and later is, on average, around two years.
Defining word recognition, language, and reading comprehension skills
The term WRS is preferred over decoding because the latter often refers to sounding-
out or letter-sound decoding skills, whereas it is necessary here to include a broader
term that acknowledges other more non-decodingprocesses operating in text deci-
phering (e.g. sight-word reading, chunked word-stem recognition, set for variability).
These WRS are restricted to those directly involving text, such as alphabet knowledge,
letter-sound correspondences, word-decoding, and to the extent that this is possible
without top-down language skills reading fluency skills (Adams 1990; Lonigan
and Shanahan 2008). Language encompasses vocabulary, phonology, semantics,
syntax, and pragmatics (Snow, Burns, and Griffin 1998).
It is generally accepted that the purpose of reading (i.e. engaging in the activity of
reading) is to read to comprehend and in an educational sense to learn from the text,
without precluding that the activity of reading has other purposes (e.g. to practice
reading itself, to convey meaning to a third person, for enjoyment). Reading compre-
hension in its most simple form is defined as being able to read a given text fluently
and understand to a reasonable level what was read (Stuart, Stainthorp, and Snowling
2008). However, at a level that more closely adheres to the goal of reading allowing
children to derive profit from WRS, reading comprehension becomes skilled
reading. Skilled readers not only exhibit mastery of WRS and can derive meaning
from sentences containing vocabulary items already in their lexicons, but they can
also infer and acquire meanings of unfamiliar words (Swanborn and de Glopper
1999), reflect upon the meaning of text, and acquire knowledge from reading (Biemiller
2006). Thereby, skilled readers derive profit from engaging in the activity of skilled
reading, with this then improving language, non-language, and reading comprehension
The past, present and future: from capability to optimality
Historically, much debate on early reading centred on whether children were readyto
read. Thus, in an early empirical study Morphett and Washburne (1931) explored pro-
gress in reading across grade 1 as a function of mental age and concluded that children
526 S.P. Suggate
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should learn to read at age 6.5 years based on their progress. However, this conclusion
was challenged by Gates (1937), who found that the necessary mental age depended to
a large extent on the reading programme; children as young as five could learn to read if
the programme was appropriately tailored.
From there at the risk of oversimplification the debate on mental requisites
shifted in two directions, although still focusing on the capability to read early. In
the first instance, the inadequacy of chronological age as an indicator of when to
learn to read was demonstrated, primarily in research on school readiness and school
entry age (e.g. Morrison, Griffith, and Alberts 1997). In the second instance, focus
shifted toward developing programmes that would teach children early reading skills
(e.g. Ehri et al. 2001). A further breach from the readiness perspective was taken in
emergent literacy, which sees a conglomeration of pre-reading factors as influencing
later reading (Whitehurst and Lonigan 2001) and these begin developing long before
children were typically considered ready (e.g. age 6.5, Morphett and Washburne 1931).
However, at this junction I wish to introduce a second facet to the consideration that
of optimality for it may well be possible to learn to read early but it is important to
know what the benefits of doing so are. Indeed, in this respect the concluding words
of Gates (1937) over eight decades later are still relevant:
Finally, it should be made clear that the results presented in this report do not answer the
question: At what age is it best to introduce reading to pupils? Although the data seem to
indicate that it is possible to organise materials and methods to teach children to learn to
read at a mental age of 5.0 or higher, they do not, in any way, imply that it is desirable to
do so. It would be necessary to determine the general educational, personal, and social
effects of introducing reading at different stages by methods so well adjusted to the pupils
that they would all learn to read successfully. (p. 508, emphasis in original)
In other words, the question of what effects early versus later reading has requires
making a fine distinction between what can be taught to children early (i.e. capability),
versus whether childrens long-term reading achievement is bettered by doing so (i.e.
Evidence and arguments for early reading
At the heart of the arguments for children learning to read early are two lines of evi-
dence. The first concerns developmental continuity, and the second, the effectiveness
of early reading intervention.
Developmental continuity
Developmental continuity is the observation that childrens relative reading perform-
ance remains stable over time (Lonigan and Phillips 2012) from kindergarten into
elementary school (e.g. Hecht et al. 2000; Juel 1988; Kirby, Parrila, and Pfeiffer
2003; National Early Literacy Panel 2008). However, environmental factors operating
to lead to the initial advantage in reading skills are also likely to continue to drive sub-
sequent reading skill development (Suggate 2009,2011,2012). Second, childrens
intellectual and language aptitude is also unlikely to change drastically over time, so
this also may drive developmental continuity, not the fact that they could read earlier
per se. Third, the simple demonstration of developmental continuity between early
and later reading skills misrepresents the complex picture arising from correlational
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research. Importantly, few correlational studies are conducted over a long period of
time and when these are, correlations amongst WRS decrease over time (e.g. Blatchford
and Plewis 1990; Hemphill and Tivnan 2008) suggesting that other factors come into
play. Moreover, over time correlational studies show that language becomes an impor-
tant predictor of reading skill (Cunningham and Stanovich 1997; Hemphill and Tivnan
2008; Kirby et al. 2003; Storch and Whitehurst 2002; Vellutino et al. 2007).
Finally, correlation coefficients in this context essentially represent a relative rank
indicating that children retain their scores relative to other children over time. They do
not indicate whether having the one skill at one point in time was necessary for receiv-
ing a particular score later on, which instead requires comparative research designs (as
are reviewed later). To drive the analogy to the extreme, correlational research might
simply allow us to conclude that our education systems do not have the effect of
taking the best readers and turning them into the worst (Suggate 2011).
Intervention research
Turning now to consider intervention research, much evidence exists showing mean-
ingful short-term effects of early reading intervention, usually with moderate effect
sizes (d.50) (Bus and van Ijzendoorn 1999;Ehrietal.2001;Ehrietal.2001). Unfortu-
nately, well-controlled studies of early reading intervention (i.e. conducted in preschool or
kindergarten) including follow-up beyond elementary school are largely missing, with the
result that estimates of long-term effects are inferred from studies with a short-term or
medium follow-up. Effect size estimates from immediately post-intervention to follow-
up around 12 to 18 months later indicate decreases in effect size over time (e.g. from
around d= .16 to .36). Crucially, only about 10% of original studies actually report
follow-up data (Bus and van Ijzendoorn 1999;Ehrietal.2001;Ehrietal.2001;
Suggate 2010), suggesting publication bias may be at work (Hunter and Schmidt 2004).
Moreover reading intervention studies specifically manipulate WRS development
but do not compare early WRS environments with equally rich and stimulating environ-
ments fostering, for example, language often because intervention studies typically
compare different reading programmes with one another. Therefore, early intervention
research provides answers about how to facilitate early acquisition of WRS but
determining the long-term effect that the early acquisition of WRS has, in comparison
to stimulating non-WRS environments, necessitates a different line of comparative
long-term research.
Evidence comparing early versus later reading over the long-term
Ages three to five: evidence from preschool programmes
A large body of evidence suggests that a well-designed preschool or home intervention
programme can boost the later cognitive and social development of children raised in
poverty or otherwise at-risk environments (e.g. Gilliam and Zigler 2001; Lazar and
Darlington 1982; Magnusson, Ruhm, and Waldfogel 2007; Nelson, Westhaus, and
MacLeod 2003; Schweinhart and Weikart 1988). Unfortunately, much of this research
does not include reading outcomes reported separately (e.g. Becker and Gerstein 1982;
Gray and Klaus 1970; Lee et al. 1990; Meyer 1984; Miller and Bizzell 1983; Sprigle
and Schaefer 1985; Wasik et al. 1990). Most crucially, this research often compares
a well designed preschool programme with lower quality or no care. Thereby this evi-
dence does not isolate the issue of whether early development of WRS in comparison to
528 S.P. Suggate
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a similarly rich but non-reading programme leads to long-term advantages in reading. A
summary of studies containing an early reading component are described in Table 1.
In Table 1, only one study found evidence of an advantage in reading that reduced
over the medium-term from kindergarten to grade 1. However, this advantage existed
only for the at-risk subsample attending a preschool programme and this was associated
with greater externalising behaviour difficulties (Magnusson et al. 2007). Importantly,
most studies in Table 1 failed to show a reading advantage even though the children
were at-risk.
Ages four to seven: evidence from school entry age in international studies
There appear to be two published quantitative international analyses of reading as a
function of school entry age. Elleys(1992) study suggested that, both before and
after controlling for social and demographic factors, by age nine differences between
children starting early and later had largely disappeared, although he did not replicate
his analysis with the 14-year-old sample. To address this limitation, Suggate (2009)
re-analysed data from the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment
(PISA), investigating 15-year-oldsreading achievement across 55 countries. After
controlling for similar social and economic factors as Elley (1992), there was no differ-
ence in reading achievement as a function of when children entered school. Impor-
tantly, neither Elley (1992) nor Suggate (2009) accounted adequately for the
orthographic-depth or complexity of syllable structure across different languages.
Ages four to seven: evidence from school entry age in within-culture studies
To better account for orthographic features of English, research comparing reading
development from schools adopting different curriculum is insightful. Crucially, chil-
dren in also publically funded Steiner (also called Waldorf) schools in New Zealand
do not typically enter school until the year they turn seven and state school pupils
receive intensive reading instruction and support such that most read connected text flu-
ently by age six according to scores on graded readers (McNaughton, Phillips, and
MacDonald 2000). Suggate et al. (2013) compared reading development for 287 chil-
dren from state and Steiner schools across the first six years of school. Accounting for
receptive vocabulary, home literacy environment, school reading instruction, reading-
self concept, parental education and income, community economic status, second
language proficiency, and ethnicity, reading fluency and comprehension indicated
that the later starters had caught up by age 11 and, in a second part to this study,
they even overtook early starters in reading comprehension by age 12.
In Montessori education, learning is largely led by childrens individual initiative
with teachers there to direct and support children in activities. Interestingly, it is
often the case that children learn to read early under these conditions, around age
4. In a cross-sectional design carried out in the US, Lillard and Else-Quest (2006)
recruited children aged either five or 12 (N= 112) who were attending state versus
Montessori schools, with selection into the Montessori school occurring via a lottery.
The five-year-old children had greater reading skills, however this difference was not
observed in the 12-year-old sample, suggesting that the early advantage for reading
skill in Montessori education disappeared.
In a study on the long-term effect of early schooling and therewith early reading,
Kern and Friedman (2009) looked at a range of lifelong outcomes, including educational
European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 529
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Table 1. Summary of selected preschool research studies including a word recognition skills component and concordant outcome measures.
Authors Year Description Design Sample Outcome Comments
Evans 1985 Looked at DI vs HS (vs no
Quasi, test of PS
N= 44 (20), AR Similar G6 and G8 RA Attrition of 52%, small
Durkin 197475 Two-year additional PS
reading programme from
age four school from age
Quasi, IQ controlled,
age four vs six
NA, N= 67 By G3-4 no
differences in RA
Reading instruction
initially whole
word, then phonics.
et al.
2007 Large longitudinal study
with naturally occurring
variation in PS care
Quasi, HS, PS, pre-
K, parental care,
other non-parental
N= 10,244, NA and
AR, fairly
> RA in K but reduced
by G1. RA
advantage persists
more for AR
PS associated with >
Marcon 2002 Compared DI vs child-
initiated vs mixture
Quasi, PS & K AR, N= 169 G4
and N=183 G5
RA similar in G4 and
Attrition of 36%,
similar across PSs
Reynolds 1994 PS with emphasis on reading
readiness and affective
development (vs
traditional kindergarten).
PS and K
intervention vs
none, quasi
N= 398, AR RA identical G3-5 Evidence of > RA for
PS int. when this ran
for 2 years in school
Schmerkotte 1978 Government test effects of
lower SEA. Academic K
vs non-academic K.
Quasi, age 5 vs. 6 100 classes with up
to 25 children in
each, NA
By G2 no differences
in RA
After study,
government did not
lower SEA
Schweinhart &
1997 High/scope vs DI (vs
traditional nursery school)
RA N= 45 (68), AR Similar academic
High/scope similar to
traditional nursery
Note: SEA = school entry age, Quasi = quasi experimental design, RA = reading age, PS = preschool, K = kindergarten, G = grade, AR = at risk sample, NA = normally
achieving, RA = reading achievement, int. = intervention, DI = direct instruction, HS = Head Start.
530 S.P. Suggate
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achievement, midlife adjustment and mortality. The participants were gifted (IQ > 135)
and, on average, aged 12 in 1922 when they entered the study. Parents provided retro-
spective information on when the children had learned to read and when they entered
school. Although early school entry and learning to read earlier were initially associated
with positive factors (i.e. higher IQ and family income), early reading only resulted in
short-term educational success and in the long-term it was associated with lower edu-
cational achievement and poorer teenage and adult adjustment. In addition to being
linked with lower overall achievement and adjustment, earlier school entry (when the
parents opted to send the child a year earlier than they could have) was linked to
earlier death, even after controlling for a host of personality and developmental variables
(Kern and Friedman 2009). Aside from the Magnusson et al.s(2007) study in Table 1,
this is the first study that has found links between earlier reading and later maladjust-
ment. Interestingly, by virtue of including a gifted sample, the findings emphasise a
tenet of this article that capability may not be optimality because the children
were likely perfectly able to learn to read in that they were gifted.
Summary of evidence: the null hypothesis upheld
Traditionally, correlational and intervention research has been used to argue for early
reading. However, correlational evidence is open to many interpretations and interven-
tion research is too short-term and often lacks an appropriate language-rich control
group. Much quasi-experimental evidence exists, from preschool studies, international
studies, and comparative quasi-experimental studies. There is strong and converging
data to suggest that early reading does not lead to greater skilled reading later on,
despite initial short-term improvements.
These findings cannot easily be dismissed with the mantra absence of evidence is
not evidence of absence because the studies initially show evidence of an effect that
later shows an absence of an effect. Rather, these findings ought be interpreted and
upheld in light of one of the pillars of positivistic scientific enquiry: an intervention
has no effect unless empirically demonstrated to do so. With regards the idea of an
optimal season, given that the early advantage washes out, it can be said according
to the definition provided earlier for what is optimal that teaching before age six or
seven is not optimal. We do not have any evidence on whether, for example, age
eight is more or less optimal than age seven.
Building a developmental model of reading
Next I propose a theoretical model on the conditions under which learning to read has
long-term benefits for skilled reading. I first outline that skilled reading is built on word
recognition and language skills and discuss several features with respect to skill con-
straint and dual constraint. Based on this nuanced developmental view, I formulate
two hypotheses which lead to a conceptualisation of the Luke Effect as it relates to
reading development.
Two components of reading
Decades of research has identified that a large part of variance in reading comprehen-
sion development can be explained by two strands of skills, namely WRS and language
(e.g. Biemiller 2006; Scarborough 2001; Sénéchal, LeFevre, and Smith-Chant 2001;
European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 531
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Storch and Whitehurst 2002). The importance of these two strands of skills is empha-
sised in the Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer 1986), which proposes that
reading is the product of decoding and comprehension. The Simple View of Reading
has received reasonable support (e.g. Kendeou, Savage, and van den Broek 2009;
Kirby and Savage 2008; Stuart et al. 2008) and has a high conceptual appeal and
face validity (Kirby and Savage 2008). Indeed, other cognitive factors mediate and/
or explain additional variance in skilled reading (e.g. Ouellette and Beers 2010;
Conners 2009; Kershaw and Schatschneider 2012; Tilstra et al. 2009) but word recog-
nition and language are two key aspects.
Skill and developmental constraints in reading development
Dual-constraint in reading development
An important consequence of reading depending heavily on language and WRS is that a
dual-constraint is thereby placed on reading comprehension. Superior language devel-
opment in the absence of superior word-recognition skill development and vice versa
can logically lead only to reading at the level of the lesser developed of these two
sets of skills. The dual-constraint nature of reading is recognised in dyslexia and hyper-
lexia (deficit in word-recognition, deficit in reading comprehension, respectively,
Tunmer and Greaney 2009). Thus, good WRS in the absence of good language leads
to difficulty reading words with irregular orthography and reading for meaning.
Although exceptions may exist (e.g. Thompson et al. 2008), this dual-constraint
aspect of reading means that many early readers would likely be constrained to
reading controlled text with few exception words, in comparison to older children
with greater language ability. Perhaps more importantly, children without the language
and accompanying conceptual lexicon would be restricted when reading for meaning to
texts that contain vocabulary items they sufficiently understand, as demonstrated by the
contribution vocabulary makes in reading comprehension (e.g. Cunningham and Stano-
vich 1997).
Skill-constraint in reading development
Paris (2005) in his Constrained Skills Theory pointed out the role of skill constraint in
reading development. In terms of this article, although both language and WRS
approximate asymptotic trajectories, WRS are comparatively constrained (Paris
2005). WRS develop with initial bursts in acquisition, followed by a plateau as a
ceiling, or asymptote, is approached:
[T]raditional reading research has ignored fundamental differences in the developmental
trajectories of reading skills. These different trajectories are manifested in different times
of skill onset, different durations of acquisition, and different asymptotic levels of per-
formance. What is most important is that there are some skills that are more constrained
than others; they are learned quickly, [and] mastered entirely (Paris 2005, 184)
For WRS, the period of time in which these develop is relatively brief, characterised by
a floor effect before development, a rapid burst in acquisition, and then a tapering
toward a ceiling. Conversely, many language skills require much longer periods to
develop, have greater ceilings, and make a conceptually less-constrained contribution
to reading. Paris termed these latter skills unconstrainedbut here I call them less-
532 S.P. Suggate
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constrained because all skills are ultimately constrained. According to Paris, uncon-
strained skills include vocabulary and semantics because development thereof can con-
tribute indefinitely to reading comprehension. In English, individual word reading
requires a sufficiently developed lexicon because of the irregular orthography (e.g.
Nation and Coxsey 2009), rendering reading of irregular words less constrained than
regular word decoding.
To give an example, important requisites for reading such as alphabet knowledge
and letter-sound correspondences can be quickly mastered because they are finite in
number (i.e. 26 letters in the alphabet and about 50 letter-sound correspondences in
English). Thus, alphabet knowledge, concepts about print, and, to a lesser extent, pho-
nemic awareness develop to reach a ceiling in a brief time frame, whereas vocabulary
and comprehension require much longer. It may be possible to comparatively quickly
develop the requisite WRS to read much of ShakespearesHamlet aloud. However,
understanding Hamlet is an entirely different matter, requiring sophisticated vocabu-
lary, semantic, and pragmatic understanding. Unlike some WRS, language develops
over a long period of time and its contribution for skilled reading is ultimately great
(Dickinson et al. 2010). Figure 1 depicts these relations graphically by plotting the
average score of the normative test sample for commonly used measures of phonemic
awareness, non-word and word reading, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.
Although the relations in Figure 1 reflect, to some extent, the constrained properties
of tests, they bear remarkable similarity to the relative constraint in skills as depicted
by Paris (2005).
Figure 1. Normative sample means on published norm-referenced tests of language and
reading skill development as a function of chronological age. Note that the raw score for
passage comprehension was multiplied by an integer (2.5) so that it lay between word identifi-
cation and vocabulary. PPVT = Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, CTOPP = Comprehensive
Test of Phonological Processing, WRMT = Woodcock Reading Master Test-Normative Update.
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Two hypotheses on early WRS acquisition
Are WRS acquired more readily when children are older?
It is clear from decades of intervention studies that most children can acquire at least
rudimentary WRS at age four or five (e.g. Bus and van Ijzendoorn 1999; Ehri et al.
2001; Ehri et al. 2001; National Early Literacy Panel 2008, Suggate 2010); therefore,
it is here taken as established that, under the right conditions, many children can acquire
early WRS. However, I now consider whether this progresses as rapidly as with other
Theoretical considerations
Theoretically, there are good reasons to believe that WRS acquisition might differ as a
function of when children learn to read. First, given the importance of language in
reading, phonology in phonemic awareness (e.g. Walley, Metsala, and Garlock
2003), vocabulary in irregular word decoding (e.g. Tunmer and Chapman 2012), and
in reading comprehension (e.g. Cunningham and Stanovich 1997), the acquisition of
reading skills is more likely to proceed favourably when language development is
stronger. There are indeed age-related gains in vocabulary and therewith phonemic
awareness (Walley et al. 2003), complexity and rapidity of language comprehension
(Wassenberg et al. 2008), and childrens narrative skill (Liles 1993; Suggate et al.
2011). Therefore, older beginning readers should have a greater language foundation
than younger beginning readers, thus facilitating WRS development.
Second, although this is not a major focus of the current work, non-language,
general knowledge (Neuman 2006; Vanderwood et al. 2002), and cognitive factors
(Luna and Sweeney 2001) important for reading comprehension develop with age
and experience driven maturation (e.g. Suggate 2010). Reading is an unnatural act
containing many abstract features that can seem counterintuitive to children. For
example, children confuse word length with the size of the object referred too
(Valtin 2012). Additionally, the letters themselves in alphabetic languages bear little,
if any, relationship to the objects and sounds they represent. That amakes the
sound /ah/, that houseis spelt with five letters, and that knightis not spelt nyte
is abstract and often illogical. Thus, the ability to think abstractly, apply rules, and
encode and retrieve learned forms in memory would facilitate acquiring WRS. Accord-
ingly, evidence suggests that older children at school entry have greater verbal skills
(Kurdek and Sinclair 2001) and pre-literacy skills including phonemic awareness
(Crone and Whitehurst 1999). Certainly, type and intensity of instruction may exert
a more powerful influence than a few months of maturation (Crone and Whitehurst
1999; Morrison et al. 1997). However, in general, children who are one to two years
older when they begin reading instruction should learn WRS more readily.
Evidence from meta-analysis
Some reading intervention meta-analyses suggest that older children exhibit a greater
response to reading intervention (Suggate 2010; Talbott, Wills, and Tankersley
1994). For example, in a large reading intervention meta-analysis (k= 116), Suggate
(2010)investigated intervention effect size for at-risk and reading disabled children
as a function of grade, controlling for a host of moderating variables, including inter-
vention modality. Overall there was a tendency for older children to show greater inter-
vention effect sizes and this appeared most marked for WRS.
534 S.P. Suggate
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Evidence from international comparisons
Findings from international studies capitalising on different ages at which children
begin schooling shed light on how the development of WRS proceed depending on
when instruction began. However, the PISA studies measure reading performance at
age 15, which is extremely distal to when instruction begins. As mentioned earlier,
Elleys(1992) study looked at reading comprehension of nine- and 14-year-olds
across 32 countries. Surprisingly, Elley (1992) found that the relative difference in
instruction for those beginning at age seven or five was barely detectable by age
nine. Thus, similar levels of WRS were acquired in half the amount of time and
Further evidence comes from an international study of reading development focus-
ing on WRS development in the first year of school (Seymour et al. 2003). Seymour
and colleagues found a tendency for older children to have a greater rate of WRS acqui-
sition, although the relations with age were not as great as with orthographic depth and
syllabic structure of the languages. Importantly, this pattern occurred also when two
languages (i.e. English and Danish) similar in orthographic depth were directly com-
pared (Cunningham and Carroll 2011).
Evidence from studies in one language
Although not conducted in English, one set of experimental studies directly compared
the rate of developing WRS for comparatively older and younger children (Feitelson,
Tehori, and Levinberg-Green 1982). In their report, three experiments investigated
acquisition of decoding (and also comprehension) skills in Hebrew for differently
aged children (N= 62). In all studies, older children showed greater gains in WRS
than younger children, and this relation held when conducted in a community with a
very low SES population(Feitelson et al. 1982, 492).
Cunningham and Caroll (2011) compared the reading development of children in
standard versus Steiner schools in England, providing evidence from Englishs
complex orthography (Seymour et al. 2003).Over the course of the year, the groups
made similar progress in the development of WRS including on phonemic awareness
tasks, even though the older children received around 17 hours of phonics instruction
in the year compared to the standard school children who received nearly 38 hours.
Thus, Cunningham and Carroll (2011) commented:
A possible explanation [for the similar progress with less instruction] is that the superior
reading related skills and greater maturity of the Steiner children (age-related factors)
made them more receptive to the instruction than their younger counterparts. (12)
Similar evidence comes from the study discussed earlier (i.e. Suggate et al. 2013), in
which the Waldorf children had, by around age 10, made good large deficits in
WRS caused by delaying the onset of reading instruction by approximately 19
months. Again, this occurred despite the Steiner schools devoting in comparison a
little over half of the amount of time per day to text-related reading instruction par-
ticularly in the earlier grades. Moreover, the later starting children in Durkins(1974
1975) study also reached a similar level of word reading skills despite receiving instruc-
tion for two instead of four years.
Hypothesis I. In light of the above evidence, I hypothesise that: comparatively older
children acquire WRS more readily.
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Do early reading skills benefit language development?
To address whether it is beneficial to acquire WRS early, it is necessary to see how
language develops with and without early reading experiences. If having early WRS
led to improved language development, then it would here be considered optimal.
However, a fair comparison on the benefits of early reading is not comparing an effec-
tive early reading programme with a poor one as is often the case in early intervention
research. Instead early reading programmes must be compared with those of similar
quality fostering oral language skills (e.g. through play, storytelling, singing). Approxi-
mations of this contrast can be found internationally by comparing children in play-
oriented kindergartens versus more school like environments (e.g. Finland vs New
Zealand, child-centred vs academic preschools, Lonigan and Phillips 2012; Marcon
2012, or Waldorf vs. state, Suggate et al. 2013).
Theoretical considerations. Given the already rapid expansion in preschoolers
vocabularies from around 50 words at 18 months to 10,000 words at six years (Die-
sendruck 2009)it is reasonable to doubt whether having WRS substantially alters this
trajectory. Indeed, powerful influences from spoken language are exerted on childrens
vocabulary development through shared-attention, overhearing (Gampe, Liebal, and
Tomasello 2012), fast mapping (Diesendruck 2009), and of course sophistication of
vocabulary in the home environment (e.g. Weizman and Snow 2001). Depending on
the viewpoint, either reciprocal benefits of early WRS for language might exist (e.g.
Ehri 2012) or concern might be voiced at the time directed into reading instruction
taken away from imagination and play (e.g. Golinkoff, Hirsh-Pasek, and Singer
2006; House 2011).
Theoretically, differential effects of early WRS acquisition on language develop-
ment might be expected. One skill that clearly shows short-term benefits of learning
to read is phonemic awareness, which experiences a time-limited burst in development
after the beginning of reading instruction (e.g. Silvén, Poskiparta, and Niemi 2004).
Conversely, the broader skills of vocabulary, syntax, and semantics would only be
expected to improve from having early reading skills if: (1) either of these language
skills were present in texts to a greater extent than in oral language environments; or
(2) features of the language medium (either text or spoken) allowed deeper or more effi-
cient processing.
Is spoken language less complicated than early texts?
Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimated, based on the complexity of classroom texts, that
children would not begin to encounter new vocabulary from reading, that they would
not have encountered through non-reading experiences, until around grade 3 to 4. If
children are not being exposed to vocabulary from text that is richer than what they
receive from an oral non-WRS environment until middle elementary school, then it
is difficult to see how having early WRS would improve language. Additionally, the
complexity of texts would not help children unless they were more efficient at acquiring
vocabulary from reading, thus this is considered next.
Does text facilitate language learning?
Two recent studies using experimental designs investigated whether the presence of
text facilitated the acquisition of vocabulary. For both non-words (Rickets, Bishop,
and Nation 2009) and words (Rosenthal and Ehri 2008) having an orthographic
536 S.P. Suggate
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representation resulted in superior word learning, particularly for older children (grade
5 vs grade 2), that is when reading skills begin to contribute to language. However, the
conditions in both studies resembled formulaic vocabulary instruction, not incidental
word learning from either a naturalistic early WRS environment or non-WRS
To directly test whether having early WRS results in greater vocabulary acquisition
compared to more naturalistic language environments, Suggate et al. (2013) exposed
grade 2 and 4 children to three different conditions. Children either read stories inde-
pendently, had stories read to them by experimenters, or they simply had stories told
to them freely by experimenters. The purpose of choosing the three conditions was
to not only control for the presence of text, but also to include a more naturalistic
text-free condition with a purely oral delivery. In each story, acquisition of target
words was tested. Children showed greater learning of target vocabulary items when
stories were told, followed by the shared-reading, and then the independent reading
conditions even though all children were established readers. Thus, even skilled
grade 4 readers appear to gain greater impetus for vocabulary development through
oral language over reading.
An alternative approach is to examine incidental word acquisition from childrens
reading of texts. Swanborn and de Glopper (1999) conducted a meta-analysis of inci-
dental word learning research for children reading texts under conditions designed to
simulate normal reading experiences. Overall the probability that children learned a
previously unfamiliar word from reading text was .15. Importantly, at grade 4 this prob-
ability was only .08, but in grade 11 this was .33. Unfortunately, there were no studies
with samples younger than grade 4; however, the pattern with age suggests that younger
children might learn but few new words from reading. Moreover, in their meta-anaylsis,
Swanborn and de Glopper (1999) found evidence that non-WRS development was
more important than reading skill. Grade, but not reading ability, made a significant
contribution to word learning, explaining 46% of the heterogeneity in effect size.
Language acquisition from early reading versus non-reading environments
In the following section examining language acquisition from early reading and non-
reading environments, research on shared book reading is not discussed because this
largely concerns parents decoding the text with children being involved primarily in
a language interaction with parents.
Comparative studies
There are several studies suggesting that language skills overall develop similarly
regardless of whether children are in environments fostering early WRS or not. In a
natural experiment comparing children lying on either side of a cut-off date for entry
into school, Morrison, Griffith, and Frazier (1996) report results showing that similarly
aged children made no more progress in formal schooling versus a less formal kinder-
garten on measures of vocabulary, general knowledge, and narrative skills, despite
developing superior WRS.
One study looked cross-sectionally at samples of children in either state or Steiner
schools in New Zealand (Suggate et al. 2011). Importantly, the children had vastly
different experiences from age five to six, with the state-school children attending
formal full-day schooling and the Waldorf children attending half-day play-based
European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 537
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kindergartens. Three samples were recruited, to allow matching on age and schooling
and measures were taken of vocabulary, phonemic awareness, WRS, and oral narrative
retelling. Attending state-school related to superior WRS and phonemic awareness but
not in improved vocabulary or oral narrative skill (Suggate et al. 2013).
In an international study (Suggate et al. 2012) designed to extend the above
work, we compared the language and WRS development of children attending
either their last year of kindergarten (age five to six) or first year of school (aged
six to seven) in Germany, and their first year of state-school in New Zealand
(aged five to six). Vocabulary, listening comprehension, phonemic awareness,
WRS, and narrative story telling abilities were followed across one year. Hierarch-
ical linear models controlled for parental education, ethnicity and second-language
experiences. Data suggested that experience with schooling resulted in greater WRS
and phonemic awareness, but that this WRS development was not associated with
greater improvements in language than that afforded by age and non-schooling
experiences alone.
Hypothesis II. Children experience remarkable language development before they
begin to read, such that it is clear that the bulk of childrens language development has
nothing to do with whether they have early WRS or not. However, contention sur-
rounds the icing on the cake; there is some evidence to suggest that the highly con-
strained skill of phonemic awareness receives short-term benefit from early WRS. It
is also likely that the beginning stages of reading might expose children to different
vocabulary items compared to those that would have been encountered in purely oral
environments and vice versa but that general language differences do not exist.
Although more research is needed, based on the available evidence I hypothesise
that: Early reading skills do not, on average, provide benefits for language above
and beyond a language environment of similar quality.
The Luke Effect and early reading
The changing landscape of child development means that for reading instruction to be
optimal, it needs to be timed, or sown, in the right soil, in the right season. According to
the theory proposed here, early WRS are: (1) conceptually and developmentally con-
strained; (2) constrained by immature early language and non-language factors; (3)
acquired less readily earlier (Hypothesis I); and (4) do not initially improve the less
constrained aspects of language (Hypothesis II), which initially mature without
reading skills. Accordingly, reading instruction begun when children are able to
acquire WRS, but when these WRS do not in turn improve language or non-language
skills over and beyond language environments are destined to wither until the soil (i.e.
language and non-language skills) is developmentally ripe to be able to profit from
having WRS. Reading instruction begun when the soil is ripe yields a crop of
reading skills that because of requiring less reading instruction to sow and
because benefits to language and learning from the activity of reading produces,
by comparison, a hundred times more than was sown(Luke, 8: 8). The Luke
Effect as it applies to reading is depicted in Table 2, with phases used to simplify
the description, although progression from one stage to the other is of course
gradual and context dependent. Likewise, the suggested points in schooling in
column 1 are somewhat arbitrary and vary greatly as a function of a given languages
orthographic complexity, multiple language acquisition, individual differences, and
school and home environments.
538 S.P. Suggate
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The Luke Effect represents a significant paradigm shift in the way early reading is con-
ceptualised this shift can be summarised as viewing readiness not as capability but as
long-term optimality. Certainly, there are many complicated and important factors that
lie outside the scope of this work that need to be the focus of future research. As such,
the Luke Effect itself does not provide the final account on whether children should
learn to read earlier or later but rather represents a beginning in attending to this too
often neglected question.
I would like to thank Elaine Reese, Elizabeth Schaughency, Wolfgang Schneider, and in particu-
lar Tamara Suggate for their conceptual and editorial assistance with this article. Also thanks to
Stefanie Obergrießer and Stefanie Fischer for proof reading. Substantial proportions of this
Table 2. The Luke Effect: a developmental model of the optimal age to learn to read.
Schooling Phase
Direction of
Features of WRS
Preschool Language
through rich
WRS are
developed more
laboriously than
Benefit for
language from
WRS is negligible
and short-term.
Low levels of
language and WRS
constrain reading.
WRS phase Language begins
to improve from
the activity of
skilled reading,
but not more
than from non-
Greater language
skills aid WRS
WRS become
fluent and
Transition to
reading to learn.
From middle
Reading to
Language begins
to derive
benefit from the
activity of
skilled reading.
WRS approach
ceiling and skilled
reading is thereafter
constrained by
Children with
inadequate WRS
and/or language
Note: WRS = word recognition skills.
European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 539
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... Currently, educators often prioritize propositional knowledge in the form of discrete informational units, such as facts or specific academic skills (Suggate, 2015). These aspects are extremely important of course, but from a grounded cognition perspective, it might be argued that direct sensory experiences form the foundation of concepts (Barsalou, 1999) and hence should not be disregarded. ...
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Mental imagery is foundational to human experience, lying at the heart of cognition and reading, however research has failed to conclusively investigate and demonstrate a link. Therefore, we conducted three studies measuring adults' reading and imagery performance. In Study 1, the mental imagery skills of 155 adults were measured using two established self-report measures, namely the Plymouth Sensory Imagery Questionnaire (Psi-Q) and the Spontaneous Use of Imagery Scale (SUIS), and a novel imagery comparison task. In Study 2 (n = 452), a control for speeded processing replaced the SUIS. In Study 3 (n = 236), we added a measure of reading speed. Findings indicate that the objective measurement of mental imagery was associated with reading performance, whereas self-report measures were not. Further, reading comprehension linked more strongly to mental imagery than reading speed did. Findings demonstrate, for the first time, that mental imagery processes are intrinsically linked with reading performance.
... This could have allowed testing whether factors such as letter naming skill, along with a purer measure of non-word decoding, are predictive of reading comprehension much later ( . Moreover, in light of debates on the importance of phonemic awareness in later reading (Scarborough, 1998), it would have been interesting to see whether this was a skill that has a developmentally limited time frame or whether it was of enduring importance (Paris, 2005;Suggate, 2015). In a similar vein, more work is required on establishing the influence of cognitive variables on long-term reading development and vice versa (Ferrer et al., 2007). ...
Previous research suggests that (a) individual differences in reading and language development are stable across childhood, (b) reading and vocabulary are intertwined, and (c) children's oral narrative skill contributes to later reading comprehension. Each of these three phenomena is assessed using a longitudinal design spanning 15 years, from when children were 19 months old until they were 16 years old. Alongside measures for maternal vocabulary, a host of language and (early) reading measures, including vocabulary, early literacy development, oral narrative skill, and reading comprehension, were administered across eight time points to a sample of 58 children. Specific early language and reading skills were generally strongly correlated over time. Reading comprehension at age 12 was predicted by vocabulary at 19 months and emergent literacy at school entry. Vocabulary at 19 months of age predicted early literacy skills prior to school entry and reading comprehension at age 12 years, as did school entry literacy skills. Controlling for maternal and infant vocabulary, children's oral narrative skill around school entry related uniquely to reading comprehension 10 years later. Findings provide new evidence for the long-term interplay between early language, literacy, and later reading and vocabulary development .
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Early childhood represents a crucial time for ameliorating language difficulties, particularly for children who speak a minority language at home. Previous approaches have focused on teaching vocabulary, often embedded in story reading sessions. We reason that contextualization of interventions influences children’s interest in stories and language, testing a new interactive elaborative storytelling (IES) approach against a repeated-reading and phonemic awareness condition. 293 children, of whom 4.6% spoke a minority language at home, were randomly assigned (in clusters) to three intervention conditions, conducted over the course of four months. Pre-test and post-test measures tapped receptive and expressive story-vocabulary, receptive and expressive general vocabulary, phonemic awareness, and oral narrative skill. Additionally, we measured story-delivery and children’s behavior during the intervention sessions. Children were more actively involved in the IES and more off-task in the phonemic awareness condition. Story-vocabulary improved most in the IES conditions and phonemic awareness in the phonemic awareness condition. Children with minority home languages profited equally from the interventions. Results are discussed in terms of the challenges and benefits of oral language interventions for children. Keywords: vocabulary, intervention, phonemic awareness, oral narrative skills, sharedreading
Viele Studien belegen die Wirksamkeit von Leseförderprogrammen, aber nur wenige befassen sich bislang mit den Langzeiteffekten verschiedener Formen von Leseförderung. In einer Metaanalyse verglich Sebastian Suggate (2016) nun erstmals, wie wirksam Programme zur Leseförderung auf lange Sicht wirklich sind. Dafür analysierte der Autor 71 Interventionen mit einer Gesamtteilnehmerzahl von 8161 Kindern, bei denen längere Zeit nach Ende der Förderung (im Durchschnitt nach 11,17 Monaten) eine Folgeuntersuchung stattfand. Die Interventionsinhalte umfassten dabei Vorläuferfertigkeiten des Lesens (z. B. Phonembewusstheit oder Buchstabe-Laut-Zuordnung) ebenso wie konkrete Leseförderung (z. B. Leseverständnis oder -flüssigkeit). Wie zu erwarten, verringerte sich die durchschnittlich Stärke des Effekts der Förderung (abgekürzt als dw) vom Ende der Intervention (dw = 0,37) bis zur Folgeuntersuchung (dw = 0,22). Wesentlich erstaunlicher war jedoch, dass Förderprogramme, die im Kindergarten- oder Vorschulalter durchgeführt wurden, eine wesentlich geringere Langzeitwirkung aufwiesen (dw = 0,12) als Förderungen, die in der ersten bis zweiten Klasse (dw = 0,26) oder in der dritten bis sechsten Klasse (dw = 0,43) stattfanden. Dieser Befund spricht dafür, dass die Effekte früher Leseförderung verblassen, wenn die Sprachentwicklung der Kinder noch nicht ausreichend fortgeschritten ist (für eine ausführliche Diskussion siehe Suggate, in press). Eine weitere wichtige Erkenntnis der Metaanalyse bestand in den Unterschieden zwischen verschiedenen Förderinhalten über alle Altersgruppen hinweg. So zeigten Förderprogramme, die Phonembewusstheit (diese definiert der Autor als die Bewusstheit für Laute, aus denen Worte zusammengesetzt sind, und grenzt sie damit von der phonologischen Bewusstheit auf der Wortebene ab) und Leseverständnis adressierten, größere Langzeiteffekte als Förderprogramme zur Verbesserung der Buchstabe-Laut-Zuordnung und der Leseflüssigkeit.
Introduction. - The aim of the study was to investigate reading comprehension skills in 7 to 10-year-old children and to present a new tool for assessing reading comprehension skills in elementary schoolchildren. Two aspects of text comprehension were assessed: literal comprehension skills and inferencegeneration (with two subtypes of inferences, coherence inferences and knowledge-based inferences).
A corpus of nearly 150,000 maternal word-tokens used by 53 low-income mothers in 263 mother-child conversations in 5 settings (e.g., play. mealtime, and book readings) was studied, Ninety-nine percent of maternal lexical input consisted of the 3,000 most frequent words. Children's vocabulary performance in kindergarten and later in 2nd grade related more to the occurrence of sophisticated lexical items than to quantity of lexical input overall. Density of sophisticated words heard and the density with which such words were embedded in helpful or instructive interactions, at age 5 at home, independently predicted over a third of the variance in children's vocabulary performance in both kindergarten and 2nd grade. These two variables, with controls for maternal education, child nonverbal IQ, and amount of child's talk produced during the interactive settings, at age 5, predicted 50% of the variance in children's 2nd-grade vocabulary.
Imagine a world in which children are encouraged to parrot answers, to fill in the blanks, and to not go beyond the facts. There is little time for play; the focus is on memorization of the "facts". Indeed, play is viewed as a waste of time when more important "work", the work of memorizing and parroting, could be done. As the pressure on children in school increases, paradoxically their ability to relax and just have fun through play is being restricted. This book confronts the prevailing popular "fact" that play is immaterial to children's development and instead argues that play is crucial to children's emotional health and it prepares them for school. Play offers both social and cognitive advantages for children and the adults they will become. This book challenges parents and educators to promote the value of play in children's learning.
This study examined age and gender differences in verbal skills and visuomotor skills at kindergarten, in achievement in reading and mathematics at Grade 4, and in the link between skills at kindergarten and later achievement (n = 281). Older children had higher verbal skills and visuomotor skills than younger children, and girls had higher visuomotor skills and reading achievement than boys. With controls for age, verbal skills uniquely predicted later reading achievement, whereas both verbal skills and visuomotor skills uniquely predicted later mathematics achievement. Readiness in the specific areas of auditory memory and verbal associations predicted later reading achievement, whereas readiness in the specific areas of auditory memory, number skills, and visual discrimination predicted later mathematics achievement.