Think of Early Reading Products as Circus Tricks

Dear Dr. Fournier:

My 3-year-old daughter is already reading. Do you think I should get her a phonics program, or one of the other early reader programs? She already reads signs when we are in the car. I don’t want to hold her back if she is ready.

Dave S.

Dallas, TX

Dear Dave:


Reading is a wonderful mechanism that allows us to have “mind contact” with the whole universe. But we must remember that the process of reading is like a key; the reader must know how to use the key to unlock the information that is contained in the author’s words.

There are a number of products on the market that attempt to capitalize on parent’s desire to see early success with their children, and early reading programs dominate the market. We are told our “babies can read,” and that as a result our children are essentially guaranteed straight as a result of these programs. Unfortunately, this marketing strategy works, since parents will predictably do whatever they can in an attempt to give their children an “edge.”

One of the statistical understandings I usually share with parents who are considering an accelerated curriculum of any kind is the fact that around the third grade, childhood development rates begin to even out. This is especially hard on some of the children who had been taught to perform these circus tricks as babies thanks to the smart toys provided by their parents. Typically these children are singled out as being “gifted” early on in their academic careers due to the temporary boost they received from the early training.

While parents have something to brag about, many times this advantage begins to wane when the child hits the third grade plateau. As these “gifted” children fall back to meet their peers in terms of development, many parents overreact and jump to what I feel is one of the worst of all possible questions, “What is wrong with my child?” The reality is that the wellspring that is the smart toy advantage has dried up, but parents are distraught over what was lost, and fear that something is wrong with their child.

If you decide to pursue phonics, be sure and understand what you are getting: A circus trick that may provide temporary advantage, as long as you understand the limitations and are willing to expect a plateau in the future.

Reading has two parts. First, there is the mechanical skill of being able to read words. We might use phonics, recognize the whole word or read by syllables. As our reading skills mature, ultimately we use all three skills without realizing it as the mechanics of reading become second nature to us.

The second step in the mechanics of reading is the skill we use when we cannot read a word or, more likely, read it and still do not know what it means. We read around the word and then put in the thought that is missing. This skill requires the use of “context clues,” which requires thinking and evaluation.

A 3-year-old might begin to develop the mechanical skill of reading, but the ultimate goal of reading should be to expand individual thinking, learning and creativity. We should help young children to focus on this goal even before they know how to read.


Is a 3-year-old child ready for a phonics program? Possibly some are. But introducing phonics for the sake of phonics can lead a child to develop only one of the mechanical skills of reading without communicating the essence and joy of reading.

Learning to read is like a dart board. The bull’s-eye is represented by “love of learning.” The inner circles next to the bull’s-eye consist of “thinking” skills such as determining meaning, learning, daydreaming, agreeing with others, creating new ideas and agreeing with “me.” The outermost circles of this dart board represent the mechanical stages of reading.

On this dartboard, a 3-year-old child actually starts at the center, developing a love of learning as she looks at words and wants to know their meaning. The challenge is to keep the child focused on this bull’s-eye as she works through the “outer circles” of necessary mechanical and thinking skills.

As long as your child does not have to read a book for someone else’s purpose (such as a book report), allow her this time to revel in the thought of the written messages others send for her delight. Talk about what she shares with you as you foster the idea that reading is a wonderful way to have a personal conversation with someone (the author) who is far away.

Through these personal conversations, your child will learn the fun that lies at the heart of the bull’s-eye – love of learning, not just love of reading.