Reading E-Books on the iPad John Mahoney

A University of Otago researcher has uncovered for the first time quantitative evidence that teaching children to read from age five is not likely to make that child any more successful at reading than a child who learns reading later, from age seven. The ground-breaking Psychology PhD research, conducted by Dr Sebastian Suggate, has been placed on the University’s “distinguished list” of doctoral theses for 2009. Dr Suggate has also been awarded a prestigious Postdoctoral Research Fellowship from the Humboldt Association in Germany to the University of Wurzburg in Bavaria to further his studies into childhood education.

Starting in 2007, Dr Suggate conducted one international and two New Zealand studies, each one backing up the conclusions of the other; that there is no difference between the reading ability of early (from age five) and late (from age seven) readers by the time those children reach their last year at Primary School by age 11. Comparing children from Rudolf Steiner schools, who usually start learning to read from age seven, and children in state-run schools, who start learning to read at five, he found that the later learners caught up and matched the reading abilities of their earlier-reading counterparts by the time they were 11, or by Year 7.

“This research then raises the question; if there aren’t advantages to learning to read from the age of five, could there be disadvantages to starting teaching children to read earlier (at age 5). In other words, we could be putting them off,” says Suggate.

Dr Suggate conducted three studies over three years to obtain his data. First, he re-analysed data collected as part of the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (known as the PISA Study) across 54 countries and found that by the age of 15, there was no advantage in learning to read early from age 5. This first study has recently been published in the International Journal of Educational Research.

He then conducted two studies based on research in New Zealand only. The first compared the reading ability of 54 children who had attended Rudolf Steiner Schools (who begin learning reading from age 7) with another 50 children who had attended primary schools. Children were tested at the age of 12, at state-run intermediate schools in Dunedin, Christchurch and Hastings.

The study controlled for their home literacy environments, the economic situation of their parents, parental education, school decile rating, their vocabulary development (called receptive vocabulary), ethnicity and sex. Their reading fluency and comprehension were then measured and he found there was “no difference” by age 12 in the reading ability between the early and later starters.

Dr Suggate’s third and final study was a longitudinal one to look at reading from day one to the end of primary school, and to see whether differences in school experiences and the primary curriculum at the two different types of schools would have accounted for the ability of Rudolf Steiner children to reach the same reading level as their state counterparts by age 12.

“At the end of the study, the data was analysed using Hierarchical Linear Modelling, which is commonly used in longitudinal studies, and a particularly robust way to analyse data, and estimated the point at which the early starters and later starters of learning to read met – and it came up with 10.89 years – between 10 and 11 years of age,” he says.

“Many families have children who do not achieve well in reading at the beginning of school, so this will be quite comforting to them,” says Dr Suggate. “This research emphasises to me the importance of early language and learning, while de-emphasising the importance of early reading,” he says.



Popular Science Australia - reporting on the intersection of science, technology and everyday life. Whether you want to learn about high tech gadgets, find science projects, read the latest space news or search for the best computers or best digital'll find it at


Popular Tags

Regular Features