False start in early learning

4th April 2003 at 01:00
Some TV researchers tried a mini-experiment. They translated a key stage 1 maths national test paper into Hungarian and gave it to a mixed-ability group of seven-year-olds in an inner-city school in Eastern Hungary. Half the group managed a level 3, and most of the rest were high-scoring 2s.

These children had been studying maths for only one year - two years less than their English counterparts.

In Hungary, children do not start formal learning till they are six. They do, however, have two years of carefully designed kindergarten education, which includes oral work to develop mathematical concepts. Preparation for literacy develops children's spoken language and vocabulary, tuning their ears to sound for reading, and fostering the physical skills needed for handwriting.

When Hungarian six-year-olds are at last taught to read, write and do written sums, the majority take to it with ease. They also have well-honed speaking and listening skills, improved self-confidence, increased attention span and social competence.

How different from our system, where children plunge straight into pencil and paper work in the Reception class. Our assumption is that the sooner they get started on formal literacy and numeracy the better, and we must not on any account "hold them back". So no time for speaking and listening, no time for attention-building and social skills - there is a mountain of worksheets to be completed by the time you are six.

Yet even after five years of the literacy and numeracy strategies, we still have a sizeable "tail of underachievement". And it is still drawn from the two groups that, for developmental reasons, do not take well to an early start - those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and boys.

Surely it is time we looked seriously at whether a later start does "hold back" the more able. Or whether a firm grounding in oral language might provide a surer start for every child.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today