We must not turn them off learning
My little girl is learning to talk, and I'm trying to help her by talking to her as much as I can. The parent in me is already browsing through "teach your children to read by three" books. But the teacher in me is forcing me to put them back.
I know that the best start I can give my daughter is to make sure that she hears spoken language, is included in conversation, is encouraged to tell stories, and is read bedtime story upon bedtime story.
What I know I must not do is force her to read the first two stages of Biff, Chip and Kipper's never-ending adventures and write missives to grandparents before she is absolutely ready.
At an early-years literacy course last term we talked about how reception used to be when children were introduced to school. We complained that it now seems to be dominated by literacy and numeracy hours that are sometimes nothing short of Year 1 lessons.
Everyone agreed that our current system is setting children up to fail.
There is a little boy I taught last year who sits enthralled through story time, spends ages in the book corner, and loves listening to story tapes.
He is chatty and articulate.
His mum told me she was having terrible trouble getting him to read at home. "And I know he's still on stage 1 and all his friends have moved up and it just gets to him," she finished.
I suggested that she put his reading books away and stop worrying. Just read all the books to him she can whenever he wants, because here was a child in danger of losing his spark, of being switched off learning before his school career has even begun.
We expect too much too soon, but we are all too terrified of the statistics to do anything about it. Teachers are scared of low Sats results. Parents are frightened their child will be one of the 11-year-olds who are all but illiterate.
But the answer is emphatically not to start teaching children to read and write before their brains have developed that capacity to learn two very difficult skills.
My friends with school-age children look at me like I'm slightly mad when I start talking about this. They firmly believe that not only will an early reading push give their children a "head start", it is actually expected of them. So how do we tell parents that we are really sorry but we got it wrong?
We need them to know that the best possible start these children can have is to be given a rich oral environment, one where they are made verbally literate before being asked to become readers and writers.
This does not mean that we aren't going to teach them anything at all.
Absolutely not. Reception is when we should be doing lots and lots of phonics, teaching children to develop their speaking and listening skills.
We need to introduce them to the vast array of fairy stories and nursery rhymes that have been handed down through the centuries in every culture.
We need to teach them to explore and enjoy their spoken language and begin to understand how we convert the sounds of our language into letters and words.
We must develop their gross and fine motor skills, so that when the formal teaching of reading and writing begins in Y1 children are armed with the knowledge and skills that will make learning to read and write a happier experience. We need to reassure parents (and a fair number of teachers) that children will not be held back, that children who are taught formally too early in a system which measures a child's failures instead of their successes are being set up to either fall at the first hurdle, or the second or the third.
There are lots of teachers out there who want our reception classes to change, who feel that we put too much emphasis on reading and writing goals and not enough on speaking and listening.
They are concerned that there is pressure to drop the play-based foundation stage ethos as soon as the children reach reception.
Yet The TES recently reported (October 21 issue) that the percentage of five-year-olds reaching government reading and writing goals is far lower than in areas such as social and physical development and that the targets may be lowered.
This must not be waved away as another example of "dumbing down". It is because we ask too much of children when they are small that they switch off. We can do something about this. We are the ones who see, every day, small children become apathetic towards learning.
We witness the loss of self-esteem that may follow these children through the rest of their lives. The time is right for change, and change we must or another generation's spark will flicker and die.
Beth Crocker teaches reception at St Andrew's VC lower school Biggleswade, Bedfordshire. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to show your support for this campaign