Children who learn to read at age five are unlikely to be better readers than children who learn to read at seven, according to new research.
Research by Sebastian Suggate for his doctorate in psychology at Otago University found no difference between the reading ability of early (from age five) and late (from age seven) readers by the time those children reached their last year at primary school.
Dr Suggate conducted one international and two New Zealand studies, each one backing up the conclusions of the other.
Comparing children from Rudolf Steiner schools, who usually started learning to read from age seven, and children in state-run schools, who started 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.
The previously unscientifically tested and widely held view that children in New Zealand should learn to read from age five, now appeared contestable, Dr Suggate said.
In three years of studies, involving regular surveys of around 400 New Zealand children, he found no statistical evidence of an advantage in reading from the earlier age of five.
People regularly insisted that early reading was integral to a child's later achievement and success, and Dr Suggate said he was surprised by his own findings that this was not the case.
"One theory for the finding that an earlier beginning does not lead to a later advantage is that the most important early factors for later reading achievement, for most children, are language and learning experiences that are gained without formal reading instruction.
"Because later starters at reading are still learning through play, language, and interactions with adults, their long-term learning is not disadvantaged. Instead, these activities prepare the soil well for later development of reading."
He said the research raised the question; if there were no advantages to learning to read from the age of five, could there be disadvantages to starting teaching children to read earlier (at age five).
"In other words, we could be putting them off," he said.
"This research emphasises to me the importance of early language and learning, while de-emphasising the importance of early reading."