Age Does Matter: Your Questions Answered by Dr. Marcy Guddemi


On the first of this month, I wrote a post about The Gesell Institute of Human Development and their recent study, asserting that the progression of healthy child development has not changed over the past 70 years, in spite of the fact that our expectations of them have.  (You can read the full post here.)

Dr. Marcy Guddemi, Executive Director of the institute, agreed to answer your questions in regards to that post and the study itself.  Several people had similar questions, so I took the comments and created a list of composite questions, which Dr. Guddemi has so kindly answered.  (My personal favorite response is #6.  Just in case you were wondering.) 

 1.”I am especially concerned about the young children who speak home languages other than English. If English-speaking children are being rushed and pushed by developmentally inappropriate methods and content, then what chance do dual language learners have to jump in and catch up? When you consider that as many as 25% of preschool age children in this country may be DLLs, the difference between what they need in preschool and what they are getting is a service gap of great significance. I believe that as the level of diversity grows, the need to return to developmentally appropriate practices becomes even more critical.” – Karen Nemeth

How could you connect this study to the application of DAP and meeting the needs of children who are dual language learners?

Our study clearly shows where a child is on that developmental pathway that all children proceed on as he/she learns and grows—thus leading the teacher to be able to personalize and adapt the curriculum to meet the developmental needs of that child. 

2. “Are there any connections you can see between your findings regarding DAP and after-school over scheduling?” – Emily @ Random Recycling

 There is no clear connection, but if afterschool over-scheduling is more of the same inappropriate things we see in our classrooms, we must stand back and stop this craziness.  Children need time to play spontaneously for large uninterrupted blocks of time (45-90 minutes) without a teacher or an adult directing their every move.

3.  “I have a question; Is there any ongoing research in regards to pushing kids developmental to enter school earlier and earlier and the high rate of ADHD diagnosis?” -Mona

I believe there is a clear relationship between over diagnosing ADHD and children being expected to perform tasks that they are not ready for developmentally.  We will have to look for more research in this area, but I do remember seeing a study just recently on this topic. (*For those who are interested, you may want to read these articles here, and here and consider the increasing expectations for these young children.) 

4. “How does the Gesell research compare to research done in other countries that widely embrace a play-based early childhood curriculum? How does the U.S. match up in things like crime rate and test scores?” – Sarah 

I believe our research support what other countries are doing—waiting until age 7 to start formal instruction of reading!  Other countries do a better job at respecting the unique needs of the child under age 8.

5. Can you talk a bit more about “splinter skills”?  How do performance and proficiency differ?  If children seem to “rise to the occasion” why shouldn’t we capitalize on that? 

The problem with splinter skills or “performances” is that it is not REAL learning.  Real learning happens when brain cells are connected to build meaning for the child.  When a child memorizes a splinter skill with no  brain connection, it is quickly forgotten—like cramming for a test!  What a waste of time for the child when they could be developing real meaning that will stay with them and also be the foundation for more and more difficult and challenging learning!

6. What is your response to people who reject your study, saying their children did learn to read at 4 and have been successful ever since? 

Some children do learn to read at 4.  But not all children CAN learn to read at four.  Walking is another example.  Some children learn to walk at  9 mo but no one can teach all 9 mo old babies to walk!!  Our research supports that fact that we must respect developmental differences.  Early walkers are not better walkers than later walkers, and research shows us that early readers have no advantage over later readers by the end of third grade.  Each child is different!  Gesell Institute wants each child to be respected and supported in the type of learning that is right for where the child is developmentally.

7. (This was a continual theme in questions that were asked and discussions that were had.)   How do you balance what you know is right for kids with what you know will be expected of them? I know many parents choosing preschools struggle because they know that the play-based preschool is the most appropriate choice, but they also realize the frustration their children will face in kindergarten.  It’s tempting to find those “preparatory” type preschools in the hopes of mitigating the kindergarten frustration.  Likewise, preschool teachers who are well-versed in DAP, who know what will be expected of their students the following year, struggle with deciding whether or not to introduce concepts they don’t feel are age-appropriate, hoping to keep their students from struggling the following year.  What can be done?  What can we do as parents and as teachers if we don’t agree with the push-down curriculum, but it is in full force in our children’s schools? 

We need to be strong advocates for our children!  We need to demand appropriate curriculum and policy in our public and private schools.  Parents need to be active participants in the PTA’s, meet with the principal,  speak and write letters to their legislators.  Visit your child’s classroom and spend the whole day there.  Know the facts.  Knowledge is power.  Do not allow your child to become merely a test score.  Also bombard the principals, etc. with research papers!  The Alliance for Childhood’s “Crisis in the Kindergarten” is an excellent example.  (Summary and recommendations here.)

Thank you so much to Dr. Marcy Guddemi for agreeing to field our questions.  And thank you also to all for your input and interest.  Let’s keep this conversation going!

Top photo by Aron Kremer.
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11 responses to “Age Does Matter: Your Questions Answered by Dr. Marcy Guddemi

  1. fermaria

    Questions and answers are great! One of my kids walked when he was 10 months and the other when he was 13. They both are “perfect” walkers… So, where is the place to rush? I thought many times this example could apply to education as well. I´m reading a book by Agnes Szanto: “Loczy, un nuevo paradigma” where she states that young children that are given enough freedom and time, develop “later” than “usual” but much better, balanced and harmonious than “usual”.
    My favorite answer is number 7, in case you were wondering 🙂
    I am some sort of revolutionary spirited mom and teacher, so his advice fits perfectly with many of my ideals.
    “We need to be strong advocates for our children!”. That´s something I will stick on my fridge!
    Thank you so much Mandy for the work you took and thank you Dr. Guddemi for your words.

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  3. Thank you for your advocacy by conducting this interview! My sister is an Early Childhood Professor. Her thesis compared children who attended academic preschools and children who attended social preschools. By the age of 8, teachers could not tell which child went to what preschool.

    • notjustcute

      I have heard a similar study (please let me know if you are aware of the reference) where the two groups were compared and found to have comparable academic performance by grade 3, as you said, but the children from the social preschool maintained an advantage in social skills into adulthood.

      • kimberlymoore

        My sister did a small scale review for her thesis. I don’t have the information from the study that you suggest, but have lots of experience in schools and with my own children who are now teens. The friends of my older daughter who where pushed and encouraged at a young age academically are not as happy and no longer hold an academic advantage to their peers who are self motivated. When will we have standardized testing for happiness, ingenuity and integrity?

  4. eelin

    i’m going to play devil’s advocate a little bit here.

    i have 3 children: my firstborn (now 8yo) read at 4yo, my 2ndborn (now 6yo) read at 5yo and my youngest (2.5yo) recognises a large number of words (starting from 18mo) and now even appears to read short sentences. i hesitate to say that my youngest reads because he is nowhere near being an independent reader though he can recognise many words and can ‘read’ some emergent level readers. he is, imo, at the stage of being ready to read.

    my kids are very normal kids. we do send them to a more academically inclined childcare.

    from my limited experience with my children and those around me, i believe that children can learn to read younger than 7yo. for many it’s not just a splinter skill. the thing is i believe to continually expose a child to these skills (whether splinter skills or not) so that the moment he is ready, he can synthesise them and take off from there.

    the other thing is that early reading does make a difference in a child’s progress in our academically inclined schools so that should not be ignored. i’m not suggesting that you should teach reading at 2yo (though some may argue that you could) but 5-6yo is not too young, imo. there will be some who will need a little more time but that alone should not deter children from being taught or at least exposed to these skills.

    my 2.5yo understands most of the words he can recognise. perhaps he will spend a longer time at the emergent or ready to read stage than say, a 5 or 6yo, but he is at or close to that level. he can read, for eg, the ball is blue, and he understands what he’s reading. the challenge is to find a reader appropriate to his reading level and also his understanding/maturity level.

    and i must say this, although i started out disdaining flash cards and all those programs that flash words at a toddler or baby, it does work, as evidenced by my youngest (and other babies i know). he actually managed to pick up some words from the tv and from being read to daily and playing word matching games in a perfectly fun manner and also looking at the words. he started recognising a large number of words and is now reading or recognising (if that is more correct), short sentences. so flashing can be a start but it must be built on.

    so i don’t think it’s right to say that formal teaching in reading should only start at 7yo. that is being just as dogmatic as saying a child HAS to read by a certain age. it can, and i believe should in most cases, begin earlier. the challenge is to do it right, ie in holistic, developmentally appropriate manner that will allow each child the time and the space to pick up these skills at his/her own pace n timing and without the all-consuming expectation that EVERY child must read by a certain age.

    • notjustcute

      Ooooh, I love the devil’s advocate! It keeps the discussion lively.

      I can’t speak for Dr. Guddemi (I will email her and see what her response is) but there are a few things I think of within my own personal philosophy of DAP when it comes to reading.

      First of all, I defer to the experts! Copple and Bredekemp are the DAP experts and Susan Neuman is a well-known literacy expert. Along with the IRA (International Reading Association) and NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) they came together and crafted a joint position statement: Learning to Read and Write – Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children. After that came even more in the form of a book by the same name (the intro is very informative and can be read here). From that, it seems you’re both right! Reading skills develop beginning at birth, and there is so much we can and should do to support that development. The key is in the delivery being appropriate to the child’s level, interests, and individual needs. I agree with you that our positions can become dogmatic on both ends of the spectrum of this debate. I feel the “sweet spot” comes in tailoring to meet the needs of the child.

      Second: My own understanding is that young children learn best in a culture of literacy, which may include snippets of direct instruction or mini-lessons, but is largely based on emergent literacy, or those early literacy skills that provide the foundation for formal literacy and formal literacy instruction.

      When I hear someone suggest that “formal instruction” of reading should wait until 6 or 7, I assume they don’t mean literacy shouldn’t intentionally be taught and developed in those younger children (that wouldn’t be in keeping with the position statement I cited above). I assume that they are referring to the need for children to develop these earlier foundational skills through an intentional but emergent curriculum, in order to be prepared for the more formal instructional found in the later grades.

      That’s my take anyway!

      As for formal reading instruction for toddlers, I can’t help but think of this news piece from the Today Show on the “Your Baby Can Read” system, and this fantastic post from Janet Lansbury.

      Again, that doesn’t mean these little ones can’t benefit from a wide range of literacy-building experiences, but the specific format they discuss is not DAP and seems to be a prime example of developing a “splinter skill” -> performance without foundation.

  5. eelin

    thank you for your considered response. i haven’t had time to read all the articles and links that you’ve posted but will find the time very soon.

    i just want to say something. the sense i get from you and from janet lansbury is that parents who use these infant reading programs are somehow pushy and only wanting to get ahead without being aware or not caring for the cost of doing so.

    while i agree that parents should never get pushy with their babies where academics are concerned i believe there is a sweet spot, as you put it, where children can be exposed to such skills. in that context, i’ve learned not to disdain flashcards or such programs. used judiciously and carefully, they can help a child acquire these skills.

    where i diverge with the proponents of these programs is that i don’t think that a baby or toddler who recognises words is truly reading at the same level as say a child of 6 or 7yo. the toddlers who appear to be able to ‘read’ at the same level as some of these older children do NOT have the same level of understanding. that is why i’m careful to say that my toddler is not quite reading although he does recognise a large number of words and if you string them into short sentences, he can also appear to read them. so i agree that what many of these toddlers have are splinter skills.

    but is it necessarily a bad thing if the skill was acquired quite unconsciously and in a fun way and perfectly appropriate to his age? it does not necessarily follow that every child who recognises words at a young age was pushed into it and that a substantial part of his time and attention was taken up by flashcards and he did not have a natural or normal childhood.

    the program that my toddler viewed was the Your Baby Can Read (YBCR) program. in fact, i had had that program since my firstborn was about 1yo but she never took to it and neither did my 2ndborn. it was only the youngest who actually liked it and wanted to view it over over again and picked up words from it.

    i didn’t follow the YBCR program rigidly or at all, actually. he viewed it roughly once a day, sometimes a few days in a row, sometimes every other day, and even then not in order. i treated it as part of my repertoire of ‘things to keep the toddler occupied when i desperately need 15mins’. in that way, i regarded it the same way as a barney or sesame st show.

    the difference between my 2 older kids and my youngest was that my youngest has a very caring and consistent caregiver (i’m a wohm) who would read to him daily (my 2 older children had other caregivers at the same age). also, as my 2 older ones were older by the time he was about 1yo i had a more consistent bedtime reading session with him than i had with say, my 2ndborn.

    the YBCR programs were a small part of his tv viewing and play and exploratory time. the most consistent thing we did was to read to him, as we have always tried to do with each of our children.

    i don’t believe that the YBCR made him a genius, but it obviously tapped his ability to recognise words early and wakened his interest in books and trying to read early. his understanding is normal for a toddler his age. most of the words he can ‘read’ are words that he can relate to, within his experience.

    in many ways i don’t disagree with janet lansbury but i do believe there is an argument to be made for exposing very young children to such skills. of course, it must be without pushing, it should not eat up a huge part of his time that would be best spent exploring and experiencing. and lastly, parents should be well aware that true reading, ie when a child’s ability to recognise and decode words is commensurate with his understanding will come eventually, not quite in infancy, but perhaps in preschool or for some in the first yrs of elementary or primary school. but again, i feel that there is no harm in equipping a child with these skills so that he can progress easily from one stage to another when he is ready.

    i like the alternative view offered by the comments of the reader named sofia in this janet lansbury post:

    i’m not quite with her on all points, but close to it. i can’t quite fully agree with janet that the children who undergo YBCR are all pushed or that their value is tied up with performing for adults. that certainly is not true for my toddler.

    btw, my firstborn learnt to read within 4 wks when she turned 4yo. she was dying to learn and i used the book Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons with great success – she sped through it and took off. i tried the same book with my 2ndborn when he was abt 4.5yo without much success so i let it go. but he was exposed to basic phonics instruction. we read to him regularly at home (but probably less than i could with my eldest and youngest) and at 5yo he started reading. so my experience with each child has been different and in none of the cases would i say i had pushed any of them.

    • notjustcute

      My intention with my response was not to make a judgement of parents who use the system. I’m sure their reasons are varied and that ultimately they each want what is best for their children. My judgement is of the program itself. The program (not the parent) is focused on the performance of reading without the foundation of early literacy skills (phonemic awareness for example). The program seems based in human performance (which is actually what the creator’s degree is in) and not in what is known through research about how children learn to read or healthy growth and development.

      That said, I also agree with you that children learn to read in different ways and on different time tables. I know plenty of early readers and would not presume that they are all the result of inappropriate teaching techniques and/or pushy parents. It sounds like you do a wonderful job of utilizing the resources you have and tailoring them in a way that is responsive to your children as individuals and meets them at their individual abilities and interest levels. I don’t think that using the program in the way you have described would be harmful to your child and I don’t want to give that impression. I think the program as it is packaged and marketed is not based on sound developmental or early learning principles. I also worry that other parents may use this type of teaching as an all-inclusive approach to reading and miss out on some of those other opportunities that we know fully build a child’s literacy as well as the other aspects of whole child development.

      I agree with you that there are ways to use small amounts of direct instruction to teach young children and that these mini-lessons are very valuable in skill building. I think much of the driving force behind the joint statement I linked earlier was the discussion between two schools of thought – those that suggested learning to read was entirely developmental and who believed adults should take a hands-off maturational approach and those who believed that reading is a learned skill that requires formal, direct instruction. It is my personal philosophy, and I believe it is the philosophy put forth in that position statement, that there is a “sweet spot” that lies between the two. There are developmental aspects that need to be honored, natural and meaningful understandings that need to be constructed, environments and experiences that add richness, self-learning that can be encouraged and promoted, and appropriate and responsive amounts of direct instruction depending upon age and developmental levels.

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful discussion!

      • eelin

        it’s interesting that you should mention phonemic awareness. just to share, my toddler has been trying to decode words that he has not seen before. when he sees an unfamiliar word he hazards a guess based on the first letter of the word and he gets at least the first sound correct most times. i did not teach him phonics (is phonic and phonemic the same btw?). this tells me that he has figured out some phonics sounds purely from being able to recognise so many words. for eg, he once tried to read the word ‘nice’, a word he’s not really familiar with (in the written form) and one i’d not heard him read before. he said ‘neese’ which shows me that he was trying to decode it. so does that mean he has basic phonics/phonemics awareness? i wldn’t expect him to be able to blend sounds like an older child so i don’t think he can truly learn to read with phonics/phonemic awareness.

        so i definitely do agree that there is some developmental aspect to reading, the experience, the awareness, the ability to decode and blend sounds (is that what you mean by phonemic awareness?).

        i do agree with you also that the harm is in the way the programs are marketed, that it appears that all there is to reading is to be able to recognise words. but in most fairly educated, well-balanced homes, i’d say that a child is learning both concurrently, the written word as well as the meaning and experience behind those words to give them meaning. i suppose the worry is that there will be a few extremists who will take these programs to the extreme and just want to ‘download’ all the words and even encyclopedic knowledge (you know which one i’m referring to right) into an infant. and in many competitive and driven societies where academic achievement is highly prized, these parents may think that such ‘knowledge’ will give their child the much sought after ‘headstart’ (oh how i hate that word sometimes, it’s been a marketing gimmick for everything from infant formula, to baby food to infant learning etc).

        one last observation. from my limited experience, it appears that those children who read using phonics/phonemic programs/ instruction appear to spell better than those who started with sight reading. my 2ndborn who started reading more from sight reading than phonics instruction (although he had basic phonics instruction) has more difficulty spelling than my firstborn who started reading with the book i used (which is phonics based). this has been the experience of other children i know, too. any comments on one method of instruction as opposed to another?

        thanks again for a great discussion.

  6. Thank you for recognizing that children need to learn decoding skills in order to read. I was scanning a blog post recently from a teacher who is frustrated because her district is forcing her to teach her fifth graders using whole words even though her 15 years experience tells her otherwise.

    I’d like to invite you to be a guest blogger on our site. Please contact me at my email address to respond.

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