Children should not start formal learning until they are seven, according to a world expert in nursery education who will suggest today that teaching reading and writing earlier can put them off for life.
Teaching children at five to read and write can dent their interest in books later on, according to Lilian Katz, a professor of education at Illinois University, who will today address an international conference on nursery schooling at Oxford University.
"It can be seriously damaging for children who see themselves as inept at reading too early," she told the Guardian. Boys were particularly vulnerable when rushed into reading too soon, she said.
Her comments come amid mounting concern over reading skills. In England, a quarter of all 14-year-olds now fail to reach the expected standards, and boys are struggling even more. Earlier this month a Cambridge University report strongly criticised Labour's £500m national literacy strategy for having a "relatively small impact". It concluded that children's reading skills had not improved in 50 years.
Moves in England to introduce more structured learning for three- and four-year-olds could store up problems in the long term, Katz suggests.
English schools start formal teaching at five but there are plans to introduce a foundation stage for three- and four-year-olds which will set new learning goals, including one which specifies that by the time children start school at five they should be able to at least "use their phonic knowledge to write simple regular words". Katz, a former president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and a respected authority on early years education, said: "Teaching younger children can look OK in the short term but in the long term children who are taught early are not better off. For a lot of children five will be too early.
"That has a more negative impact for boys. For most boys they are growing up in cultures where they are expected to be assertive and active. In instruction they are passive and receptive and reactive, and in the long term that accounts for the negative effects. In most cultures girls tend to put up with instruction earlier and better."
The conference will examine the case for starting formal teaching at a later age. In Sweden children do not start formal instruction until six or seven. Professor Ingrid Pramling-Samuelsson, from the University of Goteborg, who is president-elect of the World Organisation of Preschool Education, will tell the conference that academics in Sweden have been "surprised" to hear that England is moving towards earlier formal instruction.
The children's minister Beverley Hughes will also address the conference about the early years foundation stage, which has been interpreted by some as the extension of the national curriculum to toddlers. The government is adamant that despite setting goals for children to reach they are not targets and it is not a formal curriculum.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "The formal school starting age of five has served children well for decades and standards in our primary schools have never been higher. The curriculum is age-appropriate and we actively support teachers to adapt their teaching to the needs of children. We want all children to make progress in literacy and numeracy at an early age, as these skills are critical to their ability to get the most out of learning later on."