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“At what age Should I start teaching my child to read?” and “Should I start teaching my child to read at home before school?” are among the most common questions parents have at some point.
In theory, it seems like straightforward question, and, therefore, should have a sstraightforward answer.
However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. If you ask five different people, including experts on the topic, you most likely will end up with five different answers!
No wonder that parents are confused!
And this is a real pity, because this confusion leads so many times to wrong decisions about when to start your child to read and to missing opportunities.
So, that is why at the Learning Reading Hub we have decided to roll our sleeves and do some serious research on the topic, so you have the answers to need to this question.
Are you ready to find out what our research on the topic has to say?
Arguments against early reading
According to a group of experts (the traditionalists’ body of opinion), children will naturally pick reading when they are ready for it.
This works a bit in the same way that children pick up talking.
These experts believe that there is no much difference in the reading achievement of children in the end, so there is no point in teaching reading early. On a study by Carleton Washburne (the renowned Evanston, Illinois, educator) groups of children were introduced to formal reading at different ages (from kindergarten to 2nd grade). The study found little difference in reading achievement among the different groups.
In their opinion, teaching reading before primary school doesn’t offer any added benefit to children, so there is really no point in doing so. Children that have not been taught any reading before entering school will naturally pick reading up and put themselves at the same level as others that have been trained with reading instruction before elementary school.
The study “When Should Children Begin to Read”? (1931, Carleton Washburne and Mabel Vogel Morphett)* concluded that the appropriate mental age to start teaching formal reading instruction is 6.5 years. The results of this study have greatly influenced national decisions about reading instruction in the US.
These experts also point at countries such as Denmark or Finland (where reading instruction is introduced late) and children have less reading difficulties than other countries where reading instruction is introduced early.
Making these comparisons among different countries without taking into account the level difficulty of the language when it comes to learning to read can be tricky and even lead to erroneous conclusions. It is a little bit like comparing apples and pears. Learning to read English is more difficult than lerning to read other languages.
Some teachers go even further on the argument against early reading instruction and say that introducing reading too early can be counterproductive, creating frustration in children.
They believe that it could even lead to misdiagnosis of reading difficulties in children, as small kids do not have the attention span that is required for learning to read. Another common argument against early reading is that children will get bored when they go to elementary school.
Arguments in favor of early reading
There is a growing body of thought on the other side of the spectrum. According to them early reading corresponds to higher intelligence throughout life.
According to the study “Does Learning to Read Improve Intelligence?”* by researchers Titchie, Bates and Plomin, that analyzed the reading skills and intelligence level of 1,890 pairs of identical twins, young children with strong reading skills early in life perform better on IQ tests.
Studying twins is very common as it allows researchers to put aside genetic and environmental factors, as identical twins share the same genes and grow up in the same environment.
Their study concluded that “twins with better earlier reading ability compared to their identical, tended not only to have better reading at subsequent measurements but also higher scores on general intelligence tests.”
So, basically, between identical twins, the sibling who is a better reader would grow up to have higher IQ.
The simple fact of being introduced to early reading led to higher intelligence levels.
Besides, early readers tend to become avid readers, which will give children another advantage for life as “those who read a lot will improve their verbal intelligence; that is, reading will make them smarter”, according to other studies by Cunningham and Stanovich*.
According to those in favor of early reading instruction, teaching a child to read early has a real impact on the future child’s IQ.
So, it is not so much about whether children to read in the end anyway (main argument of those against early reading), but about the potential children could be missing out.
So, what is the right age, then?
Do you want to know the honest answer to this question?
Get ready because it might not be the answer you are looking for…
The truth is that there is not a universal answer to the question what is the best age to start teaching a child to read, because every child is different and unique!
However, as a parent or educator you can find out when your child is ready for it. And, in our opinion, once the child is ready… The sooner he or she starts learning to read, the better.
Why the better?
Apart from the arguments of those who advocate for early reading that we mentioned before, you may have noticed that young children are eager to learn and have an innate curiosity to interact with anything around them
These young children are curious about letters and books and, therefore, about reading too.
At some point, young children start to be very curious about letters, the meaning of the symbols they see on posters and signages around them, and the stories and pictures that hide behind books…
Why wait if the child is curious about it? What is the benefit of waiting really?
Research proposes that children do not tend to develop strong reading skills unless their parents familiarize them with books and reading at home. Those families that stimulate their children with early exposure to books and reading are putting their child at advantage.
So, if you respond to your child’s curiosity, even if it is only by engaging in apparently simple activities such as creating the routine of reading a book before bed or frequent trips to the library, you are already giving your child a true head start.
Bear in mind, that around 86 -98 % of a young child’s vocabulary is learned from their parents.
When you are stimulating your child intellectually, you are working towards the brain development of your child…
Have you heard about synapses in the brain? Synapses are the pathways in which neurons communicate with each other. The way these pathways are formed, kept or pruned depends on our early experiences in life. By the age of 8 months a baby can have up to a thousand trillion synapses in the brain. By the age of 10 years old a child will have around 500 trillion synapses. Only the synapses that are used are kept; those that are not used are removed. This is why intellectual stimulation is so important for the brain development of small children.
In fact, and even though this is not directly related to learning to read… Have you noticed how really small children growing up bilingual families can even pick up a second language with ease from a very early age? It is astonishing what these small kids can achieve. And, it all comes down to these pathways…
How do I know when my child is ready for learning to read? The clear signs that he/she is ready!
The next logical t logical question you might be wondering is: “How do I know when my child is ready to learn to read?” And: “How to encourage my child’s readiness for learning to read?”
Let’s start with the first one. These are some of the signs that you are looking for:
- Does your child enjoy listening to stories and is able to sit through your reading? Before embarking into learning to read, some attention is needed!
- Does your child speak clearly and is able to make simple sentences? There is really important. There is no point is starting reading instruction before a child is able to speak more clearly!
- Is your child able to recognize that those “strange symbols” on books are letters? This is a part of being print-aware, a key pre-requisite for reading instruction.
- Does he or she know how to find the first page of a book and how to flip pages? This is another part of being print-aware! You’ll find that some children (that are still not print aware) hold books upside down, they start to “read” from the end or right to left! If your child can pretend to read “properly” (identify the first page, knows the direction in which we read, can flip pages) that is what we are looking for!
- Is s/he able to recognize some familiar logos and signs? For example, stop signs. This shows that s/he will be able to memorize letters too.
- Can your child recognize when two words rhyme? (phonological awareness)
- Does he or she know some letter names and letter sounds? (letter recognition / phonemic awareness)
- Can he/she understand simple stories that he/she is read to?
How to encourage my child’s readiness for learning to read?
We will share with you a few tips that can help encourage your child’s readiness for learning to read.
Tip #1: Read to your child from an early age as much as you can, and make it a fun experience!
The intention is to get your child interested in learning to read, and books and stories Try to use your index finger as much as you can to point to the words that you’re reading this way you’re developing in him or her a very important pre-reading a skill called print awareness
If you only do one thing, at least read aloud to your child for a minimum of 15 minutes a day. This is the single most important thing that you can do to prepare a child for reading and learning.
Tip #2: Only start teaching your child to read once she or he is able to speak more clearly.
I understand that after all you have read about how teaching your child to read from an early age can really increase his/her IQ, it can be very tempting to start teaching him/her read as soon as possible, but there is no point in starting before your child is able to speak.
Usually kids speak more clearly and start to form simple sentences around the age of two and a half to three years old. But you need to assess that yourself as every child is different!
Tip #3: Help your child HEAR the individual sounds in words.
Before a child learns to read, she/he must first learn to HEAR!
This is such a crucial, and so often overlooked, point!
If you do this you will be helping your child develop a very important pre-reading skill called phonemic awareness.
Nursery rhymes and playing with the sounds in the words are fantastic ways to encourage phonemic awareness.
Reading nursery rhymes to your child is a great way to prepare her for learning to read. Rhyme and rhythm help kids hear the sounds and syllables in words, and help them learn to read!
Besides, you may have noticed that kids absolutely love everything that has to do with rhymes! Take advantage of this. Developing phonemic awareness in your child from an early age will make an enormous difference in his/her ability to catch reading instruction later on!
By the way, just a quick note about Phonemic Awareness and how sounds words in the English language.
For example, the word “cat” is formed by the individual sounds -called phonemes- /k/ /a/ /t/. In this case, the number of letters match the number of sounds. But that is not always the case in English. For example, the word “chat”, that has 4 letters, only has 3 sounds: /ch/ /a/ /t/
When you are starting out, start with the sound of one letter at a time. For instance, you could ask your child in the 2 words I have just used as an example (cat, chat) if s/he can hear the /ah/ sound.
If you want to go the extra mile, these days there are some early reading programs available. However, not all of them are created equally!
Look for early reading programs that are based on developing phonemic awareness principles. As we said, this will really put your child at advantage when he/she starts with formal reading instruction!
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