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Is There a "Right" Time to Learn to Read? When Do Kids Learn to Read?

Updated: Mar 12


Preschooler reading.

Is there a “right” time to teach a child to read?  As I hit that time of year in the preschool classroom where many of those reading readiness skills are truly starting to “click” for many of our four-year-old students, I have been pondering this question.  When do kids learn to read? I have searched the internet for research related to the “right” time to learn to read and have come up empty handed.   Similar to potty training opinions, the opinions on when it is developmentally appropriate to learn to read differ vastly.  I mean, the fact that there is actually a program on the market called, Your Baby Can Read, truly emphasizes the varying opinions on the right age for a child to learn to read! 


When I started teaching 15 years ago, first grade was designated as “The Reading Year”, a daunting milestone and a grade level that I was warned to avoid teaching by many.  This was the year that you had to teach your students to read and it was not easy!  However, was this belief true?  Is there truly a magical age for this transformation?  The answer is, no!  Despite this belief, there really is no scientific proof on a right age to learn to read. Instead, reading is a science!

 

The Truth Is, Reading Isn't Innate


Preschooler learning sounds.

Reading isn't something we're born knowing how to do; it's a skill we must learn.  While we naturally pick up spoken language just by being around it, reading is different.  The alphabet is a HUMAN invention, and our brains aren't automatically set up to understand letters and words.  Instead, learning to read requires specific teaching methods that help our brains make connections between different parts. It's like building a road through a forest – we have to lay down each piece carefully to make sure we can get from one side to the other. Similarly, teaching reading involves guiding the brain to create pathways that let us understand written words.


The good news about this brain science is that the brain can develop the necessary skills for reading MUCH before first grade. Once the foundational pre-reading skills are established in the brain, children can begin to grasp the concepts of reading and progress in their literacy journey. However, a concerning reality is that many children lack these essential foundational skills, making the process of learning to read significantly more challenging. This deficit in foundational skills contributes to the alarming statistic that nearly 60% of fourth graders in the United States struggle with reading proficiency. Without a solid foundation in pre-reading skills, children face difficulties in decoding words, understanding text, and ultimately becoming proficient readers.


So, How Do We Know When Children Are Ready to Start Learning to Read?

 

Reading is more than just sounding out words on a page.  Below is a picture of Scarborough Reading Rope.  This is a visual representation of the intricate process of learning to read. At its core are two essential components: word recognition and language comprehension. To prepare children for reading success, we must focus on building foundational skills in both areas.


Scarbourgh's Reading Rope

For preschoolers, this means building a strong foundation in word recognition.  We must focus on letter recognition, phonological awareness, and letter sounds.  These skills must be built through fun and engaging experiences taught through BOTH explicit instruction and through play.  It also means laying a strong foundation of background knowledge, building a rich vocabulary, and creating a solid understanding of how stories and books function. Through meaningful experiences, exploration, rich back and forth conversations, and exposure to MANY books, children can develop the a strong language comprehension foundation.  By doing these things, we can prepare our children for reading success! 


Signs That a Child Is Ready to Read

Now that we’ve dug into the background knowledge, let’s chat about signs that your child is ready to begin reading! Be sure to grab my free Ready to Read Assessment, where you can assess if a child is ready to begin reading! I dive into each of these skills.



Child reading.

Print Awareness

 It is important that children have an understanding of how print works when beginning to learn to read. This includes an understanding that letters make up words, and words create sentences and stories.  In addition to an understanding of letters and words, children also need to understand the basic concepts of a book.  Where do we begin reading on a page? How do we move our finger under the words? Where is a period? General knowledge of print has shown to have positive impacts on reading in the future.



Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is the understanding that words and sentences contain units of sounds. Three important phonological awareness skills that aid in reading including recognizing and generating rhymes, syllabication, and sound association. Children that are able to auditory play with and manipulate sounds are well-equipped to tackle words in print when decoding. When children begin decoding (sounding out) and encoding (writing sounds), it is very helpful to understand rhyming words and syllabication. Having a strong auditory sense of these skills helps children “crack the code" and recognize patterns in words. The English language is extremely complex, so building the foundation NOW really makes a great difference in the future! Download the 10 Day Phonological Challenge to continue building these skills.



Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness, and the most important skill that children need to master under the phonological awareness umbrella! Phonemic awareness is the ability to blend and segment the smallest unit of sounds within words auditorily.

 

The science of reading has proven that phonemic awareness is one of the five main components of literacy. Children that can break individual sounds apart and blend individual sounds together auditorily have a strong foundation for reading readiness. An example of phonemic awareness would be segmenting the sounds in the word cat: /c//a//t/.



Knowledge of Most Uppercase and Lowercase Letters

 While recognizing letters by name is technically not necessary when learning to read, letter naming is an important early literacy foundation skill and a strong predictor of later reading success. Recognizing many letters (particularly lowercase letters), can be especially helpful when encoding (writing segmented sounds) comes into play in the classroom. While not all educators agree, I believe that knowing both letter names and sounds is beneficial and an important reading readiness indicator and a valuable part of early literacy. If you have children that struggle with uppercase and lowercase letter names and sounds, check out THIS BLOG POST. 


Preschoolers learning letter sounds.

Knowledge of Many Letter Sounds

 It’s no surprise that children need to know letter sounds in order to begin blending! The single most important factor that comes into play when assessing reading readiness is letter sound knowledge. Children must be able to name the sound associated with a letter symbol in order to decode words. Children can begin blending sounds together to read words when they are able to recognize one vowel sound, and a few consonant sounds! However, I believe that it is important that children are able to name at least ten consonant sounds before beginning to blend and decode. When building letter sound knowledge, it is important that you are clipping letter sounds. We say /b/, not /buh/! Adding those extra sounds can create issues when decoding and encoding down the road!



Desire to Read!

The final component of reading readiness is the desire to learn to read! Children that show a strong interest in books and print may be ready to dive into reading. Signs of this include:

  • Children “pretend reading” the same book again and again.

  • Children asking, “What does that say?” when being read to or seeing print in the environment.

  • Children continually looking at books and asking to be read to.

Children that are engaged and interested in reading will be willing and eager to work with you!


Did you answer YES to most of these questions?

If you find yourself nodding along to most of these questions, it's time to consider why you might hesitate to introduce reading to your preschooler or preschool students before they step into kindergarten.


Teaching a child to read not only cultivates confidence, but also primes them for a smoother transition into kindergarten. It ensures that children receive the tailored attention they deserve—an aspect that might not always be guaranteed in classrooms with a high student-to-teacher ratio.


In addition to building confidence and facilitating a seamless transition into kindergarten, teaching children to read opens the door to a world of imagination and discovery. Reading sparks curiosity and fosters a love for learning that extends far beyond the classroom. By introducing children to the wonders of reading at an early age, you ignite their creativity, broaden their horizons, and empower them to explore new ideas and perspectives. It's a gift that keeps on giving, laying the groundwork for a lifetime of intellectual growth and enrichment. So, seize the opportunity to nurture your child's love for reading today!


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References:

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Grabmeier, J. (2019, April 9). The Importance of Reading to Kids Daily. College of Education and Human Ecology. Retrieved September 27, 2022, from

PA beyond basics Schuele, C. M., & Boudreau, D. (2008). Phonological awareness intervention: Beyond the basics. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 39(1), 3–20.   https://doi.org/10.1044/0161-1461(2008/002)

Piasta, S. B., & Wagner, R. K. (2010). Learning letter names and sounds: Effects of instruction, letter type, and Phonological Processing Skill. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology,   105(4), 324–344. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2009.12.008

Trafton , A. (2018, February 13). Back-and-forth exchanges boost children's brain response to language. MIT News | Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved September 23,   2022, from   https://news.mit.edu/2018/conversation-boost-childrens-brain-response-language-0214

Trafton, A. (2018, February 13). Talking with your children is important for their brain development. Talking to Your Children Is Important for Their Brain Development. Retrieved September 19,

Van den BROEK∗, P., KENDEOU, P., LOUSBERG, S., & VISSER, G. (2011). Preparing for reading comprehension: Fostering text comprehension skills in preschool and early elementary   school children. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 4(1), 260–268.

Walker, D., Greenwood, C., Hart, B., & Carta, J. (1994). Prediction of school outcomes based on early language production and socioeconomic factors. Child Development, 65(2),   606. https://doi.org/10.2307/1131404


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