Learning to read is the most important skill your children need in order to be successful in our literate culture. As a result, teaching them to read can feel like a huge responsibility and rather intimidating if you’re not sure where to start. Before you teach your child to read, it’s important to know about timing. What’s the right age to start? Is there a right age? How do I know if my child is ready to learn to read?
There are two main points I want to make about timing. First of all, research does not support early reading instruction. Second, children show signs that they are ready to read. When we know what not to do and know what to look for, we can be assured that we’re helping our children get off to a positive start in reading.
3 Things to Know Before You Teach Your Child to Read
1. Know What Not to Do
Don’t push reading too early, because research does not support early reading instruction.
Most of us assume that when a child is of school age he is ready to learn how to read. Today, that means kindergarten. The Common Core Standards are driving educators to start formal reading instruction earlier than ever. Does that mean homeschoolers should do the same?
Back in the 70’s when I was in kindergarten, the main objectives were learning to play and learning to interact appropriately with peers. We did art projects, listened to stories, played games, and built structures with blocks and Tinkertoys. The only formal instruction I can recall is learning the letters of the alphabet with the help of the Letter People.
Walk into a kindergarten classroom today and you will find it is much more academically focused. Children are surrounded by print-rich environments and given reading and writing tasks on a daily basis. For some, it’s an exciting place full of enjoyable learning. But what does it feel like for children who aren’t ready to pick up a book and make sense of all those letters and words? They’re the ones hiding in their bedrooms every morning hoping the school bus will drive off without them.
Not all teachers are thrilled to be teaching kindergarten with this strong academic focus. An organization called Defending the Early Years calls people to take action in helping get the common core standards for kindergarten revoked. Leaders in this movement recognize that research does not support early reading instruction, and that the standards are not developmentally appropriate. This short video summarizes their stance on the issue.
It’s hard to understand why there’s such a push for early reading instruction when there’s no strong evidence to support it. You can search and search, but you won’t find proof that pushing kids to read early helps them get ahead. If anything, research hints that over time, these children tend to show less interest in reading.
There was a study done in Germany back in the 1970s that compared children attending play-based kindergartens with those taught in academic classrooms where direct instruction was taking place. By grade 4, any advantage the children had gained academically from the direct instruction was lost. In fact, many of the children scored worse in reading and math than those in the play-based classrooms.
Nancy Bailey states it well in her article, Setting Children Up to Hate Reading. “Why are young children being made to learn at a faster rate? Why is there this mistaken notion that children’s brains have somehow evolved to a higher level where they are supposed to read earlier and earlier?”
If you check with your pediatrician you will hear similar views. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that it’s more about your child’s own enthusiasm for learning than about the instruction given in reading. And if you push reading too early, requiring them to do tasks they are not yet ready for, it can interfere with their own natural enthusiasm for learning.
Now that you know research does not support early reading instruction, you can breathe a sigh of relief. You have good reason not to do what all the other kindergartners are doing in the classroom. Don’t impose reading tasks and curriculum that will squash your child’s enthusiasm for learning. Starting reading instruction at an early age won’t make your child a better reader later on in life.
2. Know the Signs Your Child is Ready to Read
It’s best to wait to start any reading instruction until your child shows signs she is ready to read.
Here are four signs to look for:
Does your child like to look at books?
Does she ask you what the text says?
Interest in books is really important. When children desire to read, your job becomes a whole lot easier.
2. Concepts of Print
Does your child understand how to hold a book?
Does he know that text is read from left to right?
Can he show you a letter, a word, and a sentence?
Children need to understand that print represents the speech they hear when someone reads them a story. They need to know the difference between words and sentences and that spaces separate words before they are ready to learn the skill of reading.
3. Letter Recognition
Can your child identify most of the letters of the alphabet?
Can she tell you what sound letter b makes?
Although it’s common for young children to confuse some letters, like b and d, they need a firm knowledge of letters to help them decode text in books.
4. Phonological Awareness
Can your child recognize rhyming words?
Can he count syllables in words?
Phonological awareness, or the sound structure of words, is a big indicator of future reading success. Games where children are asked to manipulate phonemes can give you a good idea of their awareness. For example, “Say the word dog. Say it again, but don’t say /d/” or “Say the word dog. Say it again, but don’t say /d/, say /f/. What’s the word?”
If your child is motivated to read, understands concepts about print, knows the letters of the alphabet, and has phonological awareness, then by all means go ahead and help him/her learn to read.
3. Know When to Slow Down
If your child exhibits any anxiety or stress during your reading sessions, then it’s a sign to slow down. You’ve heard the quote, “A misbehaving child is a discouraged child.” Nothing is truer when it comes to reading. If your child starts doing things to avoid reading time, gets off task, complains, cries, gets angry, etc. she is trying to tell you she’s in over her head. As parents, we need to take a step back and evaluate. Think about your child’s needs and try to see your reading instruction from his perspective. Are you expecting too much? Is your child bored with the content of the book? Are you using a curriculum that is developmentally appropriate and in line with your child’s learning style?
Reading should be a positive experience to guarantee later success. Keep reading aloud to your child, but set the reading curriculum aside for a time. You may need to make changes in your curriculum, search for books that will be of high interest, and/or find ways to make reading more enjoyable.
Sometimes we have to fight the urge to push our children too early, especially if we feel outside pressure to keep up with the norm. In reality, our children will learn to read faster if we wait until they are ready.