How Young is Too Young to Teach Reading?

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To find the best way to teach reading to young children, it’s important to understand the arguments against PreK literacy. According to traditionalists, children naturally pick up literacy when they’re ready to. For that reason, opponents to early reading instruction feel that students cannot benefit from books until kindergarten or first grade, which is the average age children learn to read.[9] Teaching reading strategies before elementary school, in their opinion, has at best a neutral effect since they feel that their children won’t retain those skills.

Other opponents, however, think that teaching PreK students to read has a negative effect. Not only is it counterproductive in their perspective, but they worry that it could lead to a learning disability misdiagnosis.[8] Because young children don’t have the attention span or motivation to handle complex assignments, they may seem like “slow readers” when their brains just aren’t developed enough to read yet.

These arguments, however, fail to acknowledge how complex reading development is. Literacy isn’t as simple as picking up a book and learning to decode letters or sentences from scratch. Even in infancy and early childhood, students pick up skills that ultimately contribute to a stronger reading ability later on. While parents or educators might not teach PreK children to read, they can teach pre-reading skills that promote kindergarten readiness.

Plus, research suggests that children often don’t develop strong reading skills unless their parents familiarize them with books at home.[2] The more engaged that families are in their student’s early education, the quicker fluent literacy will develop when kids do start reading. Simple, daily activities like reading to young children or taking them to a library are as important to long-term literacy development as formal instruction later on.

When Do Kids Learn to Read?

Over 80% of all elementary school teachers are unfamiliar with reading milestones, but recognizing what they are and how to teach them can put your child at an advantage.[7] The question “What age do kids learn to read?” doesn’t have a simple answer since every child is different, but skills that contribute to literacy later on begin developing as soon as a baby is born. As children learn to communicate and are exposed to books for the first time, they’re already reaching key child development milestones for reading.

The brain develops quicker than any other time from when a child is born to after they turn three[14]. This is when babies and toddlers pick up basic language skills by building their vocabulary and understanding of grammar. During this period, children build these skills so rapidly that it’s considered by many researchers to be one of the most impressive cognitive feats that the brain performs. And by age three, children have usually mastered the basics of their language and continue to learn about 5,000 new words per year.

The skills that children learn during these early years and PreK are called metalinguistic skills, or the understanding of their language on a structural level. Without strong metalinguistic skills, children will not pass all the stages of literacy development they need to succeed once they begin school. Oral language and literacy are so tightly connected that, alongside familiarity with books, strengthening one positively affects the other.

The age that children begin to read can depend on a variety of factors, from cognitive development to socioeconomic differences.[6] Children with ADHD or dyslexia, for example, often have a harder time learning to read than their peers. Students from low socioeconomic status (SES) homes in particular often enter schools with lower vocabulary ranges and pre-reading skills. This is not because of any neurological differences but because low SES students often have fewer resources available to them. Wealthier families, for example, may have more time to read to their children or take them to library events.

“This is not so much as a vocabulary gap or an achievement gap,” says Dr. Nell Duke, educational professor at the University of Michigan, “as an opportunity gap.”[15] For that reason, schools and communities can team up to prevent reading gaps in schools. The more exposure low SES children and students with abilities have to books and pre-literacy activities, the better families and educators can lessen or prevent reading disorders.

Benefits of Teaching Reading Skills in PreK Programs

The benefits of reading aloud and teaching pre-reading skills begin at birth. Even in infancy, reading to your baby can help them develop a positive association toward reading.[14] When children are raised with a love of reading, they’re more likely to enjoy reading for the intrinsic value and have motivation to learn new topics. Plus, reading aloud to your student can improve brain development during these critical early years.[11]

Plus, these benefits extend far beyond academic achievement. Students who learn pre-reading skills before kindergarten often have a stronger sense of curiosity and better listening skills.[16] While these skills can lead to student success, they can also contribute to better well-being and general quality of life.

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