How Young Is Too Young to Learn to Read?

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The key to lasting success in school is teaching academic skills as soon as a child is ready to learn. But how do we know when they’re ready? Is it ever too early to instill a love of reading?

When Do Children Learn to Read?

While most children begin reading in kindergarten or first grade, learning to read isn’t as simple as picking up a book. Children don’t and learn to decode letters, words, and sentences without help or preparation. In fact, 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 written language and books for the first time, they’re already reaching key milestones for reading. The age that children begin to read varies, and can depend on factors as wide ranging as cognitive development and socioeconomic differences.[6]

The PreK and kindergarten years are a critical window of opportunity for teaching kids early reading skills, and any instruction during this period will benefit children. During these years (and even before), parents and teachers can team up to help prevent reading gaps in schools. The more exposure children have to books and pre-reading activities from the start, the better prepared they will be as they learn to read.

How Language Skills Affect Reading

During infancy and early childhood, children develop language skills that lead to stronger reading abilities later on. Children’s brains develop more quickly between ages zero and five than at any other time. This is when babies and toddlers begin to build their vocabulary and understand the grammar of their native language. By the age of three, most children have mastered the basics of their language and continue to learn about 5,000 new words each year.[1]

Language skills are important because reading skills are built on the foundation of a solid vocabulary. Language and literacy are so tightly connected that, alongside familiarity with books, strengthening one positively affects the other. Children can build key literacy skills and become effective communicators as a direct result of strong language development.

How Family Engagement Affects Reading

Research suggests that children develop strong reading skills when their parents familiarize them with books at home.[2] The most important factor that determines how early a child will begin reading is whether families encourage it. The more engaged families are in their student’s early education, the quicker fluent literacy will develop. Even in infancy, reading to babies in their native language can help them develop a positive relationship with reading at an early age.[3]

For example, children who begin to recognize the alphabet at a young age are more likely to pick up vocabulary words and learn to spell early on.[4] When children are encouraged to love reading from an early age, they’re more likely to enjoy reading and learning new things as they grow up. Helping children create simple daily habits, like reading a book aloud every day, are important to long-term literacy development. Plus, reading aloud can improve brain development during these critical early years.[5]

Essential Pre-Reading Skills for PreK Children

Pre-reading skills are the building blocks that help young children learn to read. There are many skills that parents and educators can help PreK students develop, such as:[3,6]

The Benefits of Pre-Reading Skills

The benefits of these pre-reading skills extend far beyond a child’s academic achievement. Students who work on these skills before kindergarten often have a stronger sense of curiosity and better listening skills.[7] While these traits can lead to student success in school, they can also contribute to better well-being and general quality of life outside of academics.

While students might learn some parts of these pre-reading skills on their own, others develop best with explicit instruction. Up to 40% of all children do not learn phonemic awareness without guidance from teachers and parents.[8] When children have the opportunity to read books and enjoy literacy activities in a structured learning environment, they are more likely to begin reading once they reach kindergarten.[9]

The benefits of learning pre-reading skills before kindergarten include:

  • Higher kindergarten readiness
  • Brain development
  • Increased curiosity
  • An intrinsic love of reading
  • Better listening skills

Tips for Teaching Early Reading Skills to PreK Children

Whether you’re a PreK teacher or a parent, you can help children build essential pre-reading skills before they start elementary school. With the right strategies, every child can grow a love for reading.

Use these five tips to teach literacy skills to children, and you can find even more ideas here.

  • Take children to the library regularly to help them develop print recognition. To encourage an early love of reading, let them choose their own books to take home.
  • Teach PreK children all 26 letters and letter names. Students are more likely to succeed in elementary school if they know letter names before kindergarten.[10]
  • To encourage phonological awareness, point to a letter in a book or on a sign and ask your child to tell you what sound it makes.[8]
  • Young children can have short attention spans that make long reading sessions difficult. Instead, try planning short, daily reading activities together. For example, read one or two picture books together or attend a brief PreK library event.[6]
  • Ask “big picture questions” while reading aloud to children to promote critical thinking skills. While reading a fairy tale picture book, for example, you could ask, “Why do you think the queen is so mean to Snow White? What would you do if you were her?”[9]

Sources:

  1. Miller, G.A., and Gildea, P.M. How Children Learn Words. Scientific American, September 1987, 257(3), pp. 94-99.
  2. Winner, E. Gifted Children. Different Strokes, 2012, pp. 75-81.
  3. Scholastic Corporation. Early Literacy. Retrieved from scholastic.com: http://teacher.scholastic.com/products/face/pdf/research-compendium/early-literacy.pdf.
  4. Ehri, L.C. Learning to Read Words: Theory, Findings, and Issues. Scientific Studies of Reading, 2005, 9, pp. 167-88.
  5. American Association of Pediatrics. Evidence Supporting Early Literacy and Early Learning. Retrieved from aap.org: https://www.aap.org/en-us/literacy/Literacy/For-Professionals/Evidence-Supporting-Early-Literacy-and-Early-Learning/booksbuildconnections_evidencesupportingearlyliteracyandearlylearning.pdf.
  6. Rose, J. Independent review of the teaching of early reading. Investor in People Department for Education and Skills, March 2006, pp. 1-240.
  7. American Academy of Family Physicians. Early Childhood Literacy. Retrieved from aafp.org: https://www.aafp.org/patient-care/social-determinants-of-health/child-literacy.html.
  8. Grossen, B. 30 Years of Research: What We Now Know About How Children Learn To Read. Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, 1997, pp. 1-22.
  9. Bailey, N.M. Teaching Reading Skills. Retrieved from www.canisus.edu: http://www3.canisius.edu/~justice/CSTmodule-final/CSTmodule-final3.html.
  10. American Academy of Family Physicians. Early Childhood Literacy. Retrieved from aafp.org: https://www.aafp.org/patient-care/social-determinants-of-health/child-literacy.html.

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