How Young is Too Young to Teach Reading?

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There are as many products advertising that “your baby can read” as there are educators warning people away from them. Often, parents and teachers of young children receive conflicting advice. On one hand, they know that the key to lasting success is teaching academic skills as soon as a child is ready to learn. But on the other hand, they don’t know when is too early to instill a love of reading.

While it’s perfectly normal for a student to pick up literacy in kindergarten or even first grade, there are some pre-reading skills that you can nurture early on. Long before school starts, children are already learning abilities like listening skills or print recognition that will help them learn to read when they’re ready. The earlier parents and educators can help students develop these skills, the better prepared they’ll be for academic achievement.

Read on to find out how and when children learn fundamental reading abilities, as well as which skills PreK children are ready to study. Then, discover tips on teaching young children pre-reading skills at home or in the classroom.

Arguments Against PreK Reading in Early Education

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.[1]

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.

Essential Pre-Reading Skills in Early Childhood Development

Now that you understand how and when reading develops, learning which foundational reading skills a PreK student is ready to learn can help you create the best curriculum for your child. The definition of pre-reading skills are any abilities that help children learn to read once they reach kindergarten.

Essential pre-reading skills for young students include:[6,14]

  • Phonological awareness: the ability to recognize words, sounds, or syllables
  • Alphabet knowledge: the ability to recognize and name print alphabet letters
  • Print recognition: a familiarity with books and ability to hold them correctly
  • Phonemic awareness: the ability to recognize and manipulate individual sounds within a word
  • Critical thinking skills: the ability to analyze a topic and form a unique, informed opinion
  • Spoken language fluency: the ability to speak and understand their native language(s) on an oral level

One important distinction in the list above is the difference between phonological awareness vs phonemic awareness. The definition of phonological awareness is broad and can encompass anything from identifying letters, sounds, syllables, and words within a sentence. Phonemic awareness is more specific and refers to the ability to identify and manipulate sounds. Ideally, children should exhibit both of these connected pre-reading skills by the time they enter kindergarten.

Each of these pre-reading skills are building blocks that make learning to read simpler for young students. Children who learn alphabetical recognition at a young age, for example, often pick up vocabulary words and learn to spell correctly at an earlier age.[3] And teaching kids to hear or read stories with critical thinking skills can prepare them for more complex assignments in later grades. “It’s not that we expect kids to be reading by age five,” explains educational professor Dr. Nell Duke. “We do not… [but] we expect these underlying understandings about literacy to have developed at this point.”[15]

The most important factor that determines if students learn these skills by kindergarten is whether parents encourage it. While students may learn some pre-reading skills on their own, others develop best with parent or teacher instruction. Around 20-40% of all children, for example, do not learn phonemic awareness on their own.[4] By reading books to your child and doing literacy activities together, you can encourage them to excel in the classroom once they reach elementary school.[5]

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.

In a nutshell, the benefits of teaching pre-reading skills before kindergarten include higher:

  • Kindergarten readiness
  • Brain development
  • Curiosity
  • Intrinsic love of reading
  • Listening skills

At least 40% of the entire population has a significant enough reading problem to inhibit their enjoyment.[4] If these difficulties aren’t caught by early elementary, they’re more likely to persist throughout a person’s entire life. But children who do learn pre-literacy skills develop strong literacy skills and excel in their academic careers, especially in comparison to non-early readers.[13] PreK and kindergarten are a critical “window of opportunity” for when to teach kids to read, and any instruction during this period can prevent issues later on.

How to Teach 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 pre-reading strategies, any child can be prepared for long-term student success.

Use these five tips for teaching reading to children to help your student learn essential concepts in a developmentally-appropriate way:

  • Take your child 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 twenty-six letter names and print symbols. Students are more likely to succeed in elementary school if they know letter names before kindergarten[10]
  • To encourage phonological awareness, point to letters in a book or on a sign and ask your child to tell you what sound it makes[4]
  • Young children can have small attention spans that make long reading sessions difficult–instead, try planning short, daily reading activities together. You could, for example, read one or two picture books together or attend a 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?”[5]

Sources:

Miller, G.A., and Gildea, P.M. How Children Learn Words. Scientific American, September 1987, 257(3), pp. 94-99.[1]

Winner, E. Gifted Children. Different Strokes, 2012, pp. 75-81.[2]

Ehri, L.C. Learning to Read Words: Theory, Findings, and Issues. Scientific Studies of Reading, 2005, 9, pp. 167-88.[3]

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.[4]

Bailey, N.M. Teaching Reading Skills. Retrieved from www.canisus.edu: http://www3.canisius.edu/~justice/CSTmodule-final/CSTmodule-final3.html.[5]

Rose, J. Independent review of the teaching of early reading. Investor in People Department for Education and Skills, March 2006, pp. 1-240.[6]

Joshi, R.M., Binks, E., and Hougen, M. Why Elementary Teachers Might Be Inadequately Prepared to Teach Reading. Journal of Learning Disabilities, June 2009, 42(5).[7]

Strauss, V. Why pushing kids to learn too much too soon is counterproductive. Retrieved from www.washingtonpost.com: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/08/17/why-pushing-kids-to-learn-too-much-too-soon-is-counterproductive/?utm_term=.26e963b6c874.[8]

Elkind, D. Too Much Too Early. Retrieved from www.educationnext.org: https://www.educationnext.org/much-too-early/.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11]

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.[12]

The Libra Foundation. Why is Early Literacy Important? Retrieved from aafp.org: https://www.raisingreaders.org/understanding-early-literacy/why-is-early-literacy-important/.[13]

Scholastic Corporation. Early Literacy. Retrieved from scholastic.com: http://teacher.scholastic.com/products/face/pdf/research-compendium/early-literacy.pdf.[14]

Jacobs, L., and Duke, N.K. Pre-K Comprehension Development & Instruction for Ed Equity and Learning. EduTalk Radio, August 2018.[15]

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.[16]

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