Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Recently, I was able to talk with a group of teachers (and later a group of parents of preschool children) about an important milestone in children's development: when they first learn to read.  What I learned is how many misconceptions there are out there, spurred on perhaps in part by the new hype in the last few years of teaching babies to read.

"I'll just be giving my child a head start, right?"

"The earlier the better."

 "I saw it on TV!"


These are common comments from well-meaning parents.  The problem is that these ideas have no scientific foundation.  Just because someone says "there's research", don't believe it.  What I alway recommend to educators is to look for three INDEPENDENT studies that confirm the same findings before you believe any of it.  The science (and there is a lot of it) tells us a much different story, one of complex connections being built in brains years before a child is ready to learn to "decode" (see the symbols and understand the sounds related to them, blending into words they recognize from their oral vocabulary).

The truth is that most baby's brains at birth have nearly the same number of brain cells, give or take a small number according to genetics (about 100 billion!).   Years ago, Piaget confirmed that young children first learn through the concrete, concrete experiences with senses and motion.  As they grow, they move into increasingly more abstract thinking (the first hint is when the baby realizes you are still behind the blanket and that you haven't gone away just because he/she cannot see you).  That is a good framework from which to think about children learning to read.  Understanding a variety of symbols (graphemes) and cognitively recognizing and thinking about the sounds they represent is too abstract for most children until the ages of 4-6.  And that doesn't mean that if your child isn't ready to read at 4, you should "make him".  Earlier IS NOT always better.  For more information about young children's brain growth at ages zero to three, visit Zero to Three's website.

All the parents I spoke with recently want the best for their child.  They had great questions to ask and the answers were able to help them filter out the myth of babies learning to read.  I also found few parents who were aware of the importance of oral language (speech and listening) as a foundation for later reading.  Dr. Catherine Snow, an incredible, long-time researcher from Harvard says, that before children are ready to read, they must have many, many experiences with language and with print.  

Here are a few signals to watch for that might indicate your child is ready for the "reading table":

They ask, "what does that say, Mommie?" or say "I want to learn to read."
They play easily with patterns and sounds in speech (like being able to change around first sounds or last sounds to make new words).
They have learned the corresponding sounds that are associated with certain letters.

Don't rush this stage - surround your child with print experiences that are fun and entertaining, talk using lots of varied words, explain their world to them and take time to talk with them in regular conversations.  That as much as anything will move them toward their "right time to read".  Most normally developing children will learn to read between 4-6 years of age, and anytime within this range is acceptable.  In my own observations I see that children with rich literacy environments (and few if any flashcards) come to reading early at their own instigation and those children, with a continued support system, will often continue to read above their peers.  To the contrary, children forced to read before they are ready lose creativity, become frustrated and turned off to learning and who wants that?

 Another question to ponder is, do we ask a 3-month old to learn to walk, stand them right up there and why can't they do it?  Because they don't have the foundational strength and balance yet.  We accept that our children won't all walk at the same time.  It is also true that they will not necessarily learn to read at exactly the same time.  Throwing a child into reading before he/she is ready is akin to taking them to a swimming pool when they have never been near water and throwing them in the deep end of the pool.  Never!

I could go on and on with reasons why it's so important to know how those early years contribute to reading at each child's "prime time".  If you have others questions about children learning to read, post them here and I'll answer them as they are posed.  You can also learn more in my books on this subject (Anytime Reading Readiness for parents of 3-6 year olds and the partner book, Before They Read, for educators working with children of this age.

Cherish childhood - it is all too fleeting.  And take a little time every day to read to your child.  It not only brings you close together, it relaxes you and your child in a stress-filled world.  It's a "good thing".

P.S.  If any of you live in Illinois or know a teacher there, I'll be a featured speaker at the Illinois Reading Council's annual conference in mid-March.  Come join in the fun and information; I'd love to meet all of you in person!