Should my young child already be reading?

The pressure is on for parents to teach their children to read at a young age. So should you or shouldn't you? The answer from reading experts may surprise you.

By Laura Scholes

Not long ago, I woke up at 3 AM in a panic: Should my four year old be reading by now? She loves it when we read to her and recognizes a few simple words, but isn't reading on her own yet. Should we be teaching her to read? Had I “missed the memo” that explains how?

This anxiety reared its head just when I had started to relax, thinking we had escaped the toddler years relatively unscathed. I can't remember the last time my daughter had a full-blown tantrum. She's finally easing out of the nails-on-chalkboard “baby voice” phase. And these days we can actually leave the house in under five minutes when we have to — shoes (and underwear) on, hair mostly brushed.

In the middle of that dark night, however, I was certain my husband and I had failed at one of the crucial tests of parenting: our daughter doesn't yet know how to read.

The very first thing the next morning, I ordered, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons and breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn’t neglected a key parenting responsibility. But when I received the book a few days later, I was struck by how un-easy these 100 (100!) lessons seemed. It now sits gathering dust on a shelf in my bedroom.

The drumbeat to push even the youngest kids to read and attain other academic milestones has grown steadily louder over the past decade or so. And when you’re the parent of one of those kids, it’s hard not to pay attention. Who doesn’t occasionally wonder if their play-based preschool is really prepping their child for kindergarten reading? Who doesn’t want their own child to be as smart as a friend’s precocious three-year-old who can already read Green Eggs and Ham? Who doesn’t dream of their child getting a full ride to Harvard or Stanford?

Parental anxiety over early reading

A few of the findings parents encounter on the journey to kindergarten help fuel concerns about young children and reading. Consider these:

  • the quality of a child’s language environment at age three is a strong predictor of tenth-grade reading achievement
  • a child’s vocabulary at age four is predictive of third grade reading comprehension
  • and scariest of all: a child who doesn't read proficiently by third grade is four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than a proficient reader, according to  research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Parental worries (and pre-dawn anxiety attacks) have fueled a thriving market of early reading programs, books, and other products. In Manhattan, parents are shelling out big bucks for prep programs to cinch sought-after spots in gifted and talented public kindergarten classes. For the more budget-conscious, the Your Baby Can Read! DVDs and flash cards let parents do the training themselves for a fraction of the cost — that is, until the company went out of business in July, 2012, after its tactics were challenged in a "Today Show" investigation, a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission, and numerous class action suits.  

The problem, researchers say, is that no one knows if pushing your young child to read makes any difference. “There’s no evidence that teaching children to read early is a good thing,” says Dr. Susan B. Neuman, a professor of education at the University of Michigan who specializes in early literacy development. “There’s no evidence that says it’s a bad thing either, but there’s just no evidence at all, so parents might be wasting a good deal of their own — and their children’s — time, when they could be doing other things that really do promote early literacy.”

Still, with the national focus on reading brought about by No Child Left Behind and the implementation of Common Core standards in the classroom — not to mention fierce competition for enrollment at top schools and universities — many parents feel increasing pressure to get their kids reading as soon as possible to ensure their academic success.

“We see an awful lot of parents who are trying to teach their children how to read very early on, in infancy as a matter of fact,” Neuman says. “We think that some of this early push might be more focused on the parents’ needs than the kids’ needs.”

“I find the phenomenon shocking,” says Dr. Shannon Ayers, assistant research professor at Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). “But I don’t blame the parents. Every parent wants what’s best for his or her child. But they’re hearing about this so-called ‘window of opportunity’ before age five, and they get scared. The bottom line is: yes, there are critical skills your young child needs before they enter school, but these skills are ones that they can learn through play and through their life experiences, not flash cards.”

Laura Scholes is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, CA.