Should my young child already be reading?

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By Laura Scholes

What young children need to read

In fact, the evidence has shown time and again that very young children learn far more through play than they do in a “strict” academic environment, according to Alison Gopnik, a researcher at UC Berkeley and author of The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. Pretend play teaches children how to understand themselves and their world, leads to better adjustment in school, and helps turn them into what she calls “flexible and sophisticated thinkers.”

Joan Kelley, a language and literacy researcher at Harvard University, thinks part of the problem is that parents don’t really know what it takes to learn to read, so they’re willing to spend a lot of money on products that promise concrete solutions. “While children do need to know about letters and sounds, that’s just one piece of a very complicated puzzle when it comes to how kids learn to read,” she says.

Kelley says the most important thing parents can do is to create a rich language environment at home. This means working to balance the instructive talk we do with our kids all day (“Brush your teeth,” “Feed the dog”) with what Kelley calls “elaborative” language. She uses the example of pushing a one year old in a stroller and seeing a “Lost Cat” sign on a telephone pole. You could walk right past it, or you could elaborate on the sign by saying something like, “Oh, no, someone lost their cat ! Look, the sign says his name is Fluffy. Nana has a cat named Muffy. Fluffy-Muffy, Fluffy-Muffy, hey that rhymes! Remember in the Curious George book when the cat ran up the tree? Do you think Fluffy might be hiding in a tree? Let's take a look."

“Elaborative language makes connections in the brain — you can almost see the neurons snapping,” Kelley explains. “Every time I see a parent talking on their cell phone while pushing the stroller, I cringe, thinking about all the opportunities for building language that are being lost.”

Education professor Susan Neuman agrees that supporting your young child's learning doesn't require special preparation or expensive products — it just means showing up. “Parents can support early literacy just by taking advantage of all the regular routines of their day — going to the grocery store, going to the bank, following a recipe,” says Neuman. “All of these activities get children used to seeing print in functional settings and help with reading.”

When to worry about reading...when not to

There are some children for whom reading comes very easily and there are children at the other end of the spectrum who struggle a lot. But Ayers says that kids in the middle of the bell curve — the vast majority — should learn to read at a normal progression with appropriate stimulus and support.

In general, boys start reading later than girls do — boys tend to be later in showing interest and later in getting started — but they generally catch up right away once they start, according to Neuman. She recommends tailoring reading time to a boy’s gross motor energy — keep it short, sweet, and relevant.  

Typically, most children will start reading in the first grade. If, by the beginning of second grade, your child hasn't shown an interest in reading or a teacher has raised concerns about your child's reading progress, Ayers says you shouldn't panic, but you should take decisive action. “Once you’re aware of an issue, you just have to start intervening,” she says. “Ramp up their reading environment both at school and at home and support them however you can.” Consider consulting a reading specialist if the problem persists. 

But chances are, you’ve been doing the right things all along. “The number- one thing you can do is talk to your kids and read to your kids from the earliest of ages,” Kelley says.

Ways to support early literacy at home

  • Visit the library every week and befriend the children’s librarian to get good, age-appropriate book recommendations. “Having new books every week breeds excitement about reading,” says Kelley. “Get all kinds of books: ones have repetitive language, books that challenge them a bit, nursery rhymes.”
  • Encourage your child to write. “Give her a pen and paper when you’re playing restaurant so she can take your order,” says Ayers. “It’s amazing to see the progression from scribbles to actual letters over time.”
  • Show your child nonfiction books as well as story books. “Some young children, especially boys, are drawn to information books instead of stories,” says Neuman.
  • Stick with real books instead of electronic ones. Ayers quotes research showing that with electronic storybooks, parents talked about the book only 59 percent of the time (the rest of the time was spent saying, “push this button,” etc.), whereas with a traditional book, 92 percent of the parents’ time was spent talking about the story.
  • Expose your kids to big ideas. “Instead of the usual ‘How was your day?’ conversation, talk to them about something you read that was interesting,” says Kelley. “It stretches and excites your kids and helps them prepare to enter the world of reading with more understanding.”



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