Is it Ever Too Early to Learn to Read?
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that yes, some times are better to start reading than others. But here’s the part that might be unexpected: children read best when they begin to learn to read from the moment they’re born. In fact, much of the work of becoming literate is best done between the ages of zero and four.
How is this possible? To understand why the best time to learn to read is before children turn four, one has to think about what reading really is. We think of reading as the ability to look at symbols on a page and translate them into words, but this is just the surface of what’s happening when you sit down to read a book.
Reading in reality is a complex collection of skills layered on top of each other. The act of reading itself, i.e., the ability to read actual text, is the outermost layer in this collection of skills, and it’s also the final layer that gets added in the process of learning to read. However, below this layer are core language skills that have to be built up before literacy is possible.
Therefore, the bulk of the work in learning to read lies in developing the essential language skills that form the foundation of reading. Children who have mastered these underlying language skills will learn to read more quickly and more effectively.
To say that the best time to learn to read is between the ages of zero and four doesn’t mean children in this age range should actually be made to read books. Rather, it means children in this age range are developing the basic cognitive abilities necessary for becoming literate, and this is the best time to teach children to read by helping them master these important skills. Children do most of the work of learning to read before they ever open books.
So what are these basic skills that lay the groundwork for learning to read? One of the most important is phonemic awareness, the ability to recognize the constituent sounds of a language and to manipulate these sounds, i.e. by breaking down words in terms of these sounds, creating new words by putting these sounds together and so on. Phonemic awareness is so important in learning to read that impaired phonemic awareness is thought to be a central feature of dyslexia.
Other skills crucial for literacy include having a developed vocabulary and a strong grasp on syntax. Children simply cannot get the most out of learning to read without these fundamental skills in place.
Reading also makes demands on more general cognitive abilities like working memory and attention, and it’s important children develop these skills to a certain point as a prerequisite for becoming literate. As it happens, these general cognitive skills are intertwined with more language-specific skills – the more children develop their language skills, the more they’re building up their general cognitive skills and the more they build up their general cognitive skills, the easier it is for them to develop their language skills.
Developing Basic Language Skills
The best way to start teaching children to read before they ever open a book is to involve them in activities that give their language skills a workout. Perhaps the single most effective thing you can do to help them build up the intuitive grasp of language that they need to learn to read successfully is making sure they are in an environment where they are able to frequently listen to spoken language.
An excellent way to accomplish this is by reading aloud to them. Listening to books read aloud gives the entire language processing part of the brain a workout. It helps children build vocabulary as well as learn to quickly and accurately parse language. It also promotes more general cognitive abilities like working memory. These factors partly explain why being read aloud to in early childhood correlates with later reading abilities.
Since phonemic awareness is a core skill that literacy is built on, activities that draw children’s attention to the constituent sounds that make up words are especially helpful in building up the “muscles” necessary for learning to read. For instance, rhyming games or word games involving alliteration are useful for developing phonemic awareness.
Even simply naming a word and asking children to name or count the individual sounds that make up the word promotes phonemic awareness. As an example, the word “three” divides into three basic sounds – “th,” “r” and “ee.” Reading books that emphasis rhyming and the sounds of words – Dr. Seuss books for example – is also good for working on phonemic awareness.
Therefore, by letting children listen to as much language as possible and drawing their attention to the basic sounds that words are pieced together from, you are helping them acquire the essential skills that literacy rests upon. In general, the more linguistically rich children’s early childhood environment, the easier it is for them to learn to read down the road.
From General Language Skills to Reading Specifically
Building up general language skills is fine, but one question remains: when is the best time to move from developing these underlying skills to actually learning to read text?
As long as foundational language skills are in place, it turns out the answer is that it doesn’t really matter. The most time-critical part of learning to read is building up the basic language skills. Once those are established, pretty much any time is as good as any (from a neurological perspective) to begin working on reading per se.
Some language skills are time-sensitive in that learning them optimally requires learning them early in life. When it comes to learning languages in general, there is a “critical period” during which children’s brains are wired for language learning, which is why people tend to speak languages they learned as children more fluently than those they learned as adults – and why it’s important to make sure children have access to environments that will help them learn foundational language skills early on.
But there is no critical period for learning to read. Theoretically, one could learn basic pre-literacy language skills as a child but then not learn to actually read until adulthood without being any the worse for it.
The bottom line is that there’s no rush. In Finland, children don’t receive formal reading instruction until age 7, which ensures that they’ve become fluent in the basic language skills that have to be in place before reading is possible. From a scientific point of view, there’s no such thing as learning to read too late, but learning to read too early (before essential language skills are solid) will cause frustration all around.
So the answer to the question “When is the best time to learn to read?” has two parts in the end. In a sense, the time to learn to read is between the ages of zero and four, before even opening a book, because this is when crucial language skills that form the basis of literacy are being nurtured. For the final stage of learning to read, however, it turns out that the timing doesn’t much matter as long as children aren’t trying to learn before their language skills have matured (around 7 on average).
In other words, parents may have plenty of things to worry about, but their children learning to read too late shouldn’t be one of them!