When can a child be reasonably expected to learn to read?

Everyone is convinced their child is a baby-genius, and some parents try to get a head-start on proving it with early-reading and other early education programs. These programs can be fun, parent-child bonding times, but they can also be seen as putting extra stress on young children to learn skills they’re not ready to learn. How soon is too soon to try to turn your little one into a bookworm?

Early reading programs

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that, in some cases, young children can start to associate the images of specific written words with specific concepts from a very early age. This ability for recognition is what so many early reading programs are designed around, whether they depend on flashcards, video, some combination of the two, or something else entirely.

Early reading programs that involve video often meet the same criticism as any other early education program that relies on video. Babies have been shown not to know how to make a connection between images in video and reality, making young children unable to learn from video. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended against regularly exposing children under age 2 to any video programming. On top of this, video-based early literacy programs face the same questions that all early reading programs face.

The issues that literacy experts raise about early reading programs are, first, whether this recognition with whole, individual words counts as reading, since reading in English is based around phonics (the way letters make up the different sounds that make up words). These early reading programs work off of the assumption that, by learning whole words, children will eventually come to understand phonics without specifically being taught. The second issue literacy experts raise is whether these early-reading programs create better outcomes for the way children read in the future. Unfortunately, there have been few studies on this question, and there is no definitive answer either way.

What works? 

The factors that have been proved to count towards children’s literacy skills as they grow up, as determined by an evaluation of different early literacy studies by the National Early Literacy panel in 2002, do include some skills that early literacy programs can teach. These skills include familiarity with the alphabet and with the layout and makeup of books (reading left to right, etc). On the other hand, it’s possible to build these skills just by reading to children and pointing out numbers and letters to them throughout the day.

The other main keys that contribute to successful reading when children are older are just the different ways that language skills grow in general. Children who know more words, and who understand more about speaking and grammar, have an easier time recognizing and translating that knowledge onto the page. Early reading programs can be helpful, but nothing can replace talking to toddlers, engaging with them, and making sure that language is a fun and common part of their day-to-day lives.

And when will Baby be able to read?

Most literacy experts agree that most early readers don’t really get started until around age 4, and that many young children aren’t comfortable enough with abstract concepts to become really fluent readers until around age 6. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t building the skills they’ll need for reading starting much earlier, though, or that some identification of words and letters and sounds won’t start much earlier, too.

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  • “Literacy milestones birth to age 6.” Reading Is Fundemental. Reading Is Fundemental. Web.
  • Eleanor Barkhorn. “Study: Babies can’t learn to read.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, February 24 2014. Web.
  • J. Richard Gentry. “Are Commercial-Product Claims that Babies Can Read Overblown?” Psychology Today. Psychology Today, December 5 2010. Web.
  • J. Richard Gentry. “Can Babies Really Read? What Parents Should Know!” Psychology Today. Psychology Today. October 7 2010. Web.
  • Lisa Guernsey. “A Place for Play.” The American Prospect. The American Prospect, June 13, 2010. Web.
  • Lauren Lowry. “Can Your Baby Really Learn to Read.” The Hanen Center. The Hanen Center, 2011. Web.
  • Julia Luckenbill. “13 Things Babies Learn When We Read To Them.” naeyc for families. National Association for the Education of Young Families. Web.
  • National Early Literacy Panel. “National Early Literacy Panel Report.” Literacy Information and Communication System. Literacy Information and Communication System, 2002. Web.
  • New York University. “Can babies learn to read? No, NYU study finds.” EurekAlert. American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, 25 February 2015. Web.
  • Rachel Saslow. “Teaching babies to read: Is it possible? Several companies say yes, but study says no.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, May 5 2014. Web.

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