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When Is The Best Time To Teach Your Child To Read?


children reading

Children Reading - Image Credit Edenpictures

Guest post by Eric Watermolen

My daughter is five years old, and she’s just starting to learn how to read.  We’ve taken a mostly laid back approach to reading, but I have noticed a lot of pressure and competition surrounding the whole learning to read process.  In a way I can understand the push, learning to read is a major step in our modern society.  But I don’t really understand all the hype, pressure, and competition.  It seems like every parent wants their kid to learn to read as fast as possible.  I have to wonder how much of that is for the good of the child and how much is for the ego boost of the parent.  Then there is a bevy of products to get babies to read, even before they can talk.  I’m not sure how much reading a one year old really needs to be doing.

At What Age Should a Child Learn to Read

All this got me thinking, “At what age should a child learn to read?”  The answer isn’t clear at all, or at least there isn’t really any consensus on the matter.  On one side of the fence you have those that say you should learn to read as early as possible since it sets you up for more advanced learning more quickly.  On the other side you have those that say reading early isn’t important as long as they learn to read at some point.  There are even studies that back up both sides, like this one for early readers and this one for late readers.

Phonics vs. Sight Words

As if it weren’t enough to be concerned about when a child should learn to read, we also have to be concerned about the method in which they learn to read.  There are two general methods – phonics and sight or whole words.  Sight words is where you teach the child a number of commonly used words and they learn to recognize them by sight.  Phonics is where you teach them to sound out the words using the sounds of each letter and putting them together.

I found a pretty good blog article that discussed the differences between sight words and phonics.  It seems there are pros and cons to both methods.  Personally, I think a combination of the two is likely the best course of action.  I found a home school website that discussed the combined strategy.   They make a good point that even as adults, we use both phonics and sight words as we read.  Any time we come to a word we’ve never seen before, we use phonics to sound it out.  And then when we see most other words that we’ve read over and over throughout our life, we are using sight words.

What is Best?

What seems to have worked well for us is some combination of all these strategies.  We taught our daughter the alphabet and all the letter sounds.  She worked with these on and off over the course of a couple of years.  She actually picked up a couple of sight words on her own, with the first word she could read being “Jeep.”  It seems my enthusiasm for my Jeep and all my Jeep t-shirts likely contributed to that one.

But we didn’t really focus on sight words.  We did try going through “Hooked on Phonics” at a few points when she was three and four years old.  She grew tired of it pretty quickly though, and definitely preferred it when mom or dad read to her.  Just recently when I was working on the computer, she sat down next to me and started sounding out words from “Go Dog, Go!

That was the point when she decided she was ready to learn to read.  It was reading time. It occurred to me that the decision on when to teach a child to read might be better left to the child.  After all, we all tend to learn better when we are interested and excited about the topic at hand.  Of course it helps to get the fundamentals laid out, but if you are actively reading to your kids and encouraging them along the way, at some point they are going to want to read on their own.  I think that’s the best time for a child to learn to read.

About the author:

Eric is the founder of Eden Journal. He loves blogging about personal growth and desires to make a small difference in the world by providing a platform for bloggers to share ideas on a wide range of topics from personal development to spiritual and philosophical awakenings.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Julianne Fuchs-Musgrave May 27, 2011, 5:04 am

    Very sweet piece. You had me worried until I reached the end though. As a teacher and mother, I’ve seen children (like myself and my eldest) who are driven to decode those squiggles on paper before three. I’ve also known those (my second child) who announced they weren’t ready until well past six and go on to earning Phd’s before his or her mid twenties.
    Your final sentence is the key, I believe. Books and other reading materials in the house–lots of being read to (I started when mine were newborns–mostly for me) and seeing the adults around them reading always seems to work. Showing by example that reading is a natural joy in your life is the greatest lure.
    And while my youngest is now sixteen, I can still recite “Go Dog, Go!”

    • Eric Watermolen May 27, 2011, 7:23 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experiences with your own kids.
      Go Dog, Go is definitely one of our favorites. Just the other day I was wearing a funny hat, and my daughter tells me to ask her, “Do you like my hat?” She laughed and laughed as she replied, “No, I do not like that hat.”

  • Gustavo May 27, 2011, 7:54 am

    Hi Eric,

    You got me thinking with your post, which is always a good thing. This is what I found out in my case: there is some ego influence in wanting my young children to read faster than the others and that is a bad thing. I don’t believe intelligence can be achieved since it isn’t really something measurable, or defined by memory or knowledge so, if I am not making my children more intelligent, what’s the point of all the hard work involved?

    On the other hand, I can also recon my will to teach my children something I really love, which is books and reading them. In this case, since it is a matter of love, I agree with you in allowing the time to be right for them. Rushing love has never worked.

    • Eric Watermolen May 27, 2011, 7:35 pm

      It’s easy to get sucked up into that competition among parents. I have to constantly remind myself that every child is unique, and will learn a whole variety of things at different rates. I like your statement that rushing love never works.

  • Casey May 27, 2011, 8:24 am

    Hey Eric,

    I hate to disagree, but at some point the child may need to be pushed. I work with a number of youth and there are several at the age of 14 or older who still have trouble with simple sentences and phrases. These are the children who come from parents who have never pushed their child in favor of “doing what he wants”.
    While it sounds nice to just let children set their own pace, we humans often find the path of least resistance and for some people that means not learning to read.

    • Eric Watermolen May 27, 2011, 7:48 pm

      Hi Casey,
      I get that comment sometimes whenever I talk about letting the child decide. I have to expand on that idea a little and say that there are times when kids have to be pushed. But most times I think if a parent is actively involved and doing activities with their child, their interest will be piqued enough to get them interested in learning.

      In the case of our daughter, we read to her almost every night, and we’ve played games with letter sounds. We had one game where we played a version of I-spy where we would spy something that starts with a letter sound. She loves I-spy, so this worked well as an educational tool. We work with her on these things, but we try not to push too much, and we try to make learning fun.

  • Eric Watermolen May 27, 2011, 3:19 pm

    Thanks for allowing me to share a guest post here. One of my favorite things is lying down with my daughter and sharing some reading adventures. I’m sure it’s the same with you and your son.

  • Jodi Kaplan May 27, 2011, 3:34 pm

    Well, in my case, I apparently sat myself down in front of the TV (!) and taught myself. My mom says there was some ESL program on PBS that I insisted on watching. I was 3 years old and I’ve been going along at a pretty good clip ever since.

    • Eric Watermolen May 27, 2011, 7:52 pm

      That’s awesome! Sometimes the TV does something worthwhile.

  • Steve M May 27, 2011, 3:58 pm

    I’d been thinking about the issue of early reading (my granddaughter is 4 yrs old and we live in an area populated by uber-competitive “Tiger Moms” and hyper-achieving children). What has always made sense to me (but is probably contraindicated here) is the Piagetian approach of waiting until 6 or 7yrs to teach the mechanics of reading. The underlying notion is this – the mechanics of reading, i.e. decoding, can be quickly mastered by any child (without a significant disability) at the later ages. What needs to be concentrated on during the earlier years are the development tasks and activities appropriate for that stage of the child’s cognitive development. These tasks provide the basis for intellectual development – so the child can comprehend, relate, manipulate concepts, etc. That is, we must concentrate on activities that develop thinking, not decoding of written symbols. Makes a lot of sense to me, but is impractical because it is so radically countercultural. If the child starts school and everyone else is more advanced in”reading”, the psychological/social impact could be traumatic. So I guess we have play the game as it is played here. Otherwise, the child will feel like she’s driving an Amish cart on an interstate highway. Very sad.

    • Eric Watermolen May 27, 2011, 7:56 pm

      I know those moms, we have them around here too. I’ve read some good things about children starting to read later, but it’s impossible to use that approach if the kids are attending school. Most folks that I’ve read about using that approach have to home school their kids.

  • Ilaria May 27, 2011, 4:27 pm

    The best time to teach a child to read is when the child says, “Mom, can you teach me to read?” or “Dad…” or “someone, please, just teach me to read already!”
    kids are ready at different times. The key is, read TO your child, and pretty soon they will ask.
    that’s my two cents!

    • Eric Watermolen May 27, 2011, 7:58 pm

      I agree, I think reading to your child is the very best way to get them interested in reading.

  • Boris May 28, 2011, 3:50 pm

    I’m not an expert on reading development, but I’ve taken my share of coursework on the matter. In my opinion, the earlier the better. There are many caveats to that statement, of course, but with most things language development (and most things period) time on task is huge.