The question “when do kids learn to read” is one that many (probably most!) parents have asked themselves at one time or another. I know I have!
There’s a wide range of “normal” when it comes to reading. Some kids begin reading as early as age 4. Other kids are 6 or 7 years old before they can begin to take a stab at reading independently.
The important thing to remember is that this isn’t a process that needs to be rushed – kids will read, for the most part, when they’re ready to read.
Of course, like all milestones for kids, it’s easy to worry if your child is on track developmentally, or is falling behind his or her peers.
It’s natural to worry! We’re parents, it’s what we do. Like step on stray Legos and provide more snacks than we thought was humanly possible.
But here’s the good news: you probably don’t need to worry so much.
Children learn to read at their own pace
The big “aha” moment for kids – when things start clicking into place, and they’re able to make some sense of the letters on a page and start making out words (and then sentences, and then chapters!) varies considerably from child to child.
This is one of the most exciting milestones to see your child reach; after all, once they begin reading, the world opens up to them in a way that was not possible before.
Your child can begin to experience the rich, vast world of ideas. The potential here is boundless.
And unlike the crawling milestone, this one doesn’t require you to lock your cabinets.
Here’s the essential truth: your child will read when he or she is ready. No sooner.
Your role as a parent is to help instill a deep love and appreciation for reading. Your role does not need to be to make your child read independently by any set age.
In fact, it’s best to leave the formal instruction portion of things to your child’s teacher.
What you can do at home is more fun, rewarding, and useful: starting from when they’re very little, you can find highly recommended books for babies, and later the best books for your toddler or classic books for your preschooler, and you can read these books aloud to them.
This process will continue in Kindergarten and well beyond. In the early years, you can think of yourself as a curator of great children’s literature. You can start by exploring the many, many great texts available for 5 & 6 year olds with the 100 Best Books for Kindergarten.
Your job is to encourage a love for reading, plain and simple. You do not need to be a one-man phonics instructor (unless you homeschool, in which case you do indeed need to be a one-man phonics instructor).
Note: If you feel compelled to find some high quality, low-stress ways to help your child learn letters at home, Sheppard Software puts out a free, high quality website with a strong “Preschool and Kindergarten” section that provides games to help with literacy, without being overstimulating.
Boys and girls tend to learn to read at different ages
Every child is different. My oldest son happened to be a very early reader, and my middle son seems like he will take a bit longer to get the hang of it.
And that’s totally ok.
In general, the brains of girls tend to be ready to begin reading at an earlier age than the brains of boys. It’s a common experience in many families to watch their daughters begin reading significantly earlier than their sons.
This is common, and nothing to be concerned about. And this does not mean that the girls are going to be “ahead” long-term. It just means that developmentally they may be ready a little sooner.
Both boys and girls benefit from regular time each day that their parent spends reading to them, and both can enjoy a good story from the earliest years.
The habit of reading to a child has many benefits; not only does it promote literacy, but it creates a warm, cozy closeness to your child that’s hard to replicate in other ways.
And all those hours spent reading together are putting your child on a path to reading, even if you aren’t sure when things will “click” for your child to read on their own.
Most Kindergarten kids aren’t ready to read independently
By the age of 5, when kids typically begin Kindergarten, most children are not yet reading on their own.
This can cause parents some concern, since many Kindergarten programs are hyper-focused on reading readiness, and on assessing your young reader.
As a parent it’s important to have some perspective on this. The last thing you want to do is to take a child who was showing some enthusiasm for books and turn them away from reading because the expectations on their reading are set too high for their developmental level.
It should be noted that children in Scandinavia don’t even begin formal reading instruction until the age of 7! And Scandinavia is hardly a hotbed of illiteracy, you know?
Children in Scandinavia are encouraged to explore more outdoors and engage in free play, both of which have enormous benefits that you can easily argue have way more to offer a child than the reading worksheets we focus on in the United States.
In any case, waiting until a child is a bit older and more developmentally ready to process all of the steps needed for reading makes a lot of sense.
Another benefit to waiting to push the formal instruction? Children are more ready to understand the context and meaning of what they’re reading, which makes the entire experience more enriching all around.
When to seek help from an expert
To reiterate, children learn to read at very different ages based on their readiness, and this is totally normal.
Your child does not need to be reading by the age of 5, nor is it likely that he’s ready to do so.
In general, I’d encourage you not to overly focus on the question “when do kids learn to read.”
In some cases, if you suspect your child is really struggling to pick up the basics of reading (for example, he doesn’t know his letters in the first grade, or she shows a strong resistance to any sort of reading attempts when most of her friends are reading on their own) – you may want to seek outside help.
Some children do need the help of a reading specialist. If you’ve ruled out any physical issues (i.e. hearing difficulties or problems with vision) it’s a good idea to seek guidance from your school’s reading specialist.
Almost all elementary schools have a staff person specially trained in assisting kids with neurological or cognitively based reading challenges.
While school is a good place to start, if you think the services offered by your school are not strong enough, you could seek the assistance of an outside reading specialist in your area.
A private specialist (or ideally the specialist at your child’s elementary school) should be able to determine if a developmental issue or learning issue is causing your child’s struggle.
The age of hitting the reading milestone doesn’t usually correlate with later success as a reader
This is super important to remember.
Whether your child begins reading at the age of 4 or 7 is not the be-all-end-all! When kids learn to read is only a blip in their long reading journey.
Parents can get caught up in the excitement (and, yes, competition) associated with their child hitting a milestone “early.”
I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel proud when my son began reading early! It was exciting! And it was cool. And I felt proud.
But! I also recognize that the fact that he was reading early does NOT mean that he will become a passionate reader, or a voracious reader, or that he will remain “ahead” in this area. All it means is that he started early.
(He also started walking “late” and now he walks just fine. Actually he runs and jumps too! And nobody really cares at this point when he started walking versus when his friends started walking. Right?)
So try not to get too caught up in the timing of things, and focus more on exposing your child to the idea of reading, the excitement of reading, and the pure joy of reading in your home.
How can you encourage reading at home?
The very best way you can encourage a love of reading is to show your child – through your own behaviors – that you love and value reading.
Does your child see you enjoying a good novel just for fun? Does your child associate bedtime stories with comfort and love? Is high quality children’s literature easily accessible to your child? Do you make excursions to the local library?
If so, you’re on the right track.
If you’re a family that values reading, there’s a higher likelihood that your child will value reading.
Like in all areas, your child will pick up on the values of your family by seeing, day in and day out, how you live those values.
Have books easily accessible for your child. Put a tempting book that’s at the right level of challenge for your kid out amongst their toys. They might surprise you by attempting some reading on their own!
Does this work 100% of the time? Of course not! Kids are independent thinkers and will have their own preferences.
However, you can stack the deck in your favor by modeling for your child the things that you want to instill in them.
It’s far more effective to show your child that reading is a rewarding activity through your actions rather than by lecturing them to read (which just won’t work).
So pick out a good book for yourself, and pick out a good book for your child. Snuggle up on the couch. Enjoy a story together.
This is how you grow a love for reading, and, in due time, a reader.
For additional reading on this topic, “How to Raise a Reader” by Pamela Paul and Maria Russo, Editors at The New York Times Book Review is an excellent resource. I can’t recommend it enough!
The blog Happily Ever Elephants is also an excellent resource, focusing entirely on books for children.
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