Parents can end up on opposite extremes of the reading spectrum. Some parents eagerly show their infants flashcards. Others start far later. Perhaps they read the book Better Late Than Early by Raymond and Dorothy Moore, or they look at the test results from Finland, where children don’t start school until age seven, yet it enjoys test scores among the best worldwide.
You can find parents who start teaching reading at any point from a few months old to eight years or so — an enormous range developmentally.
But what’s the best age?
Current research shows that the optimal time for teaching children to read is from the ages of six to eight.
Before the age of six, most children are working on other developmental milestones.
Yes, you have some children who learn to read at age three or four.
And some children are born with teeth.
Neither experience is normal.
Both those extreme early readers and those extreme early teethers are on their own developmental track. Your children are, too.
And since there is no correlation between the age of learning to read and a child’s IQ, there should be no shame — and no pride — tied up in when your children learn to read, just like (hopefully) you have no shame and no pride tied up in your children’s age at dentition. Reading and teething are both developmental processes that play out when they will.
What to Do Before Age Six
If you want to give your young children the best possible start in academics, here are two suggestions to smooth the road to reading for these younger children.
1) If you have children younger than age six, read to them. Since children need about a thousand hours of exposure to book language before they’ll be ready to read, start reading aloud as early as possible. Babies fall in love with the world of great books with classic board books like Goodnight, Gorilla and Goodnight, Moon.
But don’t do baby flashcards — research shows that flashcards aren’t effective for learning to read anyway. And if you feel compelled to start a reading program at age three, recognize that if the concepts don’t come quickly, it would be far better to put it away for a half year. Or a year. Or two.
After listening to a thousand hours of the written word, children need a few months of initial exposure to the printed word. In fact, it takes children 18 to 20 weeks — about five months! — for the brain to orient to the written word. Different languages have different written formats: English runs left to right across the page, Chinese runs vertically, and Arabic runs right to left. Children need time to figure this out.
So it will take a few months for your beginning readers to understand about periods and basic punctuation, the direction the words run, what it means to have spaces in between words, the difference between capitals and lower case letters.
2) Introduce printing. Spend a little time on capital letters, and then focus on lower-case letters.
Many kindergarten teachers spend their entire year working on two things: they teach their students to write both capital and lower case letters, and they get in as many of the thousand hours of book language as possible.
Both the reading aloud and the printing are vital to allow first graders — and older students — to learn to read.
And Happy Cheetah includes both reading and writing — an ideal program to start around age five.