“My kid can’t read yet, and he starts kindergarten this fall! He’s gonna start school already behind and struggle with reading now forever, right?” I heard that sentiment from nervous mothers many times while working as a youth services librarian, and each and every time I would talk that fretting parent off the reading ledge. “I promise you that will not be the case, as there is a huge window of time when children become literate, and that range can vary by entire years.”
Unfortunately, that response rarely brought parents comfort because kindergarten has seemingly turned into the new second grade. “What do you mean your 6-year-old hasn’t read the entire Harry Potter series? What have you been doing at home — coloring and learning about shapes? Shame on you.” Gone are the days where the average kindergartner entered school ready to learn how to read. Nowadays, if your little tyke hasn’t left silly picture books behind and isn’t holding a 300-page novel by first grade, well, then you can just forget about college.
But educational research says otherwise, and parents of late readers can take a deep breath because when your child learns to read, whether it’s at age 4 or 7, will have little effect on both their love of reading and school success.
There are many, many factors which dictate when a child ultimately learns to read, and much is still unknown about the cognitive processes that take place to form literacy. The fact that we still expect all children to learn to read at about the same age is mind-boggling. Think of all the huge milestones children have and at what variance they have them at. A toddler can potty train at 22 months, or 3 1/2 years old. A child can learn to ride a bike without training wheels at age 4, or age 9. So why should learning to read be any different?
Washington Post education columnist Valerie Strauss agrees with this variance, and in an article titled “What the Modern World Has Forgotten About Children and Learning” states, “Reading compounds this variability with the enormous complexity of the cognitive, visual, auditory, emotional, physical, and social dimensions which must all be mature and working together in the growing child for fluent literacy to emerge. And yet we have created a multi-billion-dollar compulsory institution with its ancillary multi-billion dollar industries that all rest on the idea that children should reach this milestone at the same age.”
Strauss and many other educational professionals and children’s librarians agree that learning to read is done at markedly different rates, and there is no one perfect method of teaching reading (for example, phonics-based instruction doesn’t work forever). Furthermore, growing up in a digital age has even changed the definition of what we consider “literacy” to mean not only the ability to read print books, but also the ability to intuitively use computers and tablets. Ironically, young children will learn how to use a computer in much the same way they will learn how to read, which according to Strauss is “flexibly, idiosyncratically, and each in whatever way and at whatever time and pace worked best for him.”
It is common for children who begin reading later to see their literacy skills skyrocket quickly, as Strauss notes, “from ‘behind’ their putative ‘grade level’ to ‘ahead’ of it within the space of a few months.” And by the teen years, the majority are reading at or above grade level. Strauss stresses that the age of onset of reading is not predictive of ultimate intellectual aptitude or achievement; it is not uncommon for late readers to have high levels of intellectual ability and even literary interest and talent.
One of the best things you can do as a parent to encourage reading is to model it at home and allow your children to develop an intrinsic desire to want to learn to read on their own, because highly motivated children (no matter their age) often go from not being able to read at all to becoming very literate almost overnight. Pushing them to read before they are developmentally ready can be a huge deterrent, so it’s important to allow them to find personal value in reading for themselves and to realize there is no predictable course all children take to learn to read.
And if your 7-year-old is still struggling with reading and seems to be behind the other readers in their class, remind yourself of this: Finland boasts some of the highest reading scores in the world, and they don’t even begin direct instruction in reading until age 7. As a matter of fact, studies have shown that children taught to read at later ages show greater comprehension and enjoyment of reading than those taught earlier. In other words, you can relax a little. Just keep plenty of books in the house, continue to read aloud to your little ones, and most importantly, remember kindergarten can (and should) still be kindergarten, not AP lit class.
If you are truly worried, of course address any questions/concerns with your child’s teacher. They will be happy to share their feedback and offer resources/referrals if necessary.