If Your Five Year Old Isn't Reading, They Are Not 'Falling Behind'

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and PixelsEffect/Getty

A mom friend of mine is freaking out. Her five-year-old isn’t reading. “He’s one of those slow readers,” she fretted. I wanted to reach through Messenger Video and hug her. “Girl,” I said. “I taught my middle son to read three times before it stuck.” Her eyes popped.

“Does he have a learning disability?” I asked. “Does his teacher seem concerned?”

She shook her head. “But he’s near the bottom of his class!”

I shrugged. “And the kids at the bottom of the class might learn to read later or need some extra help, but when they’re ready, they eventually learn to read. Just support him where he’s at for now.” I rolled my eyes. “I hate this stuff. We need to give up on the idea of slow readers.”

What They Expected From Us In Kindergarten

My kindergarten class was ringed with the alphabet, which had monsters attached to the letters. We listened to songs about each letter on a tinny tape recorder. I’m Mr. M, with a munchin’ mouth/ My mouth goes munch, munch munch! Not all of us knew our letters (though I did, high-five to my mom and Sesame Street!), and most of us were learning to spell our names. We were not slow readers. We were little kids, developing at an appropriate pace. When we could properly identify our first and last names from a bulletin board, we could take a pack of Smarties attached to them.

Some girl had the audacity to share my first name, so I learned to spell my last one first.

By the end of kindergarten, I could read very, very simple sentences. “What” always tripped me up, because it didn’t rhyme with “cat.” I spelled “while” “why’ll.” Aides walked around during writing time and helped us (only this could explain my use of “daffodils” in a poem).

First grade? Basically Dick & Jane.

I can only assure you I eventually learned to read and write. I was considered “on track.”

Now “On Track” Means “Slow Readers”

Now, kids are expected to enter kindergarten able to “identify some letters of the alphabet,” and “recognize some common sight words, like ‘stop,'” according to Scholastic. By kindergarten’s end, all children should recognize common vowel combinations, “70% of high frequency words,” and “beginning and ending blends,” in addition to sounding out words, says one pamphlet given out by Hazelton, Pennsylvania School District. These expectations track for my abilities by kindy’s end.

I was placed in my school’s gifted program a year later, and in my first grade class’s top reading group.

In other words: my experiences didn’t match 90% of my classmates’ abilities. This isn’t to say that I deserved a Little Miss Smarty Pants title (or that gifted programs and tiered reading groups are good ideas). It reveals how our educational system has shifted. “Gifted” kids in the 1980s are “on track” today. Kids “On track” in the 1980s are “behind the curve” now.

Our Standards Are Arbitrary


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We’ve radically shifted our expectations for kindergartens. According to NPR, using a landmark study published in 2016, by 2010, pre-kindergarten prep was expected. Generally, that assumes preschool. In 2010, 80% of teachers assume children should learn to read during kindergarten — compared to 31% in 1998. 73% took a standardized test in 2010 — one-third took a test a month.

Pre-kindergarten prep? They’ve found that Black and white children attend preschool in about equal numbers. However, in one study out of New York City, “large disparities in the quality of workers” between majority-white and majority-Black preschools may, they say, “limit the program’s ability to reduce racial achievement gaps.” Another study out of Penn State discovered that race and socioeconomic class play a role in the quality of preschool.

Expecting a certain type of preschool prep — and designating kids who don’t have it as “slow readers,” is racist and classist. And when we relegate those children to tiered reading groups, expect them to read like “average” first-graders, and push them before they’re ready, they fall further and further behind.

In other words: we set these kids up for failure before they’ve begun, all because they weren’t ready to read when they were five freaking years old.

“Slow Readers” Can Come From All Kinds Of Homes

My husband and I both have graduate degrees in English, and our shelves are literally double-stacked in books. We’ll be the first to say we’re privileged. He teaches English; I’m a writer.

I started teaching my middle son to read when he turned five. I taught him. He forgot it and hated it. I tried again a few months later and stopped because of massive tantrums. When he turned six and a half, he learned happily. At barely age nine, he reads college-level texts on amphibians. I just asked him, as he rolled his eyes, to read a paragraph for me. He tripped up on the word “deciduous,” though he knew what it meant.

Clearly, this kid isn’t lacking in literacy skills. He wasn’t a “slow reader.” He just read on his own time. His older brother learned at age five. His younger brother, just seven, reads Dog Man. He’ll pick a up chapter book when he’s ready. Technically, my youngest is probably one of those “slow readers” too.

So I reassured my friend: her son just isn’t ready yet. He’s lucky enough to have an English teacher as a mom, and once he learns, she can help him catch up. He’s privileged. Other “slow readers” aren’t in his position.

Of Course, Some Kids Will Need Interventions

Mostly, kids just aren’t ready to read yet. But if your parental spider-sense — not your panic — is tingling, you might want to have your child checked. Mine tingled when I taught my son to read twice… and it didn’t stick. I tried a third time and he threw massive tantrums. We realized then that he needed medication for his ADHD.

Kids can need extra support for a ton of reasons. They may have a learning disability: one of my sons has dysgraphia, a disorder that affects his ability to translate language onto a page. He can read at a college level but writes like a kindergartener. Dyslexia might affect a child’s reading speed. So could bad eyesight (we knew my youngest needed glasses when he held his books this close). So if you jettison your fears of keeping up with Madison, Addison, and Jaden, but you’re still worried, seek an outside, expert opinion. It can’t hurt.

We Need To Change Our Expectations

Not ready to read by five? Six? Your kid doesn’t need more worksheets, a tutor, and a specialist. Your kid needs more time with their LEGOs. Most of them will learn when they’re cognitively and emotionally ready: we later learned my middle son has raging ADHD and simply could not do it. Thank god I pulled back when he threw tantrums. Reading isn’t worth tears, and I didn’t want him to associate reading with a negative experience.

What’s more important: your kid’s emotional well-being or their vowel sounds? And there’s a difference between laziness (which my kids fall prey to, mostly around writing), and genuine emotional upset.

So calm down. Give your kid space. They’ll read when they’re ready, and when they’re ready, help them. Give them books they’ll love. Don’t fall prey to that “oh, that book’s too old/too young for you” trap, either. Sometimes my kids like to read picture books, and sometimes they like to read novels. They’re reading. It counts.

And if you’re worried, or your kids’ teacher is concerned, then don’t hesitate to seek an outside opinion.

But, don’t call them “slow readers.” It’s an ableist phrase for a stupid concept. Things will be okay.

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