Should we expect our 4-year-olds to read? You may be surprised: that is actually not a developmentally appropriate expectation! Perhaps the better question is this: should we expect our 4-year olds to love storytime? To that, I say the answer is YES. The most powerful indicator that a 4-year-old will have long-term success with reading is for that child to adore books and read-alouds.
The Pressure of Common Core
I recently met someone who told me with pride that all of her children learned to read by 4-years-old, and that she will make sure her grandchildren do the same. I can see why this is important to her. In response to Common Core kindergarten guidelines, the public education system in the United States has been putting more and more pressure on kids to perform academic skills, like reading, earlier. One study, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?,” compared kindergarten teachers’ attitudes nationwide in 1998 and 2010 and found that the percentage of teachers expecting children to know how to read by the end of the year had risen from 30 to 80 percent. Teaching methods have changed in response, with teachers of even prekindergarten students expecting children to spend extended periods of time doing seated work, like phonics worksheets, independently. There’s the thought that if we want them to read younger, we need to teach them how to read earlier using a direct instruction approach.
Why This Doesn’t Really Work
Direct instruction, however, isn’t the best way to teach children to read, because learning to read is like baking a cake. When you bake a cake, you need to combine ingredients — eggs from the fridge, flour from the pantry, and so on. But the thing is, those eggs did not miraculously appear in your fridge. They came from your store, and before that from a packaging facility, and before that from a chicken. And the flour — it was packaged in a factory, and before that, it was wheat, and before that it was a seed. In other words, there were a lot of steps that needed to happen before you could even reach for those ingredients to mix them up and bake them.
Reading is the same way. The act of reading is made up of a huge number of foundational skills — some very sophisticated — that develop with time and practice, and include far more than recognizing alphabet letters and sounds. Learning to hear and manipulate sounds, sustaining attention, remembering information, thinking abstractly — these are skills that cannot be taught through direct instruction alone. In order for a child to learn reading in the true sense — to be able to read to obtain, interpret and evaluate information — we cannot skip steps. Can some young children technically learn how to sound out words? Sure. But more often than not, these children cannot meaningfully understand what they are reading. They are not set up for long-term reading success.
Research bears this out. Studies show that by fourth grade, children who were reading at age 4 were not significantly better at reading than their classmates who’d learned to read at age 7. What’s more, in Finland and Sweden, kids don’t even start formal schooling until they are 7 years old. Yet, Finnish and Swedish teenagers outperform American teens in international tests of reading, math and science.
A Better Way to Learn to Read
Here’s the good news: the ideal method for teaching reading is fun and free from pressure. The best way to develop the foundational literacy skills children need is to read aloud to them often, from birth – and to make these experiences joyful and interactive. Frequent conversations and pretend play also help develop the complex language and cognitive skills necessary for reading and academic success.
So it is our job to instill a love of reading at an early age to set our children up for strong literacy skills. It’s amazing that the best outcome will come from the most joyful approach!
Want to learn more about how to ignite your child’s love of books and stories? Consider hosting a Children’s Literacy Workshop,which we’ve carefully constructed just for you. Your expert Ambassador will share the tips and tricks you need to prepare your child for strong literacy development – by making reading fun!
Stefanie Paige Wieder, M.S.Ed.
Sr. Director of Product, Barefoot Books
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