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How Early Can a Child Read?

By the time a child hits the 3- to 4-year-old mark, the parents start to act a bit frantic! “We NEED to find the perfect school for her! All the other kids have started schooling already!” – stress cripples you inside!

Somewhere around same time, you pick out some of the bestselling children’s books from the store and start teaching your child to read.

Why?

Because, you believe that it’s high time your child learned to read.

But is it?

How early can a child read?

In a normal scenario, a child can read simple texts somewhere around 6- to 7-years of age. But remember, it’s a typical scenario only. Sadly, there’s no definite age that we can label as “the ideal age for a child to learn reading.”

A child can even have an exceptional reading skill by the age of four!

We often make the mistake of considering reading as a single literacy skill. In reality, reading is a cumulative skill contributed by several other literacy skills. And, a child starts to develop these sub skills from day one!

Variable cognitive competence of each individual child and some crucial external factors are the core reasons why different child learns to read at different stages.

That’s why, you can’t be sure of the exact time when your child will learn to read. She could gobble up books by the age of three. On the contrary, she could even struggle to go through a single sentence by the age of eight.

As there are so many variables playing together here, we need to dig deeper. So, I urge you to go through the whole article.

Reading Milestones: Is Your Child Learning at an Optimal Pace?

Before I begin, I should talk about the reading milestones first.

According to a journal on learning disabilities, over 80% of the elementary school teachers don’t know about the reading milestones! Dr Cynthia M. Zettler-Greeley, Assistant Director of Research Evaluation from Nemours, has reviewed the reading milestones as follows –

An infant (up to age 1) begins to understand that humans use gestures and sounds to communicate and respond when they are spoken to. Also, by the end of the first year, an infant approximately has a vocabulary of 50 words.

The human brain develops faster than any other period from day one to three years. So, the first three years of a child is the most crucial time for cognitive development.

By the time a toddler becomes three, she can –

  • Identify objects (a cow in a book) by images,
  • Pretend to read books,
  • Play word games like scribble,
  • Identify books by names, and
  • Can finish up some of the sentences of the favorite story

As I said, many external factors can change the pace of learning. The five milestones that I just mentioned might vary from child to child.

It’s possible that a child can reach higher milestones by the age three. Also, it’s very much possible that a child is not achieving any or all of these milestones.

More on that later!

The Pre-K age (three- to four-years-old) is often considered as the time when a child hits some the essential reading milestones. That’s why some sources will tell you that child learns to read by the age of four!

A PreK child starts to develop the knowledge of letters, syllables, and words – the chunks of a complete sentence. This sense of accomplishment positively drives them to write their own names and master the letters in the name. Also, they begin to understand that texts are read from left-to-right and top-to-bottom.

Some children will outshine the others. They would be able to master the alphabet and learn the pronunciation of all the letters.

Some can even write and read simple words like bat, rat, cat, dog, etc. If your child has achieved these advanced milestones, congratulations!

She’s very bright!

Finally, by the six- to seven-years-of-age, they begin to decode words and sentences. If the text has an easier difficulty, they might even be able to decode the complete text.

So, what does that mean?

Does it mean that she/he has mastered reading?

Yes and no!

It’s true that most of the children can decode sentences by the age of seven. But decoding sentences is NOT essentially reading!

A reader can understand the obvious and the inner meanings of a text. However, it requires even higher cognitive skills and knowledge of literary devices like metaphors and similes. Kids can master such skills by the age of thirteen.

External Factors that Impact the Reading Skills

After going through the last segment, you might think that every child will hit the reading milestones more or less around the same timeframe.

But It’s NOT true!

I’m sorry if I’ve misguided you.

But there’re some special cases that you should be aware of. The first thing that comes to mind is the impact of learning disabilities. It’s true that every child learns everything at a different speed. However, if he or she has any form of learning disability, things would be very different.

For example, a child with ADHD will struggle to concentrate on any topic or story for a longer period. Due to the hyperactive behaviors, their learning curve would hinder greatly.

However, in our context (reading skills), dyslexia poses a much greater threat. A dyslexic child struggles to decode words as she can’t differentiate between the letter and other written symbols like others. Dyslexia affects the part of our brains that carries out the responsibility of language processing. Due to the nature of this disorder, people often refer to it as a reading disability.

Some other learning disorders, such as dysgraphia (affects spelling and writing) and dyscalculia (affects basic mathematical skills) share similar traits.

Learning disabilities don’t have any connection to the level of intelligence. A child with such learning disabilities shares the same intelligence level as her peer.

Then comes the issue of socioeconomic status (SES). It’s a sensitive but a crucial issue nonetheless.

Think of it like this –

Child A, Sarah, belongs to an upper-middle-class family living in a first-world country. Child B, Meena, comes from a financially struggling family in a third-world country. Both of them share the same birthdate and five-year-old. Also, none of them suffers from any form of learning disability.

Now comes the question – who would learn to read earlier? Sarah or Meena?

We both know the answer – Sarah!

Why?

Because Sarah would get more resources and better environmental support, on the other hand, Meena would struggle as she’ll have to deal with numerous socioeconomic challenges.

Dr Nell Duke of the University of Michigan recognizes the situation as an opportunity gap.

It sounds really harsh and unfair, but it’s a sad reality!

The Essential Pre-Reading Skills

As I said earlier, a child starts to obtain pre-reading skill since the moment they’re born. The earlier a child masters the pre-reading skills, the earlier she will learn to read.

You might think of these essential skills as the core reason behind why everyone learns to read at a different age level.

Here they are –

  • Phonological Awareness – Ability to identity sounds, syllables, and words
  • Alphabetical Knowledge – The knowledge all the letters (names, shapes, and sounds of the letter) in an alphabet
  • Print Recognition – Basic understanding of print principles (for example, English texts are read from left to right, and top to bottom)
  • Phonemic Awareness – Ability to recognize and manipulate meaningful sounds in a language
  • Spoken Fluency – Ability to read texts aloud without stutters and breaks
  • Critical Thinking Ability (advanced skill, not applicable for early readers) – Ability to comprehend the meanings and depths of a written text

If one can master these skills, she would be a powerful and skilled reader. The first four (excluding spoken fluency and critical thinking ability) are quite easy to master. A child can harness these skills by the age of seven.

However, spoken fluency and critical thinking ability are hard to master and might take years!

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