A lot of caregivers want to know: “When do kids start reading?” Of course, there is a basic answer, and then some nuance that complicates but clarifies things. An understanding of general times when milestones are hit can be equally helpful and stressful. As tempting as it is to know where your child is “supposed to be,” there is a huge spectrum of times that things click in, and even people professionally familiar with child development can find themselves frantic when it comes to their own children. The timeframe in which kids start reading is no exception.
To understand when kids start reading, you need to know what reading is. A general explanation is the action of reading words correctly, but there is more to reading than that. Reading Rockets, a very respected reading research site, defines reading as “making meaning from print.” This larger definition allows us to pull in the valuable skills of younger children, and involve young kids in the process of building their reading lives. Below, I’ll directly answer the question “when do kids start reading?” while giving tips for balancing the sometimes difficult journey to building literacy skills with the challenge of making reading an enjoyable and fulfilling pastime.
Making Meaning For Pre-Readers
Can toddlers read? Well, yes. Ages 2–4 are very low stakes times in a child’s reading life, and an excellent time to make reading an enjoyable part of daily life. When sharing stories with young children (might I suggest board books?), you can help them make meaning by discussing the illustrations.
Asking questions aloud and answering them for yourself (“Where did the kid go? Oh! They’re behind the tree!”) can help your child understand what is happening in the story. This also teaches them to evaluate a story as it’s being told. Predictions, character identification, and story part recall are a huge part of early elementary literacy. Practicing these skills as a young child can go a long way. This is also a great place to plug in social emotional education. Point out characters with sad and happy faces and connect the emotion to story events. Even one small comment each time you read a story adds to the richness of your child’s reading life, and very soon you’ll see them copying these habits while they look at books.
The Mechanics of it All
This is where things get real in the reading world, and often where struggles can pop up. Being able to read is a combination of knowing how to use phonics to decode certain words (cat being the sounds /c//a//t/) and having sight words (“the” doesn’t follow sound rules) memorized. A phonics-based approach to reading will have students learning sounds, then putting the sounds into words, then putting the words into sentences. I’ve written before sharing tips to help beginning readers.
The tricky thing about this part of a reading journey is that people spend years going to school to understand the process of phonics education. Simply being able to read is not enough to know which words a beginning reader will be able to sound out, which words have phonics components they haven’t learned yet, and which words simply don’t follow phonics rules at all. To add to the confusion, some readers are able to decode (unlock words) very quickly without relying too much on phonics rules and others heavily rely on phonics instruction to make reading work. It’s different for every reader and far from simple. I again refer to Reading Rockets: it is generally an awesome resource for caregivers and educators, but also has information about why kids struggle and ideas for helping readers at different stages in this process.
Reading fluently is the next step in the reading journey. Fluency measures speed, accuracy, and expression. A huge component of building fluency is repeated readings: having beginning readers read the same thing over and over, building confidence and becoming familiar with the text. Speed and accuracy will improve as the student feels confident in the actual words. Expression comes as the student understands what is happening in the text.
Being read to improves expression and general fluency so much. This brings us back to the “making meaning” definition of reading. You might be able to decode a word or say a sentence, but without understanding what is happening (the skill of comprehension, which is all of reading instruction after 3rd grade), you won’t understand what kind of expression to use when reading it aloud. Listening to audiobooks has been huge in my household. Even when my children struggle with different mechanics of reading, I am shocked at how much expression they pour into what they read, until I remember this skill has been modeled for them constantly as they grew up.
So, When Do Kids Start Reading?
Generally, kids start decoding and understanding the written word between the ages of 4 and 7, or between kindergarten and second grade. However, there are SO MANY reasons that reading skills might develop on a different timeline. The work families can do to support a love of reading starts much earlier and can be influenced long after that range. Valid advice no matter where your reader is: foster a positive association with reading by looking for pleasure reading titles and reading to and with them.
Hopefully this was helpful. Learning to read and support beginning readers is not a simple process by any means. My biggest piece of advice is to bring it back to relationships. No matter the age or stage, if reading together is becoming stressful, take a break and read one of their favorites aloud. A positive association with reading will take a student a long way.
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