Why You Should Teach Your Preschooler to Read
Some parents teach their babies, toddlers, or preschoolers to read but many early learning experts are opposed to this. They say there’s no point in teaching a young child to read because later readers will catch up. I read a comment from an early learning specialist who said she wasn’t aware of any studies that found that earlier readers remained ahead. If you’re a parent of a young child and you come across these kinds of arguments, you may think teaching your baby, toddler, or preschooler to read is pointless.
Few studies have compared preschool readers to school-age readers but the few that have done this found that preschool readers actually do remain ahead of later readers. And the earlier a child starts reading the more ahead they are. A child who starts reading at age 3 is ahead of a child who starts reading at age 4. And a child who starts reading at age 4 is ahead of a child that starts reading at age 5. Children who start reading at age 5 are ahead of those who start reading at age 6. Early readers typically were a couple of grade levels ahead of school-age readers and many had already skipped a grade.
Studies of Early Readers
In Finland, about one-third of students can read before starting formal schooling at age 7. The Finnish language is almost completely phonetic, so children who can’t read at all catch up in decoding skills within a few months. However, even in Finland where learning to read is a much easier task, preschool readers still have greater reading fluency in later years.
In the 1960s, the Denver public schools put some children into a kindergarten accelerated reading program. This was at a time when reading was typically taught in 1st grade. The study followed the children to the end of 5th grade. The children in the accelerated kindergarten program had larger vocabularies, better reading comprehension, and higher scores in social studies and science at the fifth-grade level.
Explanations for the Early Reading Advantage
One explanation for this early reading advantage is that a child who learns to read early can build up a vocabulary and base of knowledge on their own. I think this probably does play a role. Another is that parents of early readers may be more motivated about learning in general. There may be a difference in the motivation of parents who teach reading to their preschooler versus some of those who leave the job to the schools. However, I think there probably isn’t a whole lot of difference in motivation between a parent who puts in the effort to teach at age 3 versus age 4.
Still another explanation is that earlier readers may be more intelligent to begin with. However, even when compared to children with similar IQs the early reading advantage remains. The Denver public schools study randomly assigned children to the accelerated reading program, so it’s unlikely there were differences in intelligence among the kids studied. You may wonder why a one year head start in reading could possibly make a difference that shows up years later in 4th, 5th, or 6th grade.
Early Exposure to Words Increases Reading Fluency
A study done by the University of Leicester in England may provide part of the answer to this question. The study found that the age at which you learn words relates to your fluency later on. According to Dr. Tessa Webb, who was involved in the study:
“Children read differently from adults, but as they grow older, they develop the same reading patterns. When adults read words they learned when they were younger, they recognize them faster and more accurately than those they learned later in life.”
So, the longer you have been exposed to words, the more fluent you actually are in reading and understanding them. It would make sense that the more familiar you are with a particular word, the more sense it makes within the context of various sentences.
“This led her (Dr. Webb) to conclude that word learning age is a key aspect of reading that should not be left out of research…”
It’s possible that a one or two year head start in reading exposes a child to several hundred words that school-age readers have not yet been exposed to. Keep in mind that the study referred to actually reading the words rather than having them read by someone else.
What about baby or toddler readers? No studies have been done specifically on children who learned to read in the baby or toddler years. These children most likely have read thousands of words before their counterparts even start to learn to read.
If you’re thinking about teaching your preschooler to read, it’s likely that it will give your child an academic advantage later on despite what the experts say. If you are thinking about teaching your baby or toddler to read, it could definitely provide an academic advantage but it’s unknown at this point if it will be a greater advantage than that experienced by a preschooler. Based on the studies that have been done, it’s very possible that baby and toddler readers will be ahead of their preschool counterparts. But it’s not known for sure at this point.