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   Ask Jeanna - What's the Right Age to Learn to Read?

I've heard that children need to read by third grade?  Why third grade?
.A:  In the United States - and in most U.S. elementary schools - children are helped to learn to read in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, and third grade. 

By the end of third grade, schools expect children to have mastered the mechanics of reading (meaning they can read words, sentences, paragraphs, and multiple pages in books for their age group).

From fourth grade on, schools expect children to read increasingly complicated books in order to learn different subjects, like history, science, etc.

In other words, first children "learn to read" and then children "read to learn."

Q:  How do teachers help children learn to read in elementary school?
A:  Teachers face many challenges helping their students learn to read because children enter kindergarten with so many variations in what they already know.  Some children have been read to every day by their parents and caregivers, have a large vocabulary, a good attention span, and an eagerness to learn.  Other children have had very little exposure to books and haven't had the benefit of a whole host of other desirable early childhood experiences.  Yet other children are learning English as a second language.
In order to help children make progress learning to read, teachers help the children in their class to learn the alphabet, the sounds the letters make, and how upper and lower case letters look.  Teachers help children to "sound out" and read simple words (like "bat," "mat," "cat") and to recognize by memory (by sight) some words like "the."

Teachers also help children to hear, see, understand and read more and more words (and longer words with more than one syllable) by daily practice reading times, daily story-times, language-rich activities, and even by posting on classroom walls "job charts," "class rules for good behavior," calendars and weather charts, and weekly spelling words.

What else do teachers do to help children learn to read?  Teachers help identify children who find reading difficult for one reason or another (ranging from virtually no exposure to books prior to kindergarten, to needing eye glasses, to having dyslexia, to not understanding or speaking English).  Teachers then make recommendations and individualized education plans to (hopefully) help struggling readers while helping all of the children in the class make progress learning to read.

Q:  Is third grade the right age to know how to read?
A:  That depends who you ask.

For instance, some parents choose to enroll their children in a Waldorf school which emphasizes creativity and spirituality in the early grades of elementary school.  Teachers in Waldorf schools - and parents who send their children there - believe that it's perfectly fine (and even desirable) to let children learn to read when they're ready, perhaps at 7, 8, 9, or 10 years old.

Other parents have a completely different view and take a completely different course.  They decide to try to teach their baby to read, and they use flashcards with their baby each day.

But the vast majority of parents in the United States don't have a strong opinion about when their children should know how to read.  Most parents simply believe that their children will learn to read "when they go to school."  And that's why most parents leave it to the schools - and to teachers - to teach their children to read.

And America's schools and teachers, educators and researchers, have determined that it is crucial for children to know how to read by the end of third grade.  In fact, more and more states are deciding to "stop social promotions" and to have children repeat third grade if they can't read reasonably well by the end of third grade.

Q:  Do you think third grade is the right age to know how to read?
A:  I'll give you two answers.

First answer:  Given how public schools (and many private schools are organized), yes.

There is a lot of data to show that children in public schools across America who can't read by the end of third grade are at great risk for low self-esteem, school failure, and dropping out without graduating high school.

I don't dispute the data.  In fact, I think it is a disgrace and very sad that so many children in our country struggle to read, hate reading, feel bad about their ability to read, avoid reading anything "unless they're made to," can't understand what they're reading, and will likely grow up and live with very limited reading skills.

So yes, I dearly want all children to be able to fluently read (at least) simple books by the end of third grade.

Now here is my completely different, second answer (based on having started and directed the largest early childhood program in New York City for 18 years, four decades in the education field, and personal experience): 

If healthy children are given what they need in their first five years of life, many children are capable of being "well on their way to learning to read" by the time they enter kindergarten.

I'm a firm believer that the first five years of life can be - and should be - a remarkable time for growth and learning.  If a child is healthy, loved, and given lots of good attention and age-appropriate learning experiences each day in the first five years; a solid foundation is laid which enables a child to have a good attention span, good conversational skills, a large vocabulary, a love of books, a good sense of the alphabet and the sounds the letters make, an awareness of how words sound, and an understanding that written words have meaning. 

What else will that child have?  Curiosity, self-confidence, and a desire to keep learning how to do many things, including how to read. 

For a child like this, learning to read "by the end of third grade" is certainly doable - and it's very likely that learning to read can - and will - happen much sooner.  In fact, there is a very high likelihood that this child will be a skilled (proficient) reader by the end of third grade who enjoys reading.

Q:  Can a person tell which children will read well and which children won't?
A:  It may not be politically correct to say so, but knowledgeable (and unbiased) people can enter a kindergarten classroom at the beginning of the school year, observe children engaged in different activities for one or more days, and make fairly accurate predictions about how well each child will read by the end of kindergarten.

And how well a child reads by the end of kindergarten is often an accurate predictor for how well that child will read by the end of first grade - and even how well that child will read by the end of third grade. 

Yes, there are always exceptions to the rule.  And we shouldn't give up on any child.  (Teachers should certainly do whatever is possible to help children to "catch up" and "catch on."  And parents should cooperate with their children's teachers to follow teachers' recommendations.)

But the fact remains that many children enter kindergarten at a real disadvantage - and remedial programs and costly interventions are rarely as effective as we would wish.

Q:  What can parents do to help children learn to read, at least by the end of third grade?
A:  That's a great question.  There's so much parents can do!

First, parents need to stop thinking that children "learn to read when they go to school."  Parents need to stop thinking that "teachers will teach their children to read."

Instead, parents need to realize that they need to be their children's first teachers - and that the first five years before children enter kindergarten are a natural and opportune time for learning. 

And parents need to understand that the process of learning to read starts at birth. 

Here's an example of how very young children develop and can practice visual skills in their first five years that are essential for reading success.

A baby opens his or her eyes and learns how to focus and recognize faces, moving objects, big objects, and small objects.  A baby develops visual skills to see and follow ("track") things of interest.

Over the next few years, that child becomes capable of noticing many details (the shape of different toys, the face on a coin, the number of holes in a button, the difference between the letter "E" and the letter "F").

The ability to "track" words across the page - and to see the different shapes (and details) of the letters that make up words - are essential skills a child needs in order to read.

This visual ability starts at birth and develops over time.

Parents can help enhance their children's visual ability by, among other things, pointing out and talking about details in pictures (in children's picture books) and encouraging children to notice "what's the same and what's different" with toys, a collection of buttons, a group of flowers, a deck of cards, a handful of coins, the letters of the alphabet, different shapes of blocks or paper cut-outs, puzzle pieces, etc. 

Parents can also help their children "track" words across the page by sometimes pointing to the words in a favorite children's book (with a finger moving just under the words as parents read the words out loud).

Here's another example of how the process of learning to read starts at birth - and how parents can make a real difference.

A baby hears parents talking in a particular language.  At first, those sounds have no meaning. But these very sounds actually influence a baby to mimic those particular sounds - and eventually enable that baby to speak that particular language.  In other words, if a parent speaks English to his or her baby, the baby will, in the first few years of life, learn to speak English.

But, if parents use a very limited vocabulary when they speak with their children (and don't read a lot of books to their children in the first five years), their children will enter school with a limited vocabulary - and a limited (or non-existent) understanding of many words. 

These children will be at a real disadvantage.  When they try to read, not only will they have to learn to "sound out" virtually every word, they will simultaneously have to try to understand and learn lots of new words in order to understand what they're reading.  Extra hard.

Contrast this with a parent who uses simple words with his or her baby and toddler, but who uses more varied and complicated words over the next few years (and who reads many books to his or her child so that the child hears many additional words).

The first child (with the limited vocabulary) will enter kindergarten knowing the word "big."  The other child will probably know the words, "big," "huge," "enormous," "giant," "gigantic" and maybe even "massive" or "humongous."

When these children are faced with the important task of mastering how to read - which means learning to both read the words and understand what the words mean - the second child will find it far easier than the first.

So yes, parents (and the caregivers with whom they entrust their children) can make a "big," "huge," "enormous" difference. 

Parents (and caregivers) can do so much to help children enter school ready and eager to read - and "well on their way" to learning to read.

By third grade?  Sure!

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