“Forrest could read at 3. I didn’t know that was possible!”
“Amanda read long before kindergarten, too. It’s so good to know she’s going to be a great reader!”
Have you been in a conversation like this one and wondered if your own child was already behind? Did you start to think you might need to focus seriously on teaching your preschooler to read?
There are lots of things to say about the conversation above, but mostly there is one important message—that “reading” the words as a preschooler doesn’t guarantee successful reading through the years ahead. Some children do read words early, most often because they are taught to do so, but that doesn’t mean that the job of learning to read is done or that other children won’t catch up—and it’s very important to remember that reading words on the page and understanding the words and the story are two very different skill sets. Early “readers” might know their Letters and Sounds skills well, or they might just have memorized what some common words look like. But they really need to build up other skills, too, to lay the foundation for becoming the kind of strong and flexible readers who can understand middle school and high school texts.
In terms of learning skills, there are some skills we do want our preschoolers and early readers to have, and benchmarks we want them to meet, at various points along the way. For example, how many words a child knows at age 3 matters; in fact, oral vocabulary at 3-years old predicts 10th grade reading ability. Research has also shown that children should know all their letters, uppercase and lower case, by the end of kindergarten, and start to learn the sounds that go along with those letters. By the end of grade 1, we know that children need to be reading words. So while we certainly wouldn’t expect a child to read words in preschool, if a child is struggling to learn letters and letter-sounds in kindergarten, or read words in grade one, those are potential indicators of difficulty and a sign that the child might need a boost.
So what about this question of spending family time teaching a preschool child to read words? Research would tell us that it doesn’t provide the types of benefits provided by other things parents can spend time doing with a child – and that’s especially important because there are parent/child activities which are more likely to build language and conceptual understanding, and support social-emotional skill development, that have to accumulate over time and need lots of review and practice and reinforcement. The kinds of things that build those multiple skills include reading and having conversations about books, helping children to have and discuss lots of different experiences, and playing games and doing puzzles to promote regulation skills. Remember, to boost early literacy skills we aren’t shooting for the kind of early word reading talked about in the conversation above – even if it feels good to see your preschooler “read.”
So don’t worry the next time people are talking about their 3-and 4-year olds reading the words on the page. Instead, just keep tracking and supporting your child’s skill development in all three areas needed for strong reading, to lay that all-important foundation. You need to be in it for the long haul, to help your child become a strong reader for life, not just for preschool.