Learning to read: What age is the "right" age?

Some kids just “get” how to read, while others struggle for years. When should parents worry?
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Photo: Tony Lanz

Jenna Levinson* was reading fluently by the age of four.

“I remember I was wearing an Earth Day T-shirt with a picture of a globe on it,” recalls her mom, Stephanie. “And she said to me, ‘Why does your shirt say, “Love your mother?”’ I was pretty surprised. We hadn’t ever tried to teach her to read.”

Jenna’s younger sister, Sadie, has taken a decidedly different route toward literacy. Well into second grade, the seven-year-old “is just starting to be able to read a simple book out loud to me,” says Levinson, who lives in Winnipeg. “She’s progressing, but she still guesses a lot, struggles with vowel sounds, mixes up her Ds and Bs—things like that.”

Levinson says she’s read constantly to both kids since babyhood. “Jenna would listen to as many books as you wanted to read to her, and Sadie would grab the book and throw it across the room.” Watching her daughters’ radically different approaches to literacy has left her, like many parents, wondering if there’s something innate that helps some kids pick up the ability to read easily and if there’s a “right” age to learn how to read.

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Experts say no. “The brain isn’t naturally hard-wired to read in the way that it’s wired to speak or listen,” explains Bev Brenna, an education professor at the University of Saskatchewan who specializes in literacy education. There simply isn’t one age where kids can or should be reading—despite the deeply ingrained North American ideal that children learn to read in first grade, around age six. 

“There’s actually no evidence to support that belief,” says Carol Leroy, director of the Reading and Language Centre at the University of Alberta. Attaining literacy is, rather, a very gradual process. It begins with infants playing with or even chewing on board books and being read to by parents or caregivers, and continues through to independent reading. While some kids, like Jenna, seem to pick it up on their own, most need to be taught how to make sense of those squiggles on the page. And some kids take longer than others to do so.

Home-schooler Sue Holloway, for example, tried to teach her older son, Walker, when he was seven. “I got a ‘learning to read’ book, and he hated it. We fought about it a lot, and I finally just let it go,” says Holloway, who lives in South Gillies, Ont. Two years later, Walker began reading independently. “I have no idea how he figured it out, but he did, and now he really loves to read and does so every night.” Holloway’s younger son, Rowan, is still trying to get the hang of reading at the age of eight. But home-schooling gives them the luxury of being able to learn at their own pace. And Holloway says she often hears of home-schooled kids learning to read at about age nine—and going on to complete high school and attend university without any negative effects. 

For kids who attend school, the stakes are different. Even if there’s no biologically correct age to read, students who aren’t reading according to a school’s timetable can fall behind and experience distress as a result. If the gap between slower readers and their peers isn’t identified and dealt with early on, it can widen over time and lead to other issues.

“Kids who aren’t reading can’t participate, because they don’t understand the basic mechanics and, therefore, can’t understand what the other children are doing,” says Leroy. And if you don’t understand the basics, you can’t point out the last word of the sentence when asked or circle all the words that start with S. In gym class, a slow reader may struggle to figure out which sign to line up behind if he wants to play soccer or skip. “Around grade two or three, they start to become really conscious of their reading—they can lose their confidence, stop taking risks, become afraid of being teased,” says Leroy. “That’s where we start to get behaviour issues; some kids will withdraw or stir up trouble to avoid reading, because it’s so painful for them.”

The effects can last well beyond grade school, says Chicago literacy expert Timothy Shanahan, author of the blog Shanahan on Literacy. A British study released in 2013, for example, showed that children’s literacy and math levels at age seven were predictive of their overall earnings at the age of 42. 

Fortunately, says Brenna, today’s teachers are trained to recognize and accommodate the needs of kids at all levels, so everyone can learn. They might use strategies like choral reading—where all the kids in the class read out loud together—or reading back stories they’ve dictated to the teacher. 

Any classroom will typically contain students with a wide range of reading levels, says Leroy. The rule of thumb, she says, is to double the grade to get the range. “So in third grade, there could be six years’ difference between the lowest and the highest level of readers in the class. Similarly, in a first-grade classroom, there’s bound to be at least one kid without any reading skills and at least one kid who’s reading independently.”

So what’s a parent of a late reader to do? Be vigilant, but don’t panic, say all three experts. If you think your child is struggling with reading or isn’t getting the help he or she needs, says Shanahan, the first step is to talk to the teacher—don’t hesitate to bring up the subject and brainstorm strategies for supporting reading. If you’re still concerned after meeting with the teacher, says Brenna, ask for a referral to another member of the school’s or the board’s team, such as a special education teacher or speech-language pathologist. “A team approach is often very helpful in developing an action plan for literacy, and most students respond well to additional supports at the school level,” says Brenna. Your child’s doctor, as well as speech-language pathologists and educational psychologists, can also help to create a support plan.

Above all, say the experts, don’t push, because it will turn reading into a power struggle. “The biggest priority has to be how the child feels about reading,” says Leroy. “So entice kids by making it fun.” And be reassured by the fact that many kids who are slow to pick it up become lifelong book lovers.

If your child isn’t reading at grade level by the end of grade three, Leroy says you should investigate whether she is struggling with other subjects, create a plan with the teacher and discuss having a thorough assessment. In some cases, the delay may be caused by an underlying condition. 

“I kept hearing, ‘She’s going at her own pace,’ or ‘She’s behind, but I’m not worried yet,’” recalls Toronto mom Jessica Miller* about her daughter Sabrina’s lagging reading skills in first and second grade. When Sabrina’s school didn’t take action by the end of grade two, Miller and her husband paid to have Sabrina tested privately—and found out that she is dyslexic. Miller’s first grader, Gavin, isn’t showing any signs of delayed reading, but she’s adamant that she will have him tested at the first sign of any trouble: “I’m not falling for, ‘He’s in the range.’”

Levinson, meanwhile, is doing whatever she can to make reading enjoyable for Sadie. “She loves making up stories and dictating them to me, and will happily read those out loud,” she says. “We get library books on whatever she’s interested in—mummies, wizards, jewellery making. We’ve done treasure hunts at the grocery store and word searches. I have literally done reading time with her sitting on my shoulders.”

That’s the right approach, says Leroy. “If a kid wants to stand on his head while he reads—if he wants you to stand on your head while he reads—do it. With children this age, we forget how much they’re in control of their own learning already.” 

Online resources:

ABRACADABRA is a free language and reading program developed at Concordia University in Montreal. Kids can use the “light” version, which contains activities for teaching  comprehension and fluency. abralite.concordia.ca

Sask­atchewan Reads, created by Saskatchewan’s provincial reading team, is a user-friendly site with strategies and resources for teaching primary students to read. saskatchewanreads.wordpress.com

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