What is the ideal age for children to learn to read?

I was 7 years old when I started learning to read, as is typical at the alternative Steiner school I attended.

My own daughter attends a standard English school and started at age 4, as is typical of most British schools.

Watching her memorize letters and pronounce words, at an age when my idea of ​​education was climbing trees and jumping puddles, has made me wonder how our different experiences shape us.

Are you getting a crucial head start that will give you benefits for life? Or is she exposed to undue amounts of potential stress and pressure, at a time when she should be enjoying her freedom? Or am I just worrying too much and it doesn’t matter at what age we start to read and write?

There is no doubt that language in all its richness -written, spoken, sung or read aloud- plays a crucial role in our early development.

Babies respond best to the language they were exposed to in the womb. Parents are encouraged to read to their children before they are born and when they are babies.

The evidence shows that how much or how little we are told about children can have lasting effects on future educational performance.

Books are a particularly important aspect of this rich linguistic exposure, since written language often includes a larger, more nuanced and detailed vocabulary than everyday spoken language.

This in turn can help children increase their range and depth of expression.

Since a child’s early language experience is seen as so critical to his or her later success, it has become increasingly common for preschools to begin teaching children basic literacy skills even before formal education begins.

When the children start school, literacy is invariably a main focus.

This goal of ensuring that all children learn to read and write has become even more pressing, as researchers warn that the pandemic has caused a widening achievement gap between the richest and poorest families, increasing inequality. academic.


In many countries, formal education begins at age 4. It is often thought that starting early gives children more time to learn and excel.

The result, however, may be an “educational arms race,” with parents trying to give their children an early advantage in school through private coaching and teaching, with some even paying for children as young as 4 to have private tutoring. additional.

If you compare that to the more play-based early education of several decades ago, you can see a big shift in policy, based on very different ideas of what our kids need to get ahead.

In the United States, this urgency was accelerated by policy changes such as the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which promoted standardized testing as a way to measure educational achievement and progress.

In the UK, children are tested in their second year of school (ages 5-6) to check that they are reaching the expected reading level.

Critics warn that early tests like this can discourage children from reading, while advocates say it helps identify those who need additional support.

However, many studies show little benefit from an overly academic early environment.

A 2015 US report says society’s expectations of what children should achieve in kindergarten have changed, which is leading to “inappropriate classroom practices” such as reduced learning based on the game.

The risk of “schooling”

The way children learn and the quality of the environment in which they learn are very important.

“Learning young children to read is one of the most important things primary education does. It is essential for children to progress in life,” says Dominic Wyse, professor of primary education at University College London (UCL), in the United Kingdom.

He, along with sociology professor Alice Bradbury, also from UCL, has published research proposing that how we teach reading and writing really matters.

In a 2022 report, they claim that the English school system’s intense focus on phonics, a method that involves matching the sound of a spoken word or letter, with individual written letters, through a process called “pronouncing,” could be failing some children.

One reason for this, Bradbury says, is that “early years schooling” has resulted in more formal learning than before.

But the tests used to assess that early learning may have little to do with the skills actually needed to read and enjoy books or other meaningful texts.

For example, tests may ask students to “pronounce” and spell nonsense words, to prevent them from simply guessing or recognizing familiar words.

Since nonsense words are not meaningful language, children may find the task difficult and disconcerting.

Bradbury found that the pressure to gain these decoding skills and pass reading tests also means that some 3-year-olds are already exposed to phonics.

“It doesn’t end up being meaningful, it ends up being memorized rather than understanding the context,” says Bradbury. He is also concerned that the books used are not particularly attractive.

girl reading
There is no exact recipe for children to enjoy reading. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

Neither Wyse nor Bradbury defends later learning per sebut rather highlight that we need to rethink the way children are taught to read and write.

The priority, they say, should be to foster interest in and familiarity with words, using storybooks, songs and poems, all of which help the child pick up the sounds of words as well as expand their vocabulary.

This idea is supported by studies showing that the academic benefits of preschool fade later.

Children who attend intensive preschools do not have better academic skills in later grades than those who did not attend such preschools, several studies now show.

However, early education can have a positive impact on social development, which in turn fuels the likelihood of graduating from school and college, as well as being associated with lower crime rates.

In short, attending preschool can have positive effects on later life achievement, but not necessarily on academic skills.

Too much academic pressure can even cause long-term problems. A study published in January 2022 suggested that those who attended a state-funded preschool with a strong academic emphasis showed lower academic achievement a few years later, compared to those who did not get a place.

This is consistent with research on the importance of play-based learning in the early years.

game-based preschoolers have better results than more academically focused preschoolers, for example.

A 2002 study found that “children’s later school success appears to have been enhanced by more active, child-initiated early learning experiences,” and that overly formalized learning might have slowed progress.

The study concluded that “pushing children too early can backfire when children move on to the last grade of primary school.”

Similarly, another small study found that disadvantaged children in the US who were randomly assigned to a more play-based setting had fewer behavioral problems and emotional deficits at age 23, compared with children who had been randomly assigned to a more “direct instruction” setting.

Preschool studies like these shed no light on the impact of early literacy per seand small studies in unique settings should always be treated with care, but suggest that the way it is taught is important.

One of the reasons early education can lead to positive social outcomes later in life may have nothing to do with teaching, but rather the fact that it provides childcare.

This means that parents can work without interruptions and provide more income for the family household.

Anna Cunningham, a senior lecturer in psychology at Nottingham Trent University in England who studies early literacy, argues that if an environment is too academically focused from the start, it can cause teachers to stress about tests and results, which in turn can affect children.

“Of course it is not good to judge a 5-year-old child by his results”, He says.

Parents’ anxiety about how well their child is doing in school can also contribute to this: according to a survey commissioned by an education charity in the UK, school performance is one of the main concerns of children. parents.

children reading

Are there better results with a late start?

Not everyone favors an early start. In many countries – including Germany, Iran and Japan – formal education begins around the age of 6.

In Finland, often hailed as the country with one of the best education systems in the world, children start school at the age of 7.

Despite this apparent lag, Finnish students score higher in reading comprehension than UK and US students at age 15.

In keeping with that child-centered approach, the Finnish kindergarten years are full of play and no formal academic instruction.

Following this model, a 2009 Cambridge University review proposed that formal school age should be delayed at 6 yearsgiving children in the UK more time “to start developing the language and study skills essential for their later progress”, as starting too early could “risk undermining the confidence of five-year-olds and cause long-term damage to their learning.”

Research supports this idea of ​​starting later. A 2006 US kindergarten study showed that there was an improvement in test scores in children who delayed entry by one year.

Other research comparing early readers with late readers found that late readers reach comparable levels later, even slightly outperforming early readers on comprehension skills.

The study, explains lead author Sebastian Suggate of the University of Regensburg in Germany, shows that later learning allows children to more efficiently relate their knowledge of the worldtheir understanding, with the words they learn.

“It makes sense,” he says. “Reading comprehension is language, they have to unlock the ideas behind it.”

“Of course, if you spend more time focusing on language early on, you’re building a solid foundation of skills that takes years to develop.”

“Reading can be learned quickly, but for language (vocabulary and comprehension) there are no easy tricks,” says Sugate. “It’s hard work.”

Better sooner than later?

In another study that looked at different ages of school entry, it was found that learning to read early had no discernible benefit at age 15.

The question remains if reading ability doesn’t improve with early learning, why start early? Individual variation in taste and reading ability is an important aspect.

“Children are very different in terms of their foundational skills when they start school or start learning to read,” Cunningham explains.

In his study of children educated by Steiner, who only begin formal education around the age of seven, he had to exclude 40% of the sample because the children already knew how to read.

“I think it’s because they were prepared for it,” he says. She also found that the older children were more prepared “to learn the reading process in terms of their underlying language skills” because they had had an additional three years of language exposure.


Studies also show that reading ability is more closely related to a child’s vocabulary than to their age, and that spoken language skills are a strong predictor of later literary skills.

However, we know that many children entering school are behind in their language skills, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Some argue that formal schooling allows these children access to support and skills that others They can be purchased informally at home.

This line of thinking is advocated by UK education authorities, who say that teaching those who are behind in their spoken language to read early is “the only effective route to closing this gap.” [de capacidad lingüística]”.

Others favor the opposite approach, of immersing children in an environment where they can enjoy and develop their understanding of language, which after all is critical to reading success.

this is exactly what a playful learning environment helps foster.

“The job of teaching is to assess where your children are and provide the most appropriate teaching in relation to their level of development,” says Wyse.

The 2009 Cambridge Review echoed this, stating: “There is no evidence that a child who spends more time learning through lessons, rather than learning through play, will ‘do better’ in the long run” .

Cunningham, whose daughter has also recently started learning to read, has a generous and reassuring view of the ideal age for reading: “It doesn’t matter if you start reading at four, five or six, as long as the method they are given teach is a good and proven method. Children are so resilient that they will find opportunities to play in any context.”

So our obsession with early literacy seems to be somewhat unfounded: there is no need or clear benefit in rushing it.

On the other hand, if your child is starting early or showing an independent interest in reading before his school offers it, that’s fine too, as long as there are plenty of opportunities to stop and have fun along the way.

*Melissa Hogenboom is the editor of BBC Reel. Her book, The Motherhood Complex, is out now. You can follow her at @melissasuzanneh on Twitter.

It may interest you:

* Pandemic caused the lowest educational enrollment in more than 20 years in the US
* From chaos to creativity
* How quarantines affect language in young children

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