When Is a Child Ready to Read?

by Edith Grotberg, Ph.D.
Developmental Psychologist
Former Director, Research and Evaluation Division
Administration for Children, Youth, and Families, Washington, D.C.
When is a child ready to read?

This question is too easity answered by saying, “Around the age of five or six.” But brain developement varies. Some children are ready earlier than others.
We researcher say that the brain needs to be able to hold a symbol in one position for reading. What does that mean? Well, let’s say a word starts with the letter ‘b.’ The child sees a straight line and a circle. To a child whose brain is not quite ready to hold the symbol in position, that letter could also be a ‘p,’ ‘d,’ ‘q,’ ‘6,’ or ‘9.’

An alphabet letter is a new kind of object.

Think about this: Every object the child has already learned is the same object no matter what position it is in. A bottle is a bottle whether it’s in the child’s mouth or hand, in the refrigerator, or on the floor. A crayon is a crayon no matter what position it is in. Mom is Mom whether her back is turned or she’s upside down doing a yoga pose.
The letters of the alphabet are the first things the child learns that change meaning when their components are in a different position!

Left-right, up-down are abstact concepts, too.

An alphabet letter is a new kind of object. In order to read, the child has to know the difference between left and right, up and down. Thus, to differentiate between ‘b,’ ‘p,’ ‘d,’ ‘q,’ ‘6,’ and ‘9,’ his or her rain must be ready to grasp these abstract concepts. You can help by pointing out things on the left and right, such as: “Cars drive on the right side of the street.” “At this corner we’re turning left.” “You just waved bye-bye with your left hand.” “We read from left to right.” Then it’s a shorter step to saying (and having the child understand and internalize), “The ‘b’ has the circle on the right of the line.” “The circle is on the left in the ‘d.’

The brain matures in developmental stages

Over the last ten years, The Decade of the Brain, as it’s been called, we have learned more about how the brain functions than in all the previous years put together. We have learned that the brain:

• is flexible and dynamic;
• changes constantly in response to experience and learning;
• grows in complexity and power as part of the developmental stages all humans go through.

The learning that takes place is determined by the child’s developmental stage. Children let you know by their reactions if you are pushing beyond the limits of the developmental stage. They will lead you.

Emotional connectedness feeds brain development.

Hand in hand with brain development is emotional connectedness. I’m a big believer in this. In order to read, the child needs to feel the love and approval of an emotionally connected person — usually a parent or teacher — who shows joy and pride as he or she masters letter position. This brain-emotional connectedness is also needed for mastering letter sequence: Is the word ‘was’ or ’saw’? Is it ’stop’ or ‘pots’? And the same linkage is necessary with phrases and sentences.

The brain needs to recognize letters and words as symbols of things, actions, or emotions. And to connect with them. Emotionally, the reader receives joy by identifying with the story’s characters. He or she develops a flow with the story that integrates both thinking and feeling. Even when a child pretends to read a story that’s been read out loud to him, that flow is developing. And this is the ultimate pleasure of reading — the flow of thoughts and feelings in the reader. But this does not usually happen until the ages or seven or eight.

It is next to impossible for a child to learn to differentiate letters, to hold them in position for reading, to develop the flow of reading, without a sense of pleasure. When a parent communicates a sense of urgency, a sense of anxiety for success, the child feels no joy; reading is no fun. Make the learning-to-read experience a pleasure, part of play, with ample approval for success, and you have the setting for learning. But, again, be sure to respect the child’s developmental stage, and let the child lead you.

In short, reading develops over time. There is no clear timetable; there does not need to be one. The brain and the emotions determine that. And emotionally connected people – like you – encourage the process.