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Should You Teach a Preschooler to Read?

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While not a fan of pushing hyper-achievement on young children, Mary has seen benefits of teaching early reading when appropriate

Parent Peer Pressure vs Peer Wisdom

Teaching a preschooler to read was never in my master parenting plan. (I had neither a plan nor aspirations of mastery!) And this skill certainly doesn't appear on any kindergarten readiness checklist. But there I was, chatting with other parents at 4-year-old preschool pickup time, and a mom I respected—a witty, grounded gal not known for helicopter-parent tendencies—asked if my son was reading yet. "No, should he be?" I asked. "Well," she said, "I've heard the kindergarten and first grade reading programs aren't that great. I figure let's just knock this out over the summer."

It got me thinking. My son was a bright little guy. We'd been reading to him since his first week of life, and he truly loved books. We had a relatively laid-back summer ahead, with less on the family plate than we would have during the school year. Why not give it a shot?

So we did it. And it worked well enough that we repeated the process with our twins a couple years later. But we had a subtly different reason for teaching each of the three kids.

I now believe that those three different reasons, taken together, make a pretty good "screening" tool for deciding whether one should explore how to teach a child to read before kindergarten and, if appropriate, take on that task at home.

Three Questions to Ask Yourself Before Teaching Your Preschooler to Read

Are you on the fence about whether teaching reading to preschoolers makes sense? Unsure of whether this is something you should try with your young child? It exceeds preschool literacy activities commonly recommended in parenting publications, though it is not as overwhelming as you might think. So based on personal experience, I suggest a test of 3 simple questions to ask yourself before exploring how to teach a child to read and, potentially, embarking on this mini-adventure in homeschooling.

1) Is My Child Ready to Read?

My personal experience is that this is more about attention span than about a specific pre-reading skill like knowing the alphabet or writing one's name. Those things can be taught fairly easily to most children. But if a child isn't able to sit still with you and a book for more than two minutes, they probably aren't ready for a structured learn-to-read attempt.

That doesn’t mean a more active approach wouldn’t work—like labeling items around the house, then pointing to and reading them to your kid in day-to-day life as you walk by the items or use them. (This always seemed a little over-the-top to me, but I know people who did it and appreciated the early-literacy results.)

Some children, especially in the preschool years, just need to be on the move, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

On the other hand, if your child likes nothing more than to snuggle up with you and a pile of books—as was the case with my firstborn—they may be ready to start tackling this skill. Some preschoolers even ask to learn to read, especially those with older siblings who are bookworms.

2) Is My Child Already Starting to Teach Him/Herself to Read?

I realize that if the answer to this is “yes,” the next logical question would be “Then why do I need to teach him?” You can go ahead and check that off the list, right?

Well, maybe. What I noticed with my twin son who started teaching himself to read around age 3 is that he was relying totally on recognizing and memorizing words by sight. As cool as this was to see, I instinctively felt maybe he should balance that out with some phonics, so that he’d have a couple different strategies in place as he got older and the words got harder. Researching evidence-based ideas on how to teach a child to read, I learned that a strong foundation in phonics is, in fact, ideal.

What you do know, if your child is teaching him/herself to read, is that (s)he is developmentally ready for this skill. The choice in this case—and there's no wrong answer—is to roll with it and see how the skill develops in a totally child-directed way, or jump in with some instruction.

If you choose the latter, just be prepared to back off if your kid doesn’t respond well. The last thing you want to do is squash the self-propelled learning they were engaging in before you got involved!

3) Will Teaching My Child to Read Improve the Quality of His/Her Life, or Our Family's Life?

My other twin son, as a preschooler and even to some extent years later, was one of those kids who had trouble entertaining himself without the TV. (Yes, I know that today TV is the least of a parent's worries, with children magnetically drawn to tablets, laptops and any other electronic tools, toys and apps they can get their little hands on.) His siblings would build with Legos, draw, play ball—but for him, having fun without some structure or a “goal” was always kind of tough. And the job of providing that usually fell to an adult, namely me.

The problem was that freelance work, volunteer commitments and basic household demands made it impossible for me to spend every waking second actively structuring his time and providing one-on-one attention—even if that would have been healthy for the two of us, which is debatable. My son and I both clearly needed an activity that was non-electronic but that wouldn’t require my direct involvement. Teaching him to read was an investment in happier days for us both. Once he learned, I even noticed that reading had a mild calming effect on him rarely delivered by electronic entertainment.

Additionally, independent reading gave him something to do on those crazy-early weekend mornings (funny how the kid who needs you most is always the earliest riser), on long car rides, at his brother’s soccer games—all of those times where boredom would have otherwise caused frustration and potentially meltdowns, on his part or mine!

So if you have an easily bored, easily frustrated, and/or electronics-addicted preschooler, teaching him or her to read might be a real stress-buster for all involved.


Going For It? Try This Time-Tested Resource

The secret to "joyful early reading," says childhood literacy expert Richard Gentry, PhD, is fun—and that means stopping a reading activity when it stops being fun.

Here's my top tip for any parent wondering how to teach reading at home: What made the process easy and enjoyable for our family was a phonics-based book called Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. Along with more than a million other folks, even if you go by Amazon sales alone, I used it to teach my three preschoolers to read. The lessons are purposely short, and sometimes I cut them even shorter by splitting one lesson into two. As a result, the 100 lessons ended up being more like 150-200 for two of my children, but we had fun. The illustrations could use an update, for sure. And the little stories in it can be quirky. But cookie-cutter phonics lessons these are not :) You might be surprised to learn that in most cases, kids who complete this curriculum will be able to read at an early second grade level, which makes all sorts of fun independent reading possible.

Among countless books about teaching reading, this one passes the test of time. My pre-K children learned with it back in the very early 2000s, and I just discovered that renowned Columbia University linguist John McWhorter is also a fan, having taught his 4-year-old daughter to read much more recently, using the same book. "My wife and I are not unusually diligent teachers," he wrote in The Atlantic. "The book worked by, quite simply, showing our daughter, bit by bit, how to sound out the words. That’s it." There are other early reading books out there, but you'd be hard pressed to find one more firmly founded in data on what actually works.

Note: If you're wondering how to teach a child to read more effectively, when they have already been taught but are really struggling with the skills, a school/teacher consult is probably the best first step, as the 100 Easy Lessons book is designed for teaching more or less from scratch, rather than remediating. I agree with the reviewer who felt this heads-up should have been front and center in the description. This resource really is for teaching reading from scratch. And while a reading program for kindergarteners can (and has) been successfully used in group format based on its methods, this particular book is primarily for one-on-one use.

Tips for Making 100 Easy Lessons a Success

The 100 Easy Lessons book shown above is based on a time-tested, hands-on type of teaching called direct instruction that dates back to the mid-1960s. It is very structured—scripted, in fact—for the parent/teacher; breaks learning down into small, manageable components; builds in lots of repetition in to ensure adequate practice and absorption; and routinely pairs a small percentage of new material with a much larger percentage of mastered material so that children feel (and are) successful every step of the way. It's a complete curriculum, requiring no lesson planning on the parent's part. Parent and child use the book together in a series of short, phonics-based lessons that employ somewhat silly storytelling.

Our family's tips:

  1. Plan to use this curriculum at a time when you and your family aren't too overscheduled or overcommitted. The lessons won't "stick" as well if you end up having to take a ton of days off in between them.
  2. Stop a lesson if your kid gets tired or crabby, but end on a positive note, e.g., point to a word they can easily read and, when they do, celebrate the moment of success together before you call it a day.
  3. Act out the goofy stories in this book after you and your child read them, even the ultra-short ones at the beginning of the book. It aids comprehension—remember, reading is more than decoding!—and enlivens the learning. This was not part of the 100 Easy Lessons curriculum, but it seriously increased the fun factor and, consequently, our kids' motivation.
  4. If, after a few lessons, your child really doesn't seem to be having any fun, put the plan aside for a few weeks, even months, before trying again. And if the second try doesn't take hold, resist the urge to worry. Statistically, it's extremely rare to teach a toddler to read and even quite unusual to teach a 4-year-old to read, so very few children acquire the skill before kindergarten—and that's absolutely fine!
  5. Remember that this process should be enjoyable for you, too. If it's not, and especially if it's putting an undue strain on your relationship with your preschooler, it's okay to abandon it. It doesn't mean your child won't learn to read; it just means they won't learn at this time, in this manner. There will be plenty more chances.
  6. The Bob Books series provided us extra practice with phonics-based learning. These affordable little booklets were a nice add-on to the 100 lessons curriculum, though not strictly necessary. Consider using the best board books in your home library as reading material for preschoolers, too. They'll get a kick out of being able to independently read all or most of the words that, you can remind them, were so enchanting in their infant/toddler years—and the colorful illustrations never get old.
  7. Results may vary from one child to the next. Two of our children emerged from the 100 Easy Lessons curriculum reading first- to second-grade books independently, such as the wonderful Henry and Mudge series. The third started Magic Tree House, a book series at the second- to third-grade reading level.
  8. Even when the kids could read independently, we kept reading aloud to them for many years, selecting high-interest chapter books that were above their independent-reading levels but well within their comprehension levels. We didn't want the message to be, "Now that you can read on your own, we're done reading with you." Frankly, I would have missed this fun bonding activity, and the great discussions it generated as the kids got older, way too much! (Chapter books we read together jumpstarted, at times, important conversations I'm not sure we would have had, if not for the shared reading experience.)
  9. Keep in mind, this is about enhancing quality of life for your child and family over the next few years, not catapulting your kid into some sort of long-term academic advantage. While that may happen, it's more likely that reading-level gaps between early readers and peers will narrow substantially by around third grade— and that's fine.
  10. Even if your efforts are wildly successful, consider keeping a low profile in communicating this with friends and acquaintances—especially if your new reader is on the younger end of the pre-kindergarten age spectrum. How to teach a child to read may be an acceptable, comfortable topic for most parents, but how to teach a toddler to read? It can come off as almost shocking, even if you're speaking from firsthand experience. Try to "read the room" and avoid sharing every detail, unless encouraged to do so.
  11. If you have time, use fun preschool literacy activities like these to nurture early writing skills alongside reading ones. The two go hand in hand, and the "writing is fun" concept is a much tougher sell for older kids grappling with increasingly complex writing demands at school. So why not build some positive associations while you can, in a super low-pressure context?
  12. While this article focuses on why and how to teach a child to read before kindergarten age, the 100 Easy Lessons curriculum is an excellent choice if you decide to homeschool for kindergarten. In terms of "bang for the buck," it's unbeatable. While most reading programs for kindergarteners are not based on direct-instruction methods like this book uses, the research on effectiveness suggests that maybe they should be!

Teaching Reading Early: Two Views

On the "yes, sometimes!" side of the question of whether it's appropriate to teach children to read before kindergarten is a 2016 study on early reading readiness. It suggests that children as young as 3 who know the difference between a drawing and a written word may be ready to start learning to read. "Most children don’t begin formal instruction in reading and writing until they turn five and enter kindergarten," wrote Gerry Everding for Washington University in St. Louis, "but these findings suggest that children as young as three may be tested to see how well their understanding of basic language concepts is progressing."

On the other hand, an education professor has argued that even age 5 is too young to learn to read, especially for boys. "Teaching children at five to read and write can dent their interest in books later on, according to Lilian Katz, a professor of education at [University of] Illinois," reported Polly Curtis in The Guardian. Clearly Prof. Katz would not be a fan of early reading books that instruct parents on instructing their pre-kindergarteners.

What's your feeling on teaching reading early? Do you share the professor's view on why starting this early is bad for your child, and reading doesn't belong on a checklist for kindergarten readiness? (Go here for a sample checklist, helpful in designing a homeschool preschool curriculum or comparing out-of-home preschool options.) Or for children who show reading readiness, do you see this as a reasonable, beneficial endeavor? Please share your experiences in the poll and comments.



Besides "on-the-job training" on how to teach a child to read that I experienced with my 3 very different kiddos, I found these sources of information helpful. Some focus on preschool literacy activities more broadly. Others opened my eyes to the potential benefit to disadvantaged students, along with more advantaged ones, of structured direct-instruction methods like the one our family used.

"How I Taught My Kid to Read" by John McWhorter,

"Pre-K Can Work" by Shepard Barbash,

"A Study of 75,000 Kids Says This Is The Best Way to Learn to Read (So Why Don't Most Schools Use It?)" by Jessica Stillman,

"Dr J. Richard Gentry's Tips for Raising Confident Readers" by Ella Rain,

"Is Your Toddler Ready for Reading Lessons?" by Gerry Everding, Washington University in St. Louis,

Under-Sevens Too Young to Learn to Read" by Polly Curtis,

"Teach Kids When They're Ready" by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson,

"How Do Kids Learn to Read? What the Science Says" by Sarah Schwartz and Sarah D. Sparks,

"Tips for Teaching Preschool Phonics at Home" by Megan Glosson,

"Toddlers and Reading: Describe but Don't Drill" -- this guidance from NAEYC, a well-known preschool certification organization, makes the reasonable suggestion that babies are too young for flashcards.

How to teach a child to read from a more holistic perspective, to supplement direct instruction? You'll find some ideas in this piece from Scholastic Parents.

Want to build early literacy skills but not commit to full-fledged reading instruction? Check out this ALA handout of early literacy skills and how to promote them from birth on, or these tips for early writing as well as pre-reading. Also useful is this list of 25 preschool literacy activities, designed with fun in mind.

Here's an early literacy skills approach from a Montessori perspective, aimed at 2- and 3-year-olds.

I hesitate to use this term because just playing at home and in the neighborhood is a perfectly defensible way for under-5s to learn and grow, but for ideas on how to homeschool a preschooler, you can try a free homeschool preschool curriculum from this list that includes secular as well as religion-based options and preschool printables galore. And here's a more general, but helpful, set of guidelines on how to homeschool a preschooler.

Finally, go here for a reasonable-seeming checklist for kindergarten readiness if you're looking to get a jump—both academically and socially--on "big kid school" next fall.

Think early literacy is only for affluent parents with extra time on their hands? This brief synthesis of studies touches on the ways all kinds of kids—including dual language learners, children with special needs, and those from lower-income families—can benefit, starting in kindergarten on a more even playing field with less-challenged peers.

© 2014 Mary