In the wee hours of the morning several years ago—when I used to stay up past 10 p.m.—I remember infomercials promising an easier way of life, weight-loss programs, food dehydrators, and vacuums that cut hair—just to name a few.
One infomercial in particular has stayed implanted in my brain over the years because of its unique—yet unbelievable—promise to teach babies to read. The "baby can read" program promised to teach young infants sight words by showing them a series of flashcards. Neuroscientists debunked this program after proving that babies were not actually reading the flashcards (decoding the sound and symbol relationship of letters and words), but merely identifying the symbols on a page. Even though this theory has been debunked, it has set into motion the misconception that all children under the age of five are ready to read.
Flash forward fifteen years when I am a mother myself. One Saturday morning, my then 4-year-old daughter plopped down next to me as I finished my morning breakfast. She grabbed a scrap of paper at the table, wrote the words, “cat” and “mat”, and explained, “Mom, these words rhyme.” The spontaneity of this action struck me—how it reflected so much of her understanding of language. Her ability to recognize and write rhyming words settled into her brain, making an important neural connection called phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is the ability to understand the sounds in spoken language and one of the key ingredients to becoming a reader.
Aside from this monumental moment in her path to reading, the process of her becoming an independent reader unfolded slowly. I was okay with her coming to reading in her own time, and I wanted to her to enjoy those precious years of preschool full of exploration and discovery. This stage of development was one of my favorites because it was less restricting. She learned just for the sake of learning.
However, I must address the fear I felt when my child was not reading fluently by the end of kindergarten. She tripped and stumbled across the pages of text while her friends seemed to read easily on a third grade level. I remember distinctly the internal struggle of trying not to compare my child to other children.
When I began to feel this way, I thought of the country of Finland. Finland has the highest literacy rate in the world, and they do not begin formal reading instruction until a child enters school at age 7. Each child’s reading circuit develops at different times. From a biological perspective, reading can only occur when a brain’s reading circuit is fully developed and this usually occurs between the ages of 5 to 7. Some children do begin reading earlier than this time, but it is not the norm—it all depends brain’s maturation and circuitry.
With that said, the preschool years should be spent on learning and identifying the names and sounds of the letters, but that should not be our sole focus. The ultimate goal as parents and educators is to instill a passion for reading and in turn, a passion for learning. We develop that passion through building a child’s understanding of the world through knowledge, experimentation, and exploration. Reading is the symmetry of putting together sounds and symbols on a page while activating background knowledge, and both are essential to becoming a strong reader.
Important ways to build background knowledge for preschoolers:
- Read books, books, and more books together.
Visit Richland Library’s Children’s Room and choose from over 90,000 books to read together.
- Engage in imaginative play.
Children are little scientists. They need opportunities to engage in unstructured play to experiment with the world around them.
- Talk together.
Parents are their child’s first and best teachers. By talking together, they build vocabularies, narrative skills, and strengthen the bond with parents.
Singing and Mother Goose Rhymes teach children how to read fluently and with inflection.
- Draw, color, and write.
Create a space in the house as a writing space. Children need to practice drawing lines and circles before they begin to write the alphabet.