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Teaching Reading: When Is The Right Time To Start?

by Dr. Marion Blank

When should my child start to learn to read? it's a question I get asked several times a week-and it's a question you can see raised regularly in parents' magazines, newspaper articles, and the like.

At first glance, it seems simple and straightforward. So it should be one that can easily be answered. Its steady re-appearance, however, is a sign that the issue is more intricate than you might expect.

The complexity stems, in part, from the wide individual differences among children. Youngsters mature at different rates and ideally, any significant teaching endeavor should not start until a child is "ready." This makes it difficult to offer an age that holds for all children.

But individual differences are not the critical issue holding us back from a clear answer. There are lots of tests that can tell you if a child has mastered the precursor skills and thereby determine whether he or she is ready to move on to real reading.

A far more important issue rests with a component that is almost totally neglected, yet ever-present, in reading instruction. That component is the group setting of the classroom.

All school-based reading instruction takes place in that setting. As a result, a child is constantly able to watch peers at work and see how well he or she measures up.

For the few at the top, the comparison is satisfying--and great for confidence building. For the majority, however, that is not the case. They watch the children who are breezing through reading and it leaves them feeling devastated.

It doesn't matter that teachers try to ease any discomfort by telling the children that "everyone is different" or by pointing out "how good" they are in other areas. Kids know what matters in school and as far as they're concerned, they know that they are not making the grade.

It may be discouraging to see this aspect of school life. But it offers some good news as well. It provides us with an answer to the question posed at the outset--at what age should reading instruction begin?

The realities of school life mean that the best course parents can follow is to begin reading instruction--at home--approximately six months to a year before the child will encounter it in school. That way, the initial teaching takes place in a supportive one-to-one setting--where group comparison plays no role. Then armed with all that has been mastered at home, the child can move into the school--ready and able to meet whatever demands come forth.

The advice given to parents is often quite the opposite; namely, they are told to refrain from teaching on the grounds that it will lead the child to be "bored" with the curriculum of the classroom. I have yet to see that happen. Teachers invariably are pleased by children who do well--even if the "doing well" is based upon the children already knowing all that the teacher has to offer.

Ironically, teaching is actually structured with the expectation that this is exactly what will be happening (i.e., that the children will already know what is being taught). For example, on the grounds that "questions are the key vehicles for getting children to think," most teaching is based on asking lots and lots of questions (from "what sound does this letter make?" to "who were the main characters in the story?") When children offer correct responses, teachers do not see this as evidence that the children already knew the information. Rather, they see it as evidence that the teaching is effective.

We will delve into this aspect of classroom life another time. For now, the issue is important in showing us that children are in no way at a disadvantage when they arrive at school with reading already under their belts. Hence, we should not be misled into following the advice to hold off reading instruction and wait for it to happen in the classroom. Early, home-based reading is a great way to go in setting your child on the path to school success. .

Dr. Marion Blank is a world-renowned authority on how children learn to read with over 40 years experience in the field. She is the creator of the Phonics Plus Five reading & wrting program available for sale on her site. To read more articles by Dr. Blank, please visit her blog and join her newsletter.

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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