When should reading instruction begin?

  • 26 October, 2019
  • 22 Comments

Teacher question:

What does research say about early literacy and when to begin? I am aware that kids may reach the stage of development where they're ready for reading at different times. What does the research say about the "window" for when a kid can learn to read? What are the consequences if they haven't started reading past that time? 

Shanahan response:

Oh, fun. The kind of question that generates strong scholarly (sounding) opinion, with no real data to go on.

The advocates on both sides will bloviate about windows of opportunity, developmentally-appropriate practice, potential harms of early or later starts, and how kids in Finland are doing.

Despite the impressive citations that show up in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, or in various blogs, the truth is that there is no definitive research on this issue.

The meager handful of supposedly direct comparisons between starting earlier versus later are so ham-handed that I’m surprised they were even published.

One example is a longitudinal study that followed kids for six years… after either a dose of academically- or play-focused preschool. The research claimed that the kids taught early ended up with lower later achievement (http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/v4n1/marcon.html).

That sounds horrible, until you look closely at the analysis and it becomes evident that the comparisons were questionable and the statistics specious (http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/v5n1/lonigan.html). More of the play-group kids were retained along the way, so the final comparison—the one that finally found the difference the researcher was seeking—wasn’t between the same samples as at the beginning. The researcher’s response to this criticism suggests that the samples weren’t actually equivalent at the start either, further highlighting that this study couldn’t possibly reveal whether early teaching was helpful, hurtful, or not an issue at all.

I can provide examples going in the other direction, too. Since graduate school I have been told that young children are especially able learners and that the earlier we start teaching the better the odds that we’ll catch kids during that “portal of receptivity” (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/windows-of-opportunity-part-1_b_57c937cee4b06c750dd984b1).

The evidence behind that argument seems mainly to be based on the fact that from about 18 months to 5-years-of-age children learn an amazing amount of vocabulary; and that so-called vocabulary spurt is a real one. However, the idea that everything or even everything involving language is learned easily during those years is where the leap of faith comes in.

Reading development certainly does depend upon vocabulary, but there is much more to learning reading, and there is no convincing evidence that four-year-olds will learn to read more quickly or easily than would be the case a year or three later. Just because youngsters learn spoken words really fast, doesn’t mean that they are able to perceive the sounds within words (phonological awareness), or that they'll be able to master the names and sounds of the letters (the beginnings of decoding) especially easily.

When I argue for teaching reading to young children, my claim is not that we need to take advantage of a particularly beneficial time period when kids are most attuned to learning. (Though when I put forth such advice, I usually hear from those who, based on Finland’s educational attainment, claim that starting at 7-years-old is the magic ingredient to literacy success… an argument that neglects a few other differences between Finland and the English-speaking world, including homogeneity of population, relatively high economic advantage, formidable linguistic differences, and the fact that, according to the Finnish government, most of their children learn to read prior to entering school at age 7).

English reading can be challenging so I encourage as early a start as possible (and, no, research reveals no harm in this).

Starting early increases the amount of time available for kids to learn. Often kids enter kindergarten or first-grade with the expectation that they are to learn to read that year. Spreading this expectation across 3-4 years can reduce pressure and anxiety.

This also means that it is possible to successfully teach older students to read. We often hear the statistics that show that early reading problems persist. But these problems don’t persist because we missed some magical window of learning opportunity, but because we are not doing the things that will allow older students to succeed.

My advice, if you are a parent or caregiver, start introducing your children to literacy once they are born—reading to them, talking to them, singing to them, showing them how to write their names, writing down their stories, teaching the alphabet and letter sounds, playing with language sounds (e.g., “K-K-K-Katie”), and so on.

Of course, young children have brief attention spans. But that’s one of the benefits of starting so early—you can take advantage of 20 seconds here, 3 minutes there, over a long period which can make a big learning difference.

If you are a preschool, kindergarten, or first-grade teacher, begin teaching reading once you meet the children…

Give kids as long a timeline as possible and don’t worry about an optimum time to teach reading. There isn’t one.

The reason for starting early isn’t to capture some magic window of neuronal plasticity, but to make the window as big as possible. If teaching early identifies a youngster who struggles to learn reading, then we will have more years to address this youngster’s needs. The later we wait, the smaller that window of opportunity. We want kids to have the maximum opportunity to learn.

We hear a lot about “developmental appropriateness” these days, and this concept is used to dismiss the early teaching of reading—"don't teach reading until it is developmentally appropriate."

If that is what you are hearing I suggest reading the National Association of Educators of Young Children’s draft policy on this matter:                                                                                                   “From infancy through age 8, proactively building children’s conceptual and factual knowledge, including academic vocabulary, is essential because knowledge is the primary driver of comprehension. The more children (and adults) know, the better their listening comprehension and, later, reading comprehension. Therefore, by building knowledge of the world in early childhood, educators are laying the foundation that is critical for all future learning (How People Learn I and II). The idea that young children are not ready for academic subject matter is a misunderstanding of DAP; particularly in grades 1-3, almost all subject matter can be taught in ways that are meaningful and engaging for each child (citations).”

https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/get-involved/leadership/initial_public_draft_dap_2019.pdf

Developmental appropriateness has more to do with how we might teach something successfully than with what we teach. Keeping lessons brief and lively makes great sense with young children (and it doesn’t hurt the older ones either). Teaching phonemic awareness with songs and chants is a great idea, and it can be fun to play games built around letters and sounds. Introducing reading and writing through play areas set up like post offices, restaurants, libraries, and the like are all developmentally appropriate for the youngest of our preschoolers.

Start teaching reading from the time you have kids available to teach, and pay attention to how they respond to this instruction—both in terms of how well they are learning what you are teaching, and how happy and invested they seem to be. If you haven't started yet, don't feel guilty, just get going.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Vickie
Oct 25, 2019 09:45 PM

Thank you for your thoughts on early vocabulary and how it relates to reading. My niece was read to from birth, spoke relatively early in sentences, and has a huge vocabulary. However, she is now in third grade and is still having difficulty learning to read fluently. The notion that we've almost engrained in parents that if their child has a good vocabulary, they'll be a successful reader just isn't always the case.

Sam Bommarito
Oct 26, 2019 04:48 PM

For me it’s not a question of whether, you already answered that, it’s a question of how. Fun read alouds interspersed with talk about concepts of print e.g. print moves from left to right (In English ) print carries the message, et al. Lots of talk. That talk should actually go beyond reading time. There actually is push back in the early education world about taking the play out of kindergarten. For folks visioning straight row seats, endless lectures and plenty of seatwork,vision instead plenty of read alouds Plenty of think alouds Plenty of what I like to call Big Talk i.e. include some big vocabulary from time to time and scaffold students into understanding what the words mean. This is one of the situations where systematic analytic phonics has some real uses. With a somewhat older group - first grades that I’m working with on fluency, we use selected poems and other short readings to reread daily 5 to 10 minutes and then perform biweekly using SeeSaw. As we do this, we are taking care to make sure the poems we select match the scope and sequence of the phonics program/orthographic information being presented by the basal. Guess what I’m saying is don’t forget about the potential of indirect instruction and for sure go easy on the worksheets. To my knowledge research is never been very kind to worksheets

Renee
Oct 26, 2019 05:08 PM

Wondering if you have done any reading on Dr. Glenn Doman, founder of the Institute for the Achievement of Human Potential, and if so, what your thoughts are on his research? His research on brain growth and development suggests there is scientific evidence that supports teaching children to read at very young ages. Dr. Doman's work focuses primarily on brain-injured children, but there are implications for well children too. Just curious to know your thoughts.

Thank you for all that you do to advance the literacy skills of our children. I really enjoy and learn from your blog.

Ann Kay
Oct 26, 2019 05:25 PM

Thank you for including singing and chanting in your suggestions! Singing and moving are natural human behaviors that not only enhance the brain's development...they're fun! Recent research has found:

• Music and language overlap in the brain, sometimes utilizing the same neural networks.
• Music-making enhances auditory processing, correlated with higher reading achievement.
• Ability to keep a steady beat is highly correlated with reading achievement.
• Dyslexia includes a rhythmic processing problem in the brain that can be helped greatly with steady beat activities.
• Music-making is correlated with increased reading abilities.
• Pitch awareness is correlated with phonemic awareness and reading achievement.
• Prosody (melody of language) is correlated with reading comprehension.
• Repeated reading improves comprehension.
• Eyes automatically track timed same-language subtitles in music videos, causing inescapable reading behavior.
• Singing songs with same-language-subtitled music videos (words light up as they are sung) dramatically increases literacy.

For links to the research studies: http://www.lifelongmusicmaking.eventwebsitebuilder.com/page/edit_single_page/9094159.htm

Ann Kay
Oct 26, 2019 06:00 PM

Oops...the link above was wrong. Here is the correct link to a bibliography of research studies:
https://www.lifelongmusicmaking.org/research-studies.html

Scott
Oct 26, 2019 06:16 PM

No one who knows how to teach phonemic awareness and the phonics sequences disputes anything regarding read alouds and lots of talk, be it big or small. That’s just not a valid criticism, ever. Tim has written about this as well. Neither is anyone who teaches phonics slavishly committed to sitting kids in rows or any of that other stuff. I’ve quite literally never once seen this written or advocated aloud. Lots of phonics teachers advocate reading decodable text of all kinds, which would by definition include poems containing the phonemic and/or phonetic components being taught and learned, tho as Tim pointed out last week, no need to be slavish to them only. For the life of me, I cannot understand the need to attribute baseless falsehoods - at best, purely anecdotal instances - in attempts to somehow abase evidence-informed practice. Such recurring tautological broadsides must be intentional. I cannot think of any other reason for them.

Julie
Oct 26, 2019 07:06 PM

I love this. Our three-year-old granddaughter takes a stack of post it notes, picks up a pencil, and “writes” us notes and leaves them around the house. They want to do what they see the adults do. There is nothing wrong with taking advantage of these interests when they show them to us.

Harriett
Oct 26, 2019 07:35 PM

Great advice for home: If you are a parent or caregiver, start introducing your children to literacy once they are born—reading to them, talking to them, singing to them, showing them how to write their names, writing down their stories, teaching the alphabet and letter sounds, playing with language sounds (e.g., “K-K-K-Katie”), and so on.

And for school: Developmental appropriateness has more to do with how we might teach something successfully than with what we teach. Keeping lessons brief and lively makes great sense with young children (and it doesn’t hurt the older ones either). Teaching phonemic awareness with songs and chants is a great idea, and it can be fun to play games built around letters and sounds. Introducing reading and writing through play areas set up like post offices, restaurants, libraries, and the like are all developmentally appropriate for the youngest of our preschoolers.

I would just specify that the importance of child-directed speech at home as it relates to future reading is beautifully illustrated in this 20-minute TED Talk by cognitive psychologist Anne Fernald https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IpHwJyjm7rM&t=12s, and the importance of invented spelling in kindergarten as a precursor to first grade reading ability is laid out by Ouellette and Senechal in this research article: Invented Spelling in Kindergarten as a Predictor of Reading and Spelling in Grade 1: A New Pathway to Literacy, or Just the Same Road, Less Known? https://www.researchgate.net/publication/308036659_Invented_Spelling_in_Kindergarten_as_a_Predictor_of_Reading_and_Spelling_in_Grade_1_A_New_Pathway_to_Literacy_or_Just_the_Same_Road_Less_Known

Which all means that "teaching reading" doesn't just mean plopping down kids in front of a book--in rows or otherwise.

Sam Bommarito
Oct 26, 2019 09:05 PM

Ann Kay thanks for the reminder about music. Eric Litwn among others has some wonderful "book songs". He is currently writing a book about the joyful teaching of reading. I'm very much aware that Dr. Shanahan supports fluency. He supports the idea of equal parts fluency, comp, writing and phonics. Too often fluency is a neglected stepchild. Dr. Tim Rasinski's work is helping to change that.

Donald Potter
Oct 27, 2019 12:32 AM

I teach prekindergarten kids to recognize all 26 letters of the alphabet with a tapping exercise, flashcards, and handwriting. I teach 43 speech sounds with the Phonovisual Charts and Cards. We do this daily for 15 to 30 minutes. Most are starting to sound out simple short vowel words before kindergarten. With this strong start, kindergarten is a breeze, with most students reading on a first grade level by the end of kindergarten. I also spend a few minutes reading high interest stories and asking some simple comprehension questions. This kind of work cannot be started too early.

Susan O'Dell
Oct 27, 2019 01:14 AM

Your blog reinforces the idea that learning a language is natural and that learning to read is not and that we should take advantage of the many opportunities we have in early childhood to teach literacy. It also makes me wonder about English Learners—is your advice the same? There is argument that English Learners need to have a certain level of proficiency prior to being taught how to read and write. Thoughts?

Katy Parkinson
Oct 27, 2019 07:36 AM

Thank you for your blog. I enjoyed reading it. Great information presented in a way that is easy to understand. I like that. I particularly liked the paragraph-
"Reading development certainly does depend upon vocabulary, but there is much more to learning reading ... Just because youngsters learn spoken words really fast, doesn’t mean that they are able to perceive the sounds within words (phonological awareness), or that they'll be able to master the "names and sounds" of the letters (the beginnings of decoding) especially easily."

I would love to hear your answer to a question I ask many people here in the UK but also in America and in English speaking International schools and that is, why do we teach letter names ? Letter names in my opinion (apart from the vowel names) have no value. We do not need to use them when attempting to read or spell. We use the names only because we are expected to and for no other reason. Imagine you are a young child who has weakness in phonological skill trying to make sense of the letter sounds and how they are used to build words and just as you are beginning to make sense of them you are expected to spell using the letter names.

(Could this be a reason why in English speaking countries we have a high incidence of dyslexia? Just a thought!)

Teach the names never made sense to me and that's why we, at Sound Training, practise singing and chanting letter sounds, set to the tune of Old MacDonald. This works for my primary and secondary school students as well as adult learners I work with who, because of weakness in literacy, find themselves furthest away from the labour market with many sadly ending up in UK prisons and Floridian jails.
Learning to read and spell in English is hard enough without having to learn letter names especially if they are not needed.
So my question to you is "Why do we teach letter names?" I would love to hear your thoughts.

CW
Oct 27, 2019 09:25 PM

In order for me to comprehend an article such as this, it would have to be written with no grammatical or typographical errors. Please make sure this is a part of your practice as well. I found a few places where it was difficult for me to understand what you were trying to convey.

Harriett
Oct 27, 2019 10:44 PM

I'm intrigued. There are 1,173 words, and I found the following mistakes, non of which impeded my comprehension:

"there is no" is written twice
problme instead of problem
student instead of students

What have I missed?

Posie Boggs
Oct 28, 2019 01:03 PM

Thank you for your lovely answer. The links in the below demonstrate how early reading subskills, phonological and
phonemic awareness, orthographic mapping, and oral language might be provided.
This is a reply I made about a claim that blending as the first phonemic awareness task needed to teach reading.
"imo blending is a late phonemic skill. I would like to consider that phonological and phonemic awareness start in infancy and babbling. If we consider the work of Patricia Kuhl here https://youtu.be/G2XBIkHW954

and the work on Event Related Porentials (ERP) from van Zuijen it seems logical that we have an opportunity to set the stage for blending. (Developmental Science / Volume 16, Issue 4
Infant ERPs separate children at risk of dyslexia who become good readers from
those who become poor readers
Titia L. van Zuijen ?, Anna Plakas, Ben A.M. Maassen, Natasha M. Maurits, Aryan van der Leij
First published: 19 March 2013
https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12049)

Dr. Kuhl's video demonstrates, imo the very beginnings of PA and van Zuijen's work brings excellent even earlier objective metrics to the table.

I think for the absolutely important orthographic mapping we can dip into the very early visual cortex and the automatic recognition areas of neuronal recycling that per Dehaene is co-opted to become our visual word form area or lovely letterbox.

The below video with M and W is a fabulous example of just how early this skill can be leveraged.

So, imo we are missing these opportunities to lay an even earlier PA base that could be very powerful in attaining the subskills required for reading.

https://t.co/AhOvViWGNz
(https://twitter.com/Brink_Thinker/status/1177676692791402500?s=09)

And then look at this way cool video for oral language along side the sound system.

https://www.facebook.com/AFROPUNK/videos/2532566536778128/
????????"

Timothy Shanahan
Oct 28, 2019 11:14 PM

Thanks, Harriet. Fixed them. appreciate the help.

Timothy Shanahan
Oct 28, 2019 11:18 PM

Renee--

I do know Glenn Doman's work... that was very hot when I was in graduate school. I definitely agreed with his notions that severely disabled readers could learn to read and that we could teach children earlier than we were at the time. However, his theories of neural development and his pedagogical approaches have not done well.

tim

Timothy Shanahan
Oct 28, 2019 11:20 PM

Susan--

My advice for second-language students is the same, but I would suggest that take place in their home language.

tim

Timothy Shanahan
Oct 28, 2019 11:22 PM

Katie--

Here is a blog that I wrote explaining the benefits of letter names: https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/letter-teaching-in-kindergarten

tim

Michael D Buckley
Oct 31, 2019 02:09 AM

The reason for starting early isn’t to capture some magic window of neuronal plasticity, but to make the window as big as possible. If teaching early identifies a youngster who struggles to learn reading, then we will have more years to address this youngster’s needs. The later we wait, the smaller that window of opportunity. We want kids to have the maximum opportunity to learn.

After reading this section from your article I had a question. How early are you suggesting to identify a youngster who struggles to learn reading? What is your definition of "struggle"?

Ken Thornton
Nov 15, 2019 05:15 AM

Thank you for all your work in this field.
I could read before school, and passed this on to my children. I explored picture books, explaining, reading aloud, building vocabulary and sounding out letters and my first two could read before school. When the third one came along, I was ready and started when he was 12 months. At 3 years 3 months his reading/comprehension was professionally assessed as 11/10 (in UK), and he went on to get a degree in English. Since then I've taught several kids; more importantly, shown many parents. The technique is to teach within an interesting context using a shared (not family-specific) vocabulary, and for most pre-schoolers that means food. I currently live in the USA and have been exposed to quite shocking levels of adult illiteracy. Now I'm retired and still passionate about early reading. I have 100 eBooks on Amazon and am working on translations and an app.

Rosalie
Nov 16, 2019 08:38 PM

Teachers are deciding 5 year olds are just not ready to learn to read but like you I disagree. The current method used to teach chn to read in NZ is making learning to read as difficult as possible...osmosis. 65% of our population will learn...who knows for how long using a more difficult system. I believe using a streamlined approach to fluency specifically that devised by Dr Marnie Ginsberg - Reading Simplified is where we should begin.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *
Name*
Email*
Website
Comments

When should reading instruction begin?

22 comments

One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.