If you didn’t catch the sarcasm in this title, this post is for you!
I don’t mean this to be rude—it’s just that with the advent of Baby Reading videos and the cutthroat path of getting your kid accepted to kindergarten, parents start worrying that Johnny and Jane aren’t reading WAY too early these days. And I don’t say this because I don’t believe in teaching little kids to read… all of my posts on reading should tell you that. But I say this because I now have six-, five-, and almost four-year old in the house (all boys) and they are at very different stages in the educational arena. A six year old is not a five year old, is not a four year old. So everyone who is running around trying to get their four year old to be “kindergarten ready” may not fully appreciate the nuances.
I myself used to think that there were more commonalities between four- five- and six-year olds. I certainly knew they were different ages but I thought the early ages of 0, 1, 2, and 3 were more distinct. I think this was probably reinforced by the idea of “early education” or “early child development” which usually refers to the ages 3 and under. You see dramatic differences in your child, especially physically and verbally, from 0-3, but then once kids reach the age of four, they start to even out. Most are talking and running around the playground pretty equally with kindergarten kids, so you start to think they’re the same. Then when your kindergarten neighbor boasts that she can read “Blueberries for Sal” all by herself, you think, “Eek! Jane is still not blending two sounds together!” And you start to worry.
I am going to tell you the real truth here. The thing no-one seems to be telling you these days is that four-years old IS the time of learning to blend. As long as your three-year old knows all her letters and sounds by her fourth birthday, you are on track. A four year old should be able to start fooling around with worksheets that utilize letter sound activities in different ways: initial consonants, ending consonants, short vowel sounds in the middle, etc. He or she will probably recognize her name and some common three-letter words. She may be able to spell three letter words verbally if you are emphatic—“spell WET. WWEhhT.” He may sound out three-letter words on the page with help but not on his own yet. This is totally normal. So is being able to read a word in one book (i.e. “help”) but not the same word in another book. This is probably because the brain is still encoding what “help” really looks like. Or the font is different enough to throw the child off. So patience during this fourth year is the key. The ability to blend the sounds together develops some time during this fourth year so that by the time the child reaches their fifth birthday, they will probably be reading three letter words all on their own if you just keep doing what you’re doing. And if they are not, another six months (5.5yrs) will probably yield a Dr. Seuss reader (three to five-letter phonetic words all at once).
If you are still doubtful, consider why kindergarten magically begins at age 5. Kids seem ready for it way before, right? Part of the reason why kindergarten begins at age 5 is because age 5 is the normal time for kids to learn to read on their own. And if a child is five-and-a-half before he enters kindergarten, he is actually at an advantage… the four-and-a-half year old who is sad because her birthday doesn’t make the cutoff will actually grow a significant amount in just one more year. A handful of two and three year olds can read before they turn four, but that is uncommon. Don’t take that as your guideline, even with all the pressure to do so.
At four years old, your child should also be developing SOME writing abilities. Now when I say “some,” this is relative. Some four year olds are very detail-oriented with fine motor talents. They can write uppercase and lowercase letters pretty well. Other four year olds are still using the salt tray to trace big capitals with their pointer finger. This is still ok. Or they may be able to draw a huge “A” with chalk but not on paper. With practice, this should change around the fifth birthday–a five year old should be writing his letters on paper even though the size and spacing is probably all off and some letters will be reversed on occasion. Remember the handwriting in Winnie-the-Pooh? Where “WOL” is scratched over Owl’s doorpost? That is the kind of handwriting your five-year-old will probably have for awhile. Handwriting develops a lot in the fourth and fifth year.
S o just keep practicing. What you’re really looking for is “correct” handwriting by the sixth birthday. If your child enters first grade still not being able to print the letters right (and print on the line, with spacing, etc), he or she will be just slightly behind. A six year old’s handwriting will still need work, though. Penmanship (manuscript) should begin in the fifth year and continue onto the sixth to make sure that your child is forming the letters correctly. Until this is mastered, hopefully by age seven, they are not ready for cursive (typically around 8 yrs old). While there is not as much pressure for kids to write as early as they read, the pressure is still there—with cursive instruction sometimes being pushed in first or second grade. In the old days, seven and eight year olds were still practicing proper pencil grip, paper position, and penstrokes in mid-air. And the handwriting benefited. So don’t succumb to perfect writing Nazis too early either.
**Note: So many people have asked me about Teaching Your Baby to Read videos. While I don’t discourage them directly (anything educational for babies is fine), I don’t believe in them either. I have never seen a baby reading—no point anyway since they can’t talk about it. So I don’t think the results of baby videos are real reading. Nor do I think they are healthy to expect. Not only should babies be developing other things rather than reading during the infant stage, parents shouldn’t have hyper-educational expectations that early. The one on one interaction time is great, the memory and sight-recognition is great. But until I see a baby reading Dr. Seuss, I remain highly certain that real reading should and will take place sometime between four and six years old regardless of baby videos.