When Should Kids Learn to Read?

“When should kids learn to read?” As a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, this is one of the most common questions I hear from parents.

Have you been wondering whether you should already start letter-a-week activities? Or print out that worksheet collection from the internet?

If so, you’re in the right place. In this article, we’ll talk about when your child should be hitting those reading milestones. You’ll also learn what you can do to prepare your child for reading.

What skills should toddlers already have before they can learn to read?

Before a child can truly learn to read, they must already have a good grasp of verbal language.

That’s why one of the best things you can do to prepare your child for reading is to help them develop language skills – both speaking and understanding. To learn more about this, read our essential guide to your toddler’s language development.

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Occasionally, we do encounter children who learn to read even before they learn to talk. If that is the case, it’s best to bring this up with your pediatrician or a developmental pediatrician. This a red flag sign for possible developmental problems. Your child may benefit from their guidance on how to support their unique skills.

We’ve also found that in some kids, early reading masks the signs of language delay. An example of this is a two-year-old who can read nursery rhymes from a book, but cannot have an interactive conversation with another person. They may end up getting intervention later than what is ideal. That’s why developmental screening is recommended for all children during the early years.

Before kids learn to read, they should also understand that print carries meaning. They need to know that letters of the alphabet are different from pictures, or from random marks.

Kids also need to understand how books work. For example, in Western languages such as English, print is read from left to right. Books have a cover and we turn the pages one by one.

Reading in early childhood is more about interaction with a parent or caregiver.

We take these things for granted, but they are important to understand! That’s why it’s a great idea to start reading with your kids, even when they are babies. While it’s too early for babies and toddlers to have formal reading instruction, you can and should read with them regularly.

When should kids learn to read?

Reading milestones and when we expect kids to learn them

“Reading” is not just made up of one skill. It’s actually many different skills put together!

What some call “reading” may be the ability to recognize letters of the alphabet, or the ability to decode words. However, true reading is the ability to comprehend what you read, well enough to be able to summarize the main ideas.

Reading can bring your child a lifetime of learning and enjoyment! Help your child learn to love reading, by introducing it in a way that respects their developmental level.

On the path to achieving this, there are many milestones along the way. Don’t take these milestones for granted. These are very important wins that you should recognize! If you look at this list, you’ll probably be pleased to know that your child is actually hitting many of them.

3 years old

  • recognizes a book by its cover
  • pretends to read books
  • understands that books are handled in certain ways
  • may begin paying attention to print such as letters and numbers

That’s it! Contrary to popular belief, three-year-old children don’t need to recognize CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words such as “cat” or “bag”, or write their names, or any of a number of stressful expectations.

5 years old

  • recognize print on signs, boxes, and many other places
  • know that each letter of the alphabet has a name
  • names most (not all!) letters of the alphabet

In early childhood, the following are the signs that a child might be at risk for a reading disorder. As you can see, these are all related to verbal language skills, rather than actually recognizing words in print.

  • speech or language delay
  • problems forming words correctly
  • difficulty learning rhymes or appreciating rhyming sounds

If you have any concerns about your child’s reading skills, the best thing to do is to speak with your pediatrician or consult a developmental pediatrician. They can refer to a trained and licensed reading specialist if needed.

When should kids learn to read

Five ways to prepare your toddler for reading

There are many things you can do help prepare your child for reading! Here are 5 easy things that you can do every day. So when the time comes that your child really needs to learn to read, they’re ready and excited.⁠

1. Talk with your child.

Interactive language skills are one of the most important skills that toddlers need to learn. Whatever your child’s language level is, have back and forth conversations with them. ⁠

Even young toddlers who don’t have many words can do this! It’s the connection and interaction that are important.

If you think your child has a reading problem, you should speak with your pediatrician or with a developmental pediatrician. Depending on their diagnosis, they can refer to licensed & trained reading specialists if needed. ⁠

Unless your doctor recommends it, don’t go around enrolling in one “enrichment class” after another. They may only stress you out, without helping your child at all.⁠

2. Read board books or picture books together.

It’s too early for reading lessons, but it’s never too early to enjoy and read books together! Research shows that children’s language skills benefit from reading with parents and caregivers, beginning at about six months old or even earlier. 

mom reading with child showing importance of reading to young kids
Having fun while reading books together is one of the best ways to prepare your child for reading.

3. Allow your child to explore books.

Let your child turn the pages, look at the pictures, and ask questions.

Recommended reading: How to read to your toddler, and what to expect

4. Recite or sing nursery rhymes.

Rhyming is a great way to develop awareness of different sounds. This awareness of sounds is an important building block for learning to read.⁠

5. Once your child turns three, teach about print and letters.

Point out words and letters everywhere, as you do your daily activities. Point out words on cereal boxes, labels, signs, and book covers. Your child will enjoy this too, and you’ll see that

Play fun alphabet games.⁠ Form letters with clay or Play Doh. Have your child point to things starting with a certain letter.

At this age, you may start “letter a day” or “letter a week activities”. But just have fun with these, and point them out as you go along. There’s no need to go overboard preparing for activities.

Prepare your child not just for reading, but for the skills they need in all domains of development. Click here and get our free guide to fun toddler learning activities.

I’m worried about my child’s reading skills. What should I do?

If you’re worried about your child’s reading skills, the best thing to do is to speak with your pediatrician, or to consult a developmental and behavioral pediatrician. They can refer you to a trained and licensed reading specialist, or to other specialists as needed.

It may be tempting to just buy a reading program off the internet, or to enroll in reading enrichment classes. But if you are worried that your child might have a reading disorder, it’s important to get an assessment.

In my clinic, I’ve had many patients that I see in fourth or fifth grade, or even later. They (and their parents) are in tears because they’ve been struggling for years. They’ve had multiple tutors, programs and enrichment classes. They’ve been “trying harder” for years – only to find out that they have a reading disorder.

If a child has a reading disorder, we want to make sure they receive a diagnosis and intervention early on. Check this article to learn more about possible signs of a reading disorder.

Reading and Young Kids

As clinical psychologist and learning and parenting expert Dr. Queena Lee-Chua says, “During the toddler years, reading is not the priority.”

Recommended Reading: Six Ways to Set Up Your Toddler for Success

Have fun reading. Let them naturally discover a love of learning.

Reading opens a wonderful world of exploration for your child! Early on, let’s help them realize that reading is fun, and not a source of stress and pressure.

In this article, we talked about when kids should learn to read, and what are the skills they develop along the way when learning to read. We also talked about ways you can prepare your child for reading. So that when they’re the right age for formal reading lessons, they’re ready and eager!

Remember, child development is not a contest. Some kids learn to read early, some later. Even among famous and successful people in the world, some learned to read early, and some struggled with reading all their lives.

Reading is one of the most pleasurable skills anyone can develop. Many of my best childhood memories are those curled up in a book, lost in an amazing world. Once a child has mastered this, it opens up worlds to them. We want reading to be something that is happy for them, and not associated with stress and tension.

About the author: Dr. Victoria Nolasco is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, university lecturer in pediatrics and psychology, and mom of a young child. Her passion is to help parents achieve happy, confident and effective parenting in early childhood, based on the principles of child developmental science.

Want easy, no-prep toddler activities that actually work?

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A FREE guide brought to you by a developmental and behavioral pediatrician and toddler mom.
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