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Best Age for Starting Reading—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie, What is the proper age to introduce letter names and phonics to a child? I don’t want my daughter to be behind when she gets to school.

She is only thirteen-months-old but I’m getting pressured from friends and relatives who gave her birthday presents such as alphabet books, alphabet blocks, and a handheld video game with dancing letters.

When to Start?

Dear WtS,
Don’t be in too much of a hurry. Although you can find toys, games, and other materials designed to help babies learn the alphabet and start to read, there is no reason to rush. The debate around teaching babies to read from flash cards and videos has quieted following a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission against a company for making false claims  about such products.

At the other end of the age range, the Waldorf Education philosophy is to wait until at least the age of seven to introduce the alphabet. Before then, Waldorf students get a foundation in stories (told by the adults and the children), make believe, creative visual expression, social relationships, and exploring nature. The Waldorf method is based on the pedagogy espoused by Friedrich Froeble (1782-1852), namely that, “children must master the language of things before they master the language of words.” The concern is that if a child is taught to sound out letters or memorize the shapes of different words, she may not actually be comprehending what she is reading. Actually Finland, an international leader in education and adult literacy, also waits until age seven for teaching reading. A study in New Zealand published by the Early Childhood Research Review found that whether a child learned the names and sounds of letters at age five or age seven, “any difference in reading skill disappeared by age 11.”

Brain science and continued research on reading instruction and reading proficiency suggest that real-world experiences and a child’s normal maturation process play important roles in readiness for reading. Rather than teaching her that a duck is spelled d-u-c-k, find a place where the two of you can watch one as it paddles, waddles, and flies. A few years from now when your daughter can sound out these letters in a book, a story about a duck will have more meaning for her. For now, the appeal of the alphabet blocks may be for you to stack a few up and let her knock them down. The pleasure of ABC books, or any board books with simple illustrations, will be for her to hear the sound of your voice while nestled in your arms. Repeat these loving interactions with your daughter as many times as she likes. The video game could similarly be used by the two of you as a playtime activity, with the caveat that any use of “screen time” for children under the age of two is frowned up by early childhood education professionals.

There’s no harm in naming the letters on her blocks or in her books, but you might as well also be talking about other features, such as the colors of the blocks and the pictures in the books. Talking, singing, and playing with your child are all excellent brain boosters. Dan Gartrell, Professor Emeritus, Bemidji State University, summarizes the view of contemporary experts about what a child should be experiencing before school age, “The best predictor of children’s success in school and life is a brain that develops in healthy ways, as a result of their attachments with their family, and especially their parents.”

Dr. Debbie

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