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At What Age Should Your Child Learn To Read? Here’s What The Research Says.

By: Emilia Pastor

One of the challenging parts of working with schools is when children are flagged as struggling with reading, and they are already over the age of seven. Why? Because there are early markers for struggling readers and with the correct early interventions, these children do not need to struggle at all.

Research shows us that the later a reading intervention is put in place, the longer and harder it is to correct the problem. (Francis, Shaywitz, Stuebing, Shaywitz, and Fletcher, 1996; Juel, 1988; Shaywitz et al., 1999; Torgesen and Burgess, 1998).

A Solid Reading Program

Let me be clear, a good reading program does not teach children to be fluent readers by the age of four, and children shouldn't be pushed to be fluent readers when they are not ready. A solid reading program starts with the foundations of reading, which include identifying the names and sounds of letters, and being able to distinguish between similar sounds (“Which of these words rhymes with ‘cat?”’ or “What happens to the word ‘Sam’ when you take the “sss“ sound away?’).

If teachers and parents monitor the progress of specific early reading indicators, they can also identify when children struggle with these indicators. These indicators are extremely predictive of which children will need some specialized help with reading or risk facing reading difficulties for years to come.


The good news is that these children do not need to struggle

because early interventions address the issue before it

becomes an academic problem

(Torgesen, 2004).

There are schools of thought that argue for and against children learning to read at a certain age. However, it is unlikely that any educational system would argue against the foundations of reading which include: building rich vocabularies (ideally through play, books, experiences, etc), identifying letters, and rhyming words (also through play, books, experiences).

Children in preschool and kindergarten are at an age when they can develop phonemic awareness, i.e. recognition that a symbol, such as a letter, corresponds to a specific sound. And for children who aren’t able to make these sound-symbol connections, there are specific reading interventions that work especially well at this age.

This is what we, in education, sometimes refer to as “the golden window” because interventions do not have to be in place for very long in order to see results. There is no need to 'wait for failure' before putting the appropriate supports in place. “Nothing in reading acquisition is more important than beginning systematic, targeted intervention as early as possible.” (Wolf, 2018)

Here in France, the national curriculum requires teachers in maternelle (preschool and kindergarten) to use these researched foundational reading strategies in their classroom. However, catching pre-reading difficulties can be tricky since not all teachers consistently report on reading skill deficits before a child starts first grade or cours préparatoire (CP)*.

By the beginning of CP, most children are six years old, and by the end of CP many children are seven - which is several years after the first signs of difficulties could have been identified.

If a teacher waits for a child to complete CP before noting any reading difficulties, they are also exponentially increasing the amount of time it will take to address those reading issues. And as many parents have experienced, reading difficulty is almost always accompanied by anxiety and other mental health issues because children are visibly struggling in an area where their peers are not (Wolf, 2018).

Finding A Solution

So, what is the solution? If you are a teacher, then keeping track of pre-reading benchmarks and communicating them with parents is key. Inform parents any time a child shows signs of not meeting a benchmark so they can also monitor and be prepared to seek a specialist if necessary. If you are a parent, especially the parent of a toddler or preschooler, then stay informed on pre-reading and the foundations of reading benchmarks so you can practice and monitor them at home. If you notice your 4-year-old is struggling with remembering the sounds of letters, for example, you do not need to wait for your child to fall behind at school to start investigating whether they need some extra help. The earlier you intervene, the shorter the time the intervention will last.

There are reading specialists in Paris who can help diagnose, and directly address, reading issues. There are also licensed English-speaking psychologists who conduct official evaluations of reading difficulties. Most English-speaking psychologists in France are not reading specialists themselves, but they are qualified to give the assessments and make recommendations. The SPRINT website is a good place to start when looking for an English-speaking reading specialist (sometimes they identify as dyslexia specialists).

In France, orthophonistes, or speech pathologists, are the designated professionals who diagnose and address reading issues. Their service is at their office and not a service that will come to a school.

Please note that there are also many well-meaning educators who want to help but might not be trained in the specific science of reading difficulties. So before you hire a “tutor” to help your child with learning difficulties, be selective about the qualifications you need and ask about benchmarks for measuring success.

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The Big Takeaways:

  • It takes four times longer to address a reading problem in fourth grade than it does in kindergarten (NICHD).

  • By age 3 you can begin to identify deficits in phonological awareness, rapid automatized naming, verbal working memory and letter knowledge (Gaab, 2017).

  • You do not need to wait for children to fail. Struggling readers can be identified before age 5 (Gaab, 2017).

  • Struggling readers who do not receive early intervention will almost certainly fall behind (Stanovich, 1986).

  • A reading specialist can provide early interventions that will transform a child’s life (like glasses for someone who can’t see well).

*This is not an issue unique to France.


About the author:

Emilia Pastor is co-founder of School Partners, a private organization that provides professional development, instructional coaching, and school leadership coaching for educators in and out of schools in the Paris area.


Further Reading:

All images by Wix unless otherwise noted. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of Message.

1 Comment

Kat Moioli
Kat Moioli
Oct 13, 2022

Excellent and interesting article. Thank you!

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