When do kids learn to read?

It may not be until kindergarten that kids start to decode words; in the meantime, here are some ideas for developing early reading skills.

Learning Stages

By Carolyn James, Ph.D.

LeapFrog Literacy Expert

As the literacy development expert on LeapFrog’s Learning Team, Carolyn ensures that the curricular design in LeapFrog products is grounded in the latest educational research. Before joining LeapFrog, Carolyn was a reading professor at Sacramento State University, a curriculum developer for the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, and a teacher in the San Francisco bay area. She earned her doctorate in educational psychology at Michigan State University.

What age is recommended for a child to start reading? Some say [when] they are 3+, others say when they are in first grade. —Lucrecia C., via Facebook

Although children start building the foundation for reading from birth, I’ll preface my answer by defining “reading” as the process of decoding symbols (letters) in order to make meaning from print.

Learning to read has several stages, beginning with learning the names of the symbols (letters) and how they map to the 40+ sounds of the English language. Eventually, children learn to put together letters and sounds to read words and sentences. Most of us consider children to be "reading" when they can decode, or sound out, new words on their own.

For many children, this stage begins in kindergarten. There are, of course, exceptions, but it’s not necessary to push kids into reading any earlier than they’re ready. Scientific studies have shown that there are a number of skills that, when developed in young children, can contribute to later success with reading and writing.

Before you worry about teaching your child to sound out words or memorize words by sight, try these ideas for developing early reading skills.

Alphabet Knowledge

Play letter games to boost your child's ability to name letters and the sounds they make:

  • Sing the Alphabet Song. The number of versions on iTunes alone is testament to its enduring appeal. Have fun singing this familiar tune with different tempos or silly voices (monster voice, tiny mouse voice, robot voice).
  • Hunt for environmental print. Start a game of I-Spy and have your child search for letters prominently displayed on signs, posters, billboards, and cereal boxes.
  • Play with alphabet letters. Pull out the magnets, blocks, puzzles, whatever you have, and name the letters, eventually having your child identify the letter names on his own. It’s usually best to introduce letters in alphabetical order, or start with the letters in your child’s name. Uppercase letters are often introduced first because they can be easier to tell apart, but lowercase letters show up more in print—a good reason to include them in your games. Also, help your child match the letters with the sounds they make, along with a familiar word that contains the letter sound.

Phonological Awareness

Play word and rhyming games to increase your child's ability to hear and manipulate the sounds of spoken language:

  • Introduce nursery rhymes and sing-along games. Recite nursery rhymes, play the name game (Mason, Mason, bo bason, bananafana…), check out children’s sing-along CDs at the local library, and spark your child’s delight in the sounds of language.
  • Enjoy rhyming books. Read aloud and pause at opportune spots, encouraging your child to join in on the rhyme.
  • Go on a treasure hunt. Help your child search for items in your home that rhyme, or start with the same sound.
  • Tune your child’s ears to the rhythm of music. Clap or dance to the beat, or tweak lyrics by substituting new rhyming words, even silly ones. Music provides plenty of natural opportunities for children to appreciate and manipulate the sounds of language.

Rapid Naming

Take advantage of a child's love to race! The ability to quickly name random series of letters, numbers, colors or objects has been linked to reading ability.

  • Play beat-the-clock. Open a book or magazine and have your child point to, and name, as many letters, numbers, objects, or colors as she can in 30 seconds.
  • Put a new twist on Slap Jack. As in the original version of the game, a deck of cards is divided equally between two players, with the stacks facedown. One at a time, each player places the top card of her pile faceup in the center of the table, but in this version of the game, the first player to name the number on the top card wins the pile and adds these cards to his own pile. If both players name the number at the same time, neither player gets the pile, and the game continues. Play continues until a player has won all of the cards. Other versions can be played with cards from games such as Memory or Old Maid.

Phonological Memory

Use your read-aloud time to increase your child's ability to remember spoken information for a short period of time:

  • Read it again…and again. When your child asks for repeated readings of the same book, rejoice! While you may tire of the storyline, your child is gradually memorizing the text and enhancing her listening comprehension. Eventually, you can encourage your child to “read” the story to you, using what she’s memorized to retell the tale. You can also have your child retell the story using puppets, or by simply acting it out. Books with predictable, repetitive storylines are a good place to start.
  • Read and discuss. While younger children benefit from fewer interruptions during reading in order to maintain attention, occasionally ask your child questions about the story and illustrations. Sometimes, repeat your child’s response. Other times, expand on what he has said, or make your own responses. This provides your child with a model of how to talk about books and enhances his ability to remember what he’s heard.
  • Make up listening games. Implement a version of Simon Says, with one, then two, then three or more verbal instructions to follow (Simon Says, touch your nose; Simon says touch your nose, then jump. Simon Says touch your nose, then jump, then turn around).


Writing Letters

Encourage your child to write letters in isolation and learn to write his own name: 

  • Paint with water. Grab a bowl of water and a couple of paint brushes or sponges and “paint” letters on the sidewalk or on a wooden fence.
  • Scribble in the sand. Use fingers or small sticks to draw letters in the sand.

As you can see, there are plenty of foundational skills very young children can build that will contribute to their future reading success. It’s important to nurture these skills early on and avoid the temptation to jump into formal reading instruction before your child is motivated to do so.