Updated: Apr 4
The Family Resource Center Library contains an abundance of materials to help children learn to read. Parents and caregivers often ask about when they should begin systematically introducing the alphabet to their young children.
If you are anything like me, you are thinking, “Just tell me an age! When they are two? Three? Four? I don’t have time for an entire blog on the subject!” Ah, if it could only be that simple.
In order to sketch this timeline, we must first distinguish between Critical and Sensitive Periods. Neuroscientists study Critical Periods, which represent the only, exclusive, and singular timeframe for acquiring a particular skill. For example, speech acquisition occurs during a Critical Period; children require exposure in their young years, prior to puberty, to gain the ability to communicate.
No Critical Period exists for writing and reading; yet, the abilities flourish during a Sensitive Period. Dr. Maria Montessori applied the term “Sensitive Periods” to ideal (but not exclusive) windows of opportunity for certain types of learning. We know that older children and adults can learn to read and write; still, they may need to work harder and receive more support than they would have during their Sensitive Period. Which brings us back to our initial question: when is this Sensitive Period, or the optimal age, during which we begin systematically teaching children to read?
Usually, children become ready for learning the letters of the alphabet at the age of three and a half. However, some might absorb letter sounds at the age of two; still others might not feel ready for such information until much later. The Sensitive Period for language culminates around seven.
Teaching reading is as much an art as it is a science. An important part of teaching (and parenting) is knowing when a child is ready and excited for that next lesson or challenge. We all know the parents whose precocious young Susie memorized her letters in the womb; however, let us dispense with the impulse to compare children and instead consider the precious person in front of us: what do they need? What are they ready for? If we push too much to soon, it could backfire.
In practical terms, rather than whipping out flash cards in celebration of your child’s third birthday, notice the following prerequisites to learning letters.
How do you know when a child is ready to begin learning letter sounds?
They have accomplished extensive fine motor practice.
They have extensive experience with books.
They can discern between shapes and colors.
They can concentrate on the task at hand, at least for a little while.
They demonstrate an interest in learning about letters.
We describe the moment when a child “learned to talk” or “learned to walk,” as if this miraculous event occurred in the space of a day. After pausing to consider this notion more seriously, we realize that this common conversation fundamentally misrepresents their development, which, in reality, begins in utero. The incredible outward manifestation of this growth appears only after constant and concentrated cultivation. We notice and celebrate the tremulous first step, but think of the strengthening and preparation necessitated to transform from a tiny, immobile infant to a toddling youngster. Similarly, the act of reading one’s first word required years of internalization. We have the wonderful privilege of happily witnessing and participating in the slow and wondrous unfolding of a child’s abilities.
In Sum: Children are generally ready for systematic reading instruction, beginning with learning the letters and sounds of the alphabet, at around age three. However, learning to read occurs during a Sensitive rather than Critical Period. Notice the needs and interests of the child in front of you. Begin teaching the alphabet after extensive fine motor practice and book exploration and when they can discern shapes/colors, concentrate, and show an interest in letters.