Learning to read is a major milestone in a child's life, and it takes time and patience for kids to get to the point where they're cruising through books on their own. Given how important reading is to everyday life, though, it makes sense for parents to want to do what they can to move the process along.
So when should kids learn to read, and how much should parents do to help? Doctors say that there is a range of ages at which kids start reading — and that parents shouldn't stress about this too much early on. "I have parents who are concerned when their kid is not reading books at 4. Your kid is 4," Dr. Gina Posner, a board-certified pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. But, she says, there are things parents can do to encourage a love of reading in kids, along with helping them learn the life skill.
Here's what major medical organizations say about when kids should learn to read, plus what parents can do to help.
What does the research say?
Most children learn to read by the time they're 6 or 7, but some learn when they're 4 or 5, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP stresses that even if kids have a head start on reading, they may not stay ahead once school starts — and other students will likely catch up by the second or third grade.
In fact, the AAP cautions against pushing children to read before they're ready. This, the organization says, can get in the way of a child's interest in learning.
Research has shown that reading to kids from birth can have an impact on helping them learn to read. One study recruited more than 250 pairs of mothers and their babies (who were between the ages of 6 months and 4.5 years). The researchers analyzed data on how often the pairs did shared reading and how well the babies could understand words when they got older.
The researchers found that good reading quality — meaning, having conversations with the child about the book while reading, talking about or labeling the pictures and the emotions of the characters in the book and whether the stories were age-appropriate — predicted early reading skills, while book-reading quantity and quality was strongly tied to literacy skills, like whether a child was able to write their name at age 4.
Studies have shown that learning to read the English language involves learning to recognize letters as well as the sounds they make. How well children know their letters is a strong predictor of how well they'll learn to read.
But there's much more to it than that, Dr. Naline Lai, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, tells Yahoo Life. "It's a misconception that reading is about a specific age or specifically about ABCs," she says. "Reading is a journey, and it starts from infancy. What you're doing is building skill sets."
What can parents do to help?
Doctors say parents shouldn't put too much pressure on their kids to read by a specific age. "I have parents who are very upset when their preschool-age child is not learning specific words," Lai says.
However, experts say there are certain things parents can do to help the process along. "Exposing young children to books is very important," Dr. Jennifer Cross, a pediatrician specializing in developmental and behavioral pediatrics at NewYork-Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital and Weill Cornell Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. "Make it a habit to read with your child every day and show them the words and the pictures."
Reading books with repetitive words and rhyming books is especially helpful; it can help children hear the patterns in words that look and sound the same, Cross says.
"You should be reading with your child every day, but hopefully encouraging them to enjoy books," Posner says. "If they show an interest in sounding things out, it's OK to start talking to them about sounds, but you don't need to force it when they're young."
It's also a good idea for parents to be seen reading by their kids. "Children model what their parents do, so having them see their parents enjoy reading also helps encourage them to enjoy books," Cross says. "Taking them to the library regularly is a great way to expose children to a variety of books. Many libraries also offer a story time for young children."
Once children start school, parents will usually receive information about what they can do to help their child learn to read, including working with them on sight words and starter books, Posner says. "Around age 5, 6 — that's when you really need to start working with them, but you don't necessarily need to push it before that," she says. "If they're interested when they're younger, you can work with them a bit, but I wouldn't make it a project."
When should you talk to your pediatrician?
While every child is different, there are certain reading milestones that children are expected to reach, Posner says. Your pediatrician will usually ask how your child is doing with them during well visits and, once your child starts school, their teacher will be keeping track of progress, she notes.
According to the children's health resource Nemours, the milestones specifically include:
Ages 1-3: Answering questions about objects in books, naming familiar pictures, pointing to identify objects and pretending to read books
Age 3: Listening to longer books that are read aloud, singing the alphabet song with prompting and cues, making symbols that resemble writing, recognizing the first letter in their name and imitating the action of reading a book aloud
Age 4: Recognizing familiar signs and labels, especially on signs and containers, recognizing words that rhyme, naming some of the letters of the alphabet, writing their name, matching some letters to their sounds
Age 5: Producing words that rhyme, matching some spoken and written words, writing some letters, numbers and words, recognizing some familiar words in print, reading simple words in isolation and in context (i.e., using the word in a sentence), retelling the main idea, identifying details and arranging story events in sequence
Ages 6 and 7: Reading familiar stories, sounding out or decoding unfamiliar words, using pictures and context to figure out unfamiliar words, self-correcting when they make a mistake while reading aloud, writing by organizing details into a logical sequence with a beginning, middle and end
Ages 7 and 8: Reading longer books independently, reading aloud with proper emphasis and expression, using context and pictures to help identify unfamiliar words, correctly using punctuation and using new words, phrases or figures of speech that they've heard
Ages 9-13: Exploring and understanding different kinds of texts, like biographies, poetry and fiction, learning to read to extract specific information, like from a science book, correctly identifying major elements of stories, like time, place, plot, problem and resolution, and reading and writing on a specific topic for fun
"The inability to rhyme words in pre-K, lack of knowledge of the alphabet or history of a speech and language delay are considered red flags for a possible reading delay," Cross says. If your child is struggling with learning to remember letters and sounds despite being taught them in kindergarten, or doesn't understand that “bat” and “cat” are rhyming words with one sound changed, they "could be at risk for a reading disorder," Cross says. "It is always important for the pediatrician to check vision and hearing for any child with academic concerns," she adds.
But doctors stress that there is a range within learning to read and that parents shouldn't panic if their child seems to be slow to pick up the practice. "I have plenty of kids who have not had any education before kindergarten and they don't know how to ID their name or anything — and they do just fine," Posner says. "They catch up."