We live in a culture deeply devoted to getting its citizens to read at the earliest possible age. Whether it’s flashcards, alphabet-focused toys, iPad reading apps or “teachable moments about letters” sprinkled throughout daily life with toddlers and preschoolers, we seem hellbent on hatching early readers.
And parents feel little choice in the matter: sadly, a 5- or 6-year-old kindergarten student in public or conventional private school who isn’t quite fluent with letters is already behind the 8-ball!
Child psychologist David Elkind has devoted his professional life at Tufts University to studying the costs of “hurrying” children. He points out that true reading readiness only emerges once a child has attained the neuro-cognitive milestone of syllogistic reasoning (“All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; thus Socrates is mortal”), which dawns during the concrete operational stage of cognitive development.
This “con-op leap” happens around age seven, and is a biologically based milestone, just like the shedding of baby teeth or the onset of puberty. How many parents fret if their son hasn’t managed to lose his first tooth as soon as his friend did… or if their daughter at thirteen “still just has not been able to get her period”?
We wisely recognize that biology has its own internal timeline, but where neurobiology is concerned, well, that’s a different animal. We get anxious. We want to get in there and… tinker and tweak… optimize… accelerate… give them a head start. So we reach for the flashcards.
Assessing Your Child’s Reading Readiness: A Checklist
[Not meant as medical advice, but as guidelines for parents in noticing sensory-motor integration and development in their young children. Thanks to developmental and behavioral pediatrician Dr. Susan Johnson for contributing important information to this guide.]
True reading readiness (as opposed to forced “reading readiness”) is a biological phenomenon, and requires that a child has passed a number of benchmarks of sensory-motor integration—which is an aspect of healthy brain development! Many of these benchmarks have been passed when a child is able to do the following:
- Pay attention and sit still in a chair for at least 20 minutes (without needing to wiggle or sit on his feet or wrap his feet around the legs of the chair as a way to locate his body in space)
- Balance on one foot, without her knees touching, and in stillness, with both arms out to her sides—and count backwards without losing her balance.
- Stand on one foot, with arms out in front of him, palms facing up, with both eyes closed for 10 seconds and not fall over.
- Reproduce various geometric shapes, numbers, or letters onto a piece of paper with a pencil while someone else traces these shapes, letters, or numbers on her back.
- Walk on a balance beam
- Jump rope by themselves, forwards & backwards
- Skip in a cross-lateral pattern (opposite arm & leg extending)
If children can’t do these tasks easily, their vestibular and proprioceptive (sensory-motor) neural systems are not yet well-integrated, and chances are they will have difficulty sitting still, listening, focusing their eyes, focusing their attention, and remembering letters and numbers in the classroom.
How You Can Foster Your Child’s Reading Readiness
Support for sensory-motor integration comes not from flashcards or “educational” apps—but from the following activities.
Physical movements, such as:
- Skipping (cross-lateral)
- Rolling down hills
- Playing catch with a ball
- Jumping rope
- Clapping games
- Circle games
Fine motor activities to strengthen important neural pathways, such as:
- Cutting with scissors
- Digging in the garden
- Kneading dough (play or bread!)
- Pulling weeds
- String games (e.g., Jacob’s Ladder)
- Finger crochet/knitting
By contrast, watching television/videos and playing video or computer games are poor sources of stimulation for sensory-motor development. They may actually interfere with the healthy integration of the young nervous system, by keeping the child’s nervous system in a state of stress, in which the “fight/flight/freeze” system is repeatedly activated.
Spotting Obstacles to Reading Readiness
Children who have difficulties reading and writing often also have
- a poorly developed sense of balance
- difficulty making eye contact
- difficulty tracking or following with their eyes, w/o moving head, for 90 sec., or steadily converging their eyes on an object coming closer (going “cross-eyed”)
- trouble distinguishing the right side of their body from the left
- difficulty sitting still in a chair (tendency to wriggle around, sit on one or both feet, or wrap feet around chair legs—in order to locate the body in space)
- poor muscle tone exemplified by a slumped posture
- a tense or fisted pencil grip
- “flat feet” (collapsed arches)
- oversensitivity to touch
- overactive sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/freeze), thus extra sensitive to the stimulant effects of sugar, chocolate, lack of sleep, changes in routines, watching television, playing computer/video games
Sometimes these children have difficulties in their peer relationships because they are using their mind and eyes to help their body navigate in space, and miss the non-verbal social cues from their playmates.
Trusting Nature’s Timetable
Developmental pediatrician Susan Johnson has seen children diagnosed with AD/HD or learning disabilities “miraculously” improve when they are taken out of an academic kindergarten or given an extra year in a developmental kindergarten that emphasizes movement, play, and the integration of their sensory-motor systems.
We wouldn’t label a child with a disorder (or try to hurry them along) if she was “late” to lose her first tooth or begin menstruating. Reading is similarly linked to a child’s uniquely unfolding biology, so relax and enjoy your children’s childhood!! Read to them, tell them stories, let them play, putter, and pretend: that is the most reliable foundation for your children’s healthiest brain development and later reading skills and academic success!
For further, more detailed, information, see Dr. Johnson’s article “Teaching Our Children to Write, Read, and Spell.”
Top image by tornatore, through a Creative Commons license.
About Marcy Axness
I’m the author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers, and also the adoption expert on Mothering’s expert panel. I write and speak on prenatal, child and parent development and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. As a gift to Mothering readers I’m offering a unique 7-step parenting tool, a “Quick-Start Guide to Shifting Your Child’s Perplexing, Stuck Behaviors.”