Is Your Child Ready to Read? A Checklist

child ready to read a checklistWe 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:

  • child ready to read a checklistSkipping (cross-lateral)
  • Hopping
  • Rolling down hills
  • Playing catch with a ball
  • Jumping rope
  • Running
  • Walking
  • 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
  • Painting
  • Beading
  • Drawing
  • String games (e.g., Jacob’s Ladder)
  • Sewing
  • 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.”


19 thoughts on “Is Your Child Ready to Read? A Checklist”

  1. I agree that we should be more attuned to child readiness, and that we need to get rid of these standards that force kids to be able to dot hings before they’re ready. It sets up a bad situation- kids who aren’t ready to read struggle to do so, getting labeled as problems, setting them back. It’s really awful how bad things have gotten just since I was in school. We did have to learn to read and write in kindergarten, but most of the time was still more informal and play-based. It seems that nowadays, that’s what pre-school is and kindergarten is basically “first first grade”.

    1. I have mixed feelings about this list as well. My son learned to read at an early age. Pretty much on his own. No flashcards, no videos. Never forced to sit down with workbooks, etc. He loves reading. He wanted to learn. Since early age we would ride the bus or the car and he would point to signs and wanted to know the letters, the spellings, etc. He is now in 7th grade and he continues loving reading. He is smart, social and an excellent student. He is not into sports. He loves games, very passionate artist.
      I don’t believe in forcing children to learn the alphabet and numbers. I hate flashcards and any kind of “educational”videos/workbooks.
      My daughter is almost 4 and she counts until 30. She can identify many letter and sound them. Again, no flashcards, videos, etc. She loves books as well. She loves coloring and “writing” She can draw some shapes and identify them. However, she can’t still jump rope, skip, or balance in one foot and count backwards…. but she sits for more than 30 minutes to look at books, color, etc. She is very interested in learning to read. She wants to.

      1. Your post exactly points out the “biological” function. Your children were ready at that age. So were mine. But most children are not. Reading is a complicated process and the human brain is complex. Even if a child learns to read at a young age, they still will benefit from all of those activities mentioned as there are still millions of brain connections to be made!

  2. This list is ridiculous! I’m not against the idea that kids are ready to read at different ages, but I’m 43, have been reading since before they taught it to us in school in 1st grade, and I still can’t sit still or tell my right from my left without really thinking about it.

  3. About the list: likewise, kids who *can* do all those things may still not be able, or have little interest in reading. My 7 yo ds has been all about gross motor skills, and is also very tactile in that he can weave, knit, etc. But he is only very recently become interested in reading. He has repeatedly said “i hate to read” even though reading has always been an important thing in our house. My other kids have a healthy love of books and reading, he just has different interests. I have tried really hard to take the pressure off him and wait for him to come around (which he is just beginning to do). I don’t think he has a reading disability, I think he was pushed too hard at school before he was ready, decided it was too hard, and didn’t want to try it anymore. Again, it’s about knowing your child and finding balance!

  4. To be fair, going by the list, I am still not ready to read and I am 38. That’s a pretty tough list. I do have a 5 year old who now recognises most phonic sounds and reads simple books. She has very good motor control but the reading has come recently and she has friends who read earlier and later.
    I think the message here is don’t force and don’t get angry if they can’t do it. Just like other things (potty training), they will do it when they are ready and fly with it.

  5. Interesting article. In my own daughter’s case, she learned the letters and their sounds on her own, playing with one of those magnet toys that sings the letter/sound to you when you put it in. She was 18 months old when this happened. She didn’t get putting sounds together until about four, and only simple ones then. However, she has always been behind in gross motor skills, mostly because she is very timid and cautious, afraid to try things with her body. She will be six in less than four months and still will not swing on the monkey bars without someone holding onto her, and always gets off her bike (even with training wheels on) to walk it over cracks and sloped driveways. Her fine motor skills have always been excellent, probably because there is no fear involved (i.e. “I might get hurt.”). But, in my experience, she was doing the cognitive aspect of phonics on her own without any pushing from family or school way before she could achieve many of the gross motor skills on the list. Maybe that is simply because the thing keeping her from achieving them was her temperament (a fear of trying new things she wasn’t sure she would be competent at), rather than lack of neurological development? Anyway, interesting to consider…

  6. I guess by your argument, my special needs middle child who struggles to walk, can barely talk, who would probably bean you with her head if you tried tracing anything on her back, can’t read. Only wait, she can. She learned without us realizing she was doing it until she answered a question she saw in large type on a screen. She’d learned to read and comprehend sentences, silently to herself, despite a whole lot of nay-sayers who thought I was crazy when I said I thought she could learn to read. Don’t underestimate kids.

    My two year old has very few of those skills yet… except he has picked up the whole alphabet and the basics of counting to ten, without my ever really trying to teach him. He may start reading next week, or in 2 years or in 4 years, I have no idea. But I’m pretty sure he’ll get it and get it well, even if I don’t go out of my way to foster “reading readiness”. True to the contrarian streak that runs deep in my children, he jumped from a few words to sentences in a few weeks when his sister started watching Signing Time. He’s working on competency in both languages now. But TV will rot their brains…

    Three kids in plus a much younger sibling, all I can say about teaching reading to kids is…read to kids. Read them fun stuff like Shel Silverstein and the Dillons and Jane Yolen’s Dinosaur series and things they want to see over and over again until they memorize it and one day their brains just GET it. Teach them WHY the words do what they do once they’ve made that leap, but let them WANT to read first. We didn’t get anywhere with the teaching until we were reading things the kids wanted to hear more than we wanted to read to them.

  7. This is not true! I have taught many children to read. Many of them could not jump rope. Many of them couldn’t sit for twenty minutes. Maintaining eye contact is very culturally contextual. There is nothing here about true reading readiness: concept of print, book handling, phonological awareness. There are too many errors in this for it to be taken seriously. I hold a M.Ed. in Reading, Language, and Literacy and I have yet to see this in any peer reviewed research. If you have, please inform me. While I usually don’t leave my blog address, I have this time so that I may be contacted.

  8. I think that perhaps the message is that yes children can definitely learn to read, but at what cost to other areas of their development, some of the physical milestones that may be retained through hot housing children rather than allowing a childhood full of nature and play, can produce wonderful adults who still can’t do some of those things on ‘the list’. It may not be to their detriment in their eyes as they’ve never known anything else. As long as we are happy and aware and make the best decisions we can for our children, we should have no regrets. It is heartening that such research is being conducted and that we have access to it, if nothing it is food for thought, for some it may just suspend that need to drive their child to read, there is so much pressure to do so. This article provides a great balance to the ‘quick, now, before it’s tooooo late’ messages we are otherwise bombarded with as parents. In leaving the magical time and space that allows children to develop other capacities ie the myriad of incredible learnings acquired in free play, we offer a gift to the future of a peaceful world, where children know how to be their authentic selves.

  9. I just want to say how much I support Marcy Axness and her research and article. I am a Kinesiologist
    and complementary health practitioner; In my clinic I have treated hundreds of children that was brought to me for : poor concentration, behavioural issues, poor coordination, emotional issues, difficulties in academic work at home or at school. And, my finding doing an other check list through a kinesiology approach,called Dominance profile. It gives a combination of 32 different profiles .
    For example one of those profile could be: Right brain dominant with right eye, right ear, right hand and right foot. ( but someone else could have with a right brain with some left senses and vice versa you could have a left brain dominant with only left senses or a combination. But all interpretations are different and specific to the child )
    What I have found is that someone like I described above : an homolateral (same side as the brain) profile with right side dominance , more than likely suffers at school, from too much left brain academic thinking and learning approach due to the system and not enough right brain learning influences . These children are usually very sensitive emotionally, very creative, not as interested in being physical in sports but need to move or dance a lot. Their coordination isn´t great that´s why sports become a difficulty. Implementing a program of cross lateral movement and hand eye exercices to help cross the midline has shown to develop more nerve wiring to cross this midline so more integration in gross motor and fine motor to be developed, needed in reading writing, maths skills for example. I have seen it over and over when the child applies those specific crosslateral movements their progress makes huge changes in their lives: their spelling and handwriting gets better, their moods gets better, they all the sudden can reason for maths ! And that is a huge plus as maths can be tricky for a right brain ! Their skills to aim at sports gets better, their confidence and self esteem improves due to see how changes little or bigger in their life has progressed in a short period of time.
    I can totally see why this check list would show poor readiness to do more cognitive work, as our body and brain are linked and require a whole nervous system to work together and be interlinked. It has nothing to do with as some mother shared how skilled their child is from knowing how to read before being capable of doing some of those physical movement.
    The body of the child still needs to develop physically to become more integrated right and left side for more ambidexterity and create easier access to their potential: academically, thought processing, better adaptation to various situations, raising confidence all around,feeling better in their skin so to speak etc…
    I felt some parent may have taken this article a bit personally to compare to what their kids could do
    and this has really nothing to do with good kids, gifted kids, best parent, not good enough kids or parents… But simply neurological development. Our kids need to develop all their muscles from feet
    (literally) to neck and be encourage to move freely as much as possible… using all sorts of pulling,pushing, suspend oneself by the arms or legs, gliding, sliding, crawling, rolling, jumping walking, running,dancing,building… All of these actions beleive it or not will contribute to a better emotional and mental ability to process information and reasoning.
    There will be countless hours of sitting in there life to create other problems … I hope I was clear enough and making my point across.
    Tonia Briones, Ireland.

  10. I have an autodidactic son who began reading on his own at age 3.5, chapter books by 4.5yrs. He is now 7 and still can’t jump rope- not sure I agree with this.

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