When is the right time to teach a child to read?


The very serious crisis that we are suffering due to COVID-19 has caused a radical change in the teaching model, forcing us to work electronically. Logically, we still lack sufficient information, but this confinement will have its consequences at different educational levels.

Undoubtedly, this stress may be exacerbated by the extra pressure that many families will have to face their children with the sheets of literacy with which they usually learn.

We are aware that a child with four or five years, and under normal conditions, is not capable of addressing the resolution of square roots, but, instead, we have no problem assuming that a child of this age has the necessary skills to be able to start learning to read and write as a means to access other learning.

Probably, this thought is based on two widespread ideas: a child learns to read when decoding graphemes. And, by advancing learning content, the future academic performance of our daughters and sons is improved.

In this context, we focus reading learning on automating grapheme-phoneme conversion, ignoring that it is a competence to be developed in which how and why matters, and we think that early reading learning will be a predictive element of subsequent academic success . Do we have any scientific evidence that this is so? Let’s see.

Brain study gives us clues

In recent years, research based on magnetic resonance imaging of brain activity is providing us with interesting data on the main neural networks involved in reading. Thus, we know that there are different areas of the cerebral cortex involved in the reading process , and co- responsible in the mechanics of transforming the grapheme into a phoneme.

What these investigations point us to is that, in some cases, the synaptic circuits of these neurofunctional areas are not yet sufficiently formed to start reading at the age of five or six. Consequently, it will be difficult for the child to read, since some prerequisites related to neurological maturation have not been met.

The neuroscientist Paco Mora describes it very graphically : “If that does not happen, it is read very badly, or it costs a lot, or we must go to expand the circuits in other areas that cost blood, which means punishment, which means child discomfort When learning”.

When to start, then?

If we focus on decoding ability to learn to read, this will depend largely on the maturity of those brain areas that are responsible for the recognition of graphemes and their pairing with phonemes and the development of skills such as movement control, coordination and visual agility, adequate orality or listening skills, among others.

Considering the previous data, and the differences in the evolutionary rhythms, it seems that this maturation process is still taking place up to seven or eight years.

Therefore, there should be no curricular rush to start with the learning of the conversion rules until the Primary Education cycle. However, if we understand learning to read as part of a competition, its learning will need a real context in which it reflects on its functions and where, above all, a positive attitude towards it is favored. This is where we should start.

Why do children start reading?

The presence of reading and the approach to literature already appear in the legislative articles and curricular and school contents for the second cycle of Early Childhood Education. This approach, on numerous occasions, arises from the premises of an initiation in the content block and leads to evaluation criteria that directly conflict with the objectives of Royal Decree 1630/2006 , which establishes the minimum teachings of the second cycle of Infant Education.

An opinion study carried out by the World Association of Early Childhood Educators AMEI-WAECE is already warning of the ‘pre -priming ‘ of this second cycle of Early Childhood Education. Advancing learning content responds to curricular demands and social and family pressures, and causes teachers to prioritize some academic areas that are more ‘socially valued’ and do not prioritize others that are more focused on emotions, skills and values.

Furthermore, the fact that reading, letters, syllables, words, sentences and simple texts are proposed as evaluation criteria, understanding what has been read, qualitatively requires a leap that is very difficult to understand, ignoring what the research describes and points out.

Therefore, as we have previously indicated, forcing the learning of reading as decoding in a child when certain brain areas are not yet ready, that is, there is not enough neurobiological maturation, can lead to negative consequences focused on self-esteem and lack of motivation for learning.

Finally, with effort, and helped with the innate brain plasticity, the child will decode the message, but all this emotionally negative reading learning experience will be able to condition his learning and his future attitude.

The objective of starting to learn to read in Early Childhood Education should focus on investigating the functioning of writing and valuing it as an instrument of communication, information and enjoyment. For this, learning must be built from the social act. In this regard, the psycho-pedagogue Yolanda Cortés points out : “Letters and numbers must be present in classrooms, what we have to do is take care of the way.”

Take pressure off families

Now more than ever we must take pressure off families about learning to decode letters and transmit that offering the child opportunities to participate in reading , showing the different modalities of intervention in it, and being an example of imitation, also you learn to read .

There is no greater failure in reading learning than that of a 5-year-old boy or girl who rejects reading because he or she identifies it exclusively with a few sheets of reading and writing.

Author Bios: Asier Romero Andonegi is Full Professor of the Department of Didactics of Language and Literature at the UPV / EHU and Ainara Romero Andonegui is Associate professor of the Department of Didactics and School Organization both at the University of the Basque Country / Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea