Read the signs

Estimated Reading Time 3 Minutes

The short answer is no, according to Dr. Linda Phillips, director of the Canadian Centre for Research on Literacy at the University of Alberta. Being physically and intellectually ready to read requires meeting a number of complex milestones – the neural pathways between the brain and the eyes need to be sufficiently developed, the child needs to be able to hear and understand questions that are asked of them, and they need to understand routine and symbols. Most children don’t even begin to get to these stages until their second or third year of life.

“Between 13 and 24 months, infants are just starting to understand routine events – like enjoying familiar books – and they’re just beginning to understand symbols,” says Dr. Phillips. “At this age, letters are just symbols to them. They are abstract, they are sounds. If anything, they are memorizing the symbols and the visual cues. Even if there is not a picture on the flash card, they’re looking for visual cues from some of the letters.”

The age of three is generally when children are developed enough to even display the precursors to reading, says Dr. Phillips, although the ability to read is a developmental skill like walking or talking. Some kids just do it earlier than others, and some later. And being an early reader is no indicator of intelligence or success in later life.

What is important, says Dr. Phillips, is reading with your child in an engaging way. “Children love the tone and lilt of their parents’ voices, and playing games while reading together. Many people worry that these commercial programs take away from the bonding time of reading with their parents.” Kids need to see reading as an enjoyable activity, both entertaining and useful. “If they see you reading a good book or magazine, or looking in the phone book to find a number, those are the fundamentals of engaging them in reading at an early age. Not flash cards or videos where they’re just repeating words.”

The pressure put on a child to sit and rhyme off words may, in fact, be doing more harm than good. “We have no idea of the potential negative effects of these programs yet, since there hasn’t been any research done. But I certainly would not recommend them. They are likely instilling bad habits and creating a stressful environment for the child. And to top it off, the prices of some of these programs are exorbitant. When I think of all the books the parents could be buying for that money, it just drives me crazy.”

Perhaps you’ve seen the infomercials

A child of a year or two, barely able to walk and usually in diapers, sits in front of his mom. She holds up flash cards with single words on them. “Bus,” says the baby. “Tree.” “Bottle.”

On the road to reading

Wondering where your child is at in terms of reading skills, or whether developmental milestones are being met in a normal way? Check out The Canadian Centre for Research on Literacy’s online Handbook of Language and Literacy Development, ( for children from zero to 60 months. The site looks at the latest scientific research in terms of reading and literacy, and combines it with comments and stories from parents, teachers, public health nurses, early intervention workers and other medical professionals.

The site is divided into 11 sections, including reading, speech-language, vision and vocabulary among others, and each section includes the latest research on the subject, a chart of developmental milestones, tips for parents and reading references.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2011.

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