Too Soon? When is the right time to read?

I recently read an article on brain development in children that made me stop and think. We know a lot about brain development from psychologists such as Jean Piaget who studied children and the different stages through which they grow and develop. He identified four major stages of development that most children progress through as they mature:

  1. Sensorimotor (birth – 2 years)
  2. Preoperational (2 – 7 years)
  3. Concrete operational (7 – 11 years)
  4. Formal operations (11 – 16 years)

Early in infancy, children are dominated by their reflexes. The brain has not fully taken control from the brain stem, and children mainly react to stimuli in their environment. As they age through this stage, they begin to think more and immediately react less, making decisions to choose behaviors even though their emotions oftentimes override their thinking processes.

During the preoperational stage, children learn to talk and associate symbols with things. This symbolic thinking is represented by the ability to draw a picture that depicts an object or a person and the child realizes this relationship. The basis of logic begins to develop during this stage as children make sense of the world around them by asking a lot of questions.

The concrete operational stage represents when children begin to function in concrete (non-abstract) terms. They are able to learn to add and subtract because these operations can be represented physically in a manner they can see and experience.

Formal operations is when children develop the capacity for abstract thought and reasoning. They are able to use logic to problem solve, and are more skilled at predicting consequences for different choices or behaviors.

Physical development typically progresses in a similarly linear fashion. Certain skills are acquired early and others appear as the child’s physical strength, abilities, balance, etc. develop.

What is fascinating is how physical, emotional, and intellectual abilities oftentimes develop together and form dependencies. For example, children who are able to balance, are better able to comprehend what they read because the physical ability to balance indicates that the right side of the brain (where picture and shape recognition happens) is talking to the left (where words are understood). As children learn to combine these two modalities, they are better able to understand the letter shapes and word shapes they recognize and what these words actually represent. Children can *memorize* letters and words and even *read* sentences long before they develop the capacity for comprehension. Once comprehension takes hold, the ability to recognize words (and sound them out) increases exponentially as recognition and comprehension help develop each other.

So what age is the *right* age to read? It depends. Children can learn to recognize, memorize, and recite early, but comprehension takes longer. The good news is that if your child is not reading fluently by the early grades, don’t despair. Once the maturational development occurs, oftentimes these “late bloomers” quickly catch up to their early-reading peers. If this doesn’t happen, you might want to do some further exploration, investigation, and ask a professional. Perhaps there is a vision or hearing deficiency that is adversely affecting reading development. Even a speech defect can cause the reading-skill acquisition to come more slowly as children are not as able to sound out words for recognition as their peers.

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