When Is My Child Ready for Reading?

baby-reading‘Reading readiness’ has been defined as the point at which a person is ready to learn to read and the time during which a person transitions from being a non-reader into a reader. 

The concept reading readiness appears to have been introduced in the United States in a publication of the National Society for the Study of Education in 1925. The concept was based on the notion that a child’s readiness to cope with specified learning tasks is fundamentally a process of maturation, and that the process of maturation could not be appreciably speeded up. The role of learning was considered to play only a supportive role.1

Carleton Washburne, with M. V. Morphett, provided the empirical facts that seemed to prove it was a waste of time — and probably harmful, too — to try to teach children with a mental age lower than 6½ years, or at the very least 6 years, to read. This was in 1929, and the investigation on which the finding was based was carried out in schools in Winnetka. Afterward, this finding was quoted with amazing regularity for many decades to warn against the dangers of beginning too early with the teaching of reading.2

Morphett and Washburne’s conclusion was nothing but a mere myth. Japanese parents in the 1980s provided ample proof of this. According to Sheridan, by the time Japanese children entered Grade 1, only 1 percent of them could not recognise any Hiragana symbols (Hiragana is one of the Japanese syllabaries). It was not unusual for 4-year-olds to read books entirely in Hiragana. If there were any truth in Morphett and Washburne’s conclusion, it would have been difficult to explain why, at the time, reading problems were non-existent in Japan, while parents used to teach their children to read at such a tender age. In fact, in the 1980s, “excessive reading,” as opposed to a lack of interest in reading, was a far more widely recognised problem in Japan.3

Schmidt also points out that an analysis of Morphett and Washburne’s original papers reveals — even to a person with no sophisticated knowledge of statistical procedures — that their inference was based on very scanty evidence indeed and that their generalisation rested on very insecure foundations. Nevertheless, their inference became a well-accepted dogma.4

Not an automatic process

While Morphett and Washburne’s theory is a myth it should be noted that reading readiness is not an automatic process. Before building a house, one needs to lay a foundation. Unless there is a strong and solid foundation, cracks will soon appear in the walls, and with no foundations, the walls will collapse. In the same way one needs to lay a proper foundation before it becomes possible for a child to benefit from a course in reading.

Di dunia kini kita, tiap orang harus dapat membaca…. Unless one has first learned to speak Bahasa Indonesia, there is no way that one would be able to read the above Indonesian sentence.

This shows that language is at the very bottom of the reading ladder. Its role in reading can be compared to the role of running in the game of soccer or ice-skating in the game of ice hockey. One cannot play soccer if one cannot run, and one cannot play ice hockey if one cannot skate. One cannot read a book in a language — and least of all write — unless one knows the particular language.

If a child’s knowledge of English is poor, then his reading will also be poor. Evidence that links reading problems and language problems has been extensively presented in the literature. Research has, for example, shown that about 60% of dyslexics were late talkers. In order to prevent later reading problems, parents must therefore ensure that a child is exposed to sufficient opportunities to learn language.

The second rung is non-verbal skills

While verbal skills comprise the first rung of the learning ladder, non-verbal skills comprise the second. There is a whole conglomeration of non-verbal skills that are foundational to learning. Skills of importance include concentration, visual discrimination, accurate observation and memorisation, skills of association and auditory memory. These are functions that should be taught at preschool level to form the foundation of good reading.

One visual discriminatory skill that plays a very important role in reading is the ability to distinguish between left and right. Like all the other non-verbal skills, this ability is not innate. It must be taught. In fact, knowledge of left and right must be drilled in to such an extent that it becomes automatic.

The human body consists of two halves, a left side and a right side. The human brain also has two halves, which are connected by the corpus callosum. A person will therefore interpret everything he encounters in terms of his own sidedness. A child, however, who has not adequately internalised his own sidedness, will be prone to incorrect interpretations in terms of sidedness. One situation where sidedness plays a particularly important role, is when a person is expected to distinguish between a “b” and a “d.” It is clear that the only difference between the two letters is the position of the straight line — it is either left or right.

It is important to note that a person who is confused about left and right cannot use mnemonics or memory aids while reading, as is often advised by experts. One recommendation is that children should remember that “left” is the side on which they wear their watch. Another is that one should put nail polish on the little finger of the student’s left hand in order to teach him that reading and writing start on the left-hand side of the paper. These tricks never work to improve reading ability. This is just like going to China with a Chinese dictionary and then hoping to be able to speak Chinese. One has to learn to speak Chinese. In the same way one has to learn to correctly interpret sidedness.

Only when a child has climbed the first and second rung, will he be prepared for the third rung, i.e. to learn to read. Remember that every journey starts with a first step. Unless you help your child to make the first step, he will not be able to successfully complete the reading journey.

Article Sources:
1.) Schmidt, W. H. O., Child Development: The Human, Cultural, and Educational Context(New York: Harper & Row, 1973).
2.) Ibid.
3.) Sheridan, E, M., “Reading disabilities: Can we blame the written language?” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1983, vol. 16(2), 81-86.
4.) Schmidt, Child Development.

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