When should I teach my child to read?

Reading is a very hot topic among the parents in my workshops:

  • When should I start teaching my child to read? As a baby? Or when?
  • How to teach her to read? Flash cards or phonics or what?
  • What materials to use?

Vee learnt to read in 3 languages (English, Chinese and Bahasa Melayu) from about 4 years old onwards. (Nope, we didn’t use many word flash cards before 3 years old.)

In today’s post, I’d answer the first question on “When should I teach my child to read”?

Summary: notes from my readings

These are the summary notes I made from the vast amount of information online and offline:

  • The Glenn Doman method includes teaching babies to read using flash cards.
  • The Shichida method encourages flashing more picture cards than word cards in the first 3 years.
  • Dr. Maria Montessori observed that many children showed a spontaneous interest in learning to read at around age four or five. She emphasised the importance of teaching from concrete (real objects) to abstract (words, numerals & symbols).
  • Singapore Math syllabus emphasises the CPA approach: moving from Concrete (real objects) to Pictorial (pictures) to Abstract (words, numerals & symbols).
  • There’re many online anecdotes of young toddlers recognising words. I’ve seen one video of a Singaporean mummy with her 22-month old toddler sounding out words in a story book. My friend’s child started reading Enid Blyton chapter books at 3 years old. However, this doesn’t mean that using the flashcard method is effective in teaching toddlers to read. I’ve consulted parents whose babies / toddlers will watch picture flashcards but not word flashcards.
  • A research study led by Susan B. Neuman concluded this “Results indicated that babies did not learn to read using baby media, despite some parents displaying great confidence in the program’s effectiveness.” The study was conducted on 117 infants, ages 9 to 18 months. The baby media product used included DVDs, word and picture flashcards, and word books to be used daily over a 7-month period. (Susan B. Neuman is a prominent researcher in early literacy development.)

Summary: observations of my children

These are my summary observations on my small sample of 3 children:

  • Vee (now 6.5yo):
    • I’ve been reading to him almost daily since pregnancy. Flashed picture cards to him from about 14 months old, little focus on word cards initially.
    • He started recognising Chinese characters as a toddler, perhaps about 2+yo. I only started teaching him English phonics with more structure at about 3+ to 4 years old.
    • When his basic English phonics was stable, I introduced (Malay) suku kata to him.
    • From about 4 years old, he progressed smoothly with reading in 3 languages.
    • He’s much better at reciting long text from memory than reading complex words. After he could recite a text, he’d be able to read it much better.
  • Jae (now 3y 9m):
    • I’ve been reading to him almost daily since pregnancy. Flashed picture cards to him from 2 months old, little focus on word cards initially.
    • From about 2yo, he has been watching quite a number of English and Chinese word cards when I flash them to Vee.
    • From about 3yo, he has shown interest in reading Chinese characters and English words in books. He can recognise a few Chinese characters and most of the alphabets.
    • I started teaching him English basic a to z sounds from about 3 yo. He loves spelling his own name, but isn’t interested in blending words yet.
    • He has started reciting from memory with relative ease.
  • El (now 1y 10m):
    • I read stories to him almost daily since pregnancy. Flashed picture cards to him from 2 months old, little focus on word cards initially.
    • From about 1yo, he’s been watching quite a number of English and Chinese word flashcards when I flash them to Vee and Jae.
    • He’s starting to imitate phonic sounds that I’ve occasionally taught him. He recognises some alphabets such as “o”and “a”. Otherwise, no signs of being interested in printed words.
    • He loves being read to and flipping books.
    • He’s showing signs of excellent memory.

If flashing word cards is effective in teaching children to read words, then I think #3 El should have an advantage because he has been watching quite a number of word flashcards when I didn’t intend to show him.

However, he still goes about his daily life with no obvious interest in printed words. (In contrast, he’s very interested in looking at picture books, playing the piano, violin, and fine motor skill activities.)

My conclusions

So here are my conclusions:

  • Children develop a spontaneous interest in learning to read, as observed by Dr. Maria Montessori. Vee and Jae moved into this phase naturally. Even though our home is filled with books, word flashcards and Montessori 3-part cards, my 3 children didn’t show high interest in reading word-for-word as a baby or toddler. In contrast, they love looking at pictures.
  • Since I’ve limited time doing activities with a baby or toddler, I’d rather expose him to more concrete and pictorial materials than abstract materials. With a huge bank of concrete information stored in his brains (accumulated through real-life experiences, pictures and conversations), he’d be able to make better sense of what he’s reading in future.
  • And again due to limited time, I’d rather play more speed-learning and memory-building games with my baby / toddler than teach him to read. If he’s able to learn fast and retain what he learns well, he should be able to learn reading with ease, once he’s ready.
    • This is certainly the case with Vee. I deliberately held back teaching him to read until he showed a keen interest at 3-4 years old. This allowed him to focus on memorising a large amount of images and build his imaging ability. Now, he learns to read and write in 3 languages with ease and a high level of enjoyment.

So when to teach reading?

You may consider these suggestions:

  • Most importantly, build a conducive reading environment at home. Spend some time reading to your child, every day if possible. Borrow books from the library and visit bookstores regularly. Make reading a fun bonding activity.
  • Let your child watch you read regularly — a real book / magazine / journal. She’d want to emulate you in future.
  • Observe your child:
    • If she shows a keen interest in printed words, you may teach him to read and let him enjoy learning.
    • If your baby / toddler shows no interest in learning the alphabets or sounds, it’s perfectly normal and fine. You may demonstrate once, then move on to something else she’s interested in. Try again in a few weeks.
    • If you’re super busy (like most of us!), it’s really fine to teach your child to read “only” at 4 to 5 years old. Just ensure that your child is able to read basic reader books (in all the languages to be covered in school) before starting Primary 1.
  • Whether your child is keen on reading or not, play speed-learning and memory-building games with her. If she can memorise a sequence of 50 objects with ease and/or has excellent visual and audio memory, it’s hard to believe she can’t remember 26 basic phonic sounds, and/or 50 Chinese characters, when she’s ready to read. (Perhaps the exception is when the child has a learning disability, where special help is needed.)

What reading materials?

Ok… I know you’re going to ask me for book recommendations and reading materials… I’m working on a book list for the 3 languages (English, Chinese & Malay) and will post them up when ready.

I’m also compiling the common words lists and flashcards for the 3 languages.

Workshop participants usually get the most updated info from me, because it’s much easier for me to show and tell during the class, and answer questions on-the-spot than to write a lengthy post up.

Happy teaching and learning!



P.S. Check out my workshops here.

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