How early is too early or too late for early reading skills?

Some say that parenting is all about on the job training. After all, nothing quite prepares anyone for it, and few indicators along the way totally confirm—or refute—that we’re spot on or slightly off the mark. An all-too-frequent insecurity plays out from cradle to college and beyond, beginning with early comparisons about where kids “are” developmentally in relationship to other kids. That includes reading.

While no one suggests first graders should be reading War and Peace, even experts disagree on today’s benchmarks and milestones. For example, Liana Heitin, writing last year for Education Week, noted in an article titled “Debate Persists Around Early Reading Standards,” that one of the repeat questions surrounding Common Core Standards is whether they ask too much of 5- and 6-year-olds in reading. It goes on to say that many experts do suggest that it’s a more advanced expectation than most previous state standards, but whether that’s good or bad remains up for debate.

The reading skills of one particular 20-month-old recently generated some social media buzz and Midwest news coverage. A Michigan FOX News affiliate broadcast a report by Lauren Edwards, titled, “Toddler Shows Off Remarkable Reading Skills in Web Video.” In the report, the toddler’s mother Markeesha Baker said that within a day of posting video to Facebook she had 25,000 views and her in-box was flooded with moms asking, “How do you do it?”

She discussed making her own flash cards and also named a product line that has come under scrutiny for its past advertising claims, though it continues to have supporters. However, two of the most notable factors Baker mentioned in her daughter’s achievements were her own daily investment of time and her toddler’s enjoyment of the process; the learning isn’t forced.

However, not every toddler or even preschooler moves at the same rate or achieves proficiency at the same time.WebMD offers a helpful and reassuring article by Annie Stuart, titled “When Should Kids Learn to Read, Write, and Do Math.” Stuart shares that Ross A. Thompson, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis says, “there is a wide range of normal variation in many areas for young children.” This can make it challenging to tell if a delay is genuinely a problem. Stuart adds, “Thompson also says that measuring children against defined age benchmarks sometimes raises undue anxiety in parents.”

Still, benchmarks and milestones can be helpful as guides. For instance, Stuart cites Pat Wolfe, EdD, education consultant, former teacher, and author of Building the Reading Brain, who suggests that by kindergarten age it can be evident whether children are likely to have trouble with reading. The article quotes two of Wolfe’s standard evaluative questions: "’Can they hear rhyming words? Do they know that squiggles on a page stand for sounds when they talk?’" adding that “These are key pre-reading skills that lay the foundation for reading.”

The article indicates that other pre-reading skills to look for in kids ages 4 to 6 include the ability to substitute words in a rhyming pattern, write some letters, pronounce simple words, and develop vocabulary.

Making the world of words seem exciting for little ones is important. A variety of toddler learning products, ranging from books that combine stickers and coloring with specific activities that sharpen pre-reading skills, to songs that help develop rhyme and rhythm can ignite that enthusiasm.

For slightly older kids, the dynamic Start to Read! series, with its 3 levels of charming stories, many of them available in a variety of print and digital formats, helps increase that excitement and sense of mastery. The creative Bedtime Alphabet, Night-Time Learning, Interactive Flash Cards build imagination and pre-reading skills, as kids learn uppercase and lowercase letters by making them dance on walls and ceiling, spell out short words, and sort alphabetically.

Whether kids do seem headed toward Tolstoy or simply love curling up for storytime on mom or dad’s lap, teach them that words are fun and can take them on thrilling adventures. The rest will usually fall into place.