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The Best Way to Teach Kids to Read

Of all our kids' intellectual milestones, learning to read may be the one that worries parents the most. We know that children will eventually talk, if we just wait until they're ready, and learn their colors from merely interacting with the world. But when it comes to reading, we place a lot more pressure on them  -- and on ourselves.

Many parents, hoping to give their preschoolers a critical boost, try to ready them by buying lots of phonics workbooks and computer software; some even hire tutors before the first grade.

Plus, children are now expected to read earlier than ever before, says Kathy Egawa, Ph.D., associate executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English. "In the old days, kids really didn't move beyond learning the alphabet and sounding out words until age 8," she says. Today, we start the push in kindergarten."

"When I first began to teach kindergarten 26 years ago, we didn't even start the alphabet until Christmastime," says Carol Schrecengost, a teacher in Stow, OH. "But now I begin teaching letter sounds during the first month of school  -- in part because students are learning their letters earlier, but also because parents and administrators expect it."

But even as our expectations continue to increase, the latest brain-development research shows that, on average, kids are simply not ready to start learning until around age 5. And those who do start sounding out words at younger ages aren't necessarily brighter, says Beverly Cox, an associate professor of literacy and language at Purdue University: "An early walker isn't destined to be a great athlete, and an early reader isn't destined to be more intelligent."

Ironically, expecting more from young children than is developmentally appropriate may just frustrate them, and turn them off to an interest in reading when it's most important, says Egawa.

Carolyn Hoyt's last article for Parenting was "How Memory Develops," in the October 1999 issue.