On reading.
February 29, 2012

A couple days ago, Donald and I stood in the dining room watching Charlotte race around the room and asking ourselves when the right time is to teach her to read.  We both have always assumed that we would allow her to take the lead – but we thought she would be six- or seven- or eight-years-old when she started to give a damn about letters and sounds.

Instead she’s two and by sheer virtue of existing, our daughter has picked up the ability to identify the shape and phonetics of nearly every letter of the alphabet.  I’ve always pointed out C to her because COME ON, HER NAME IS CHARLOTTE.  But that’s it.  She doesn’t even know the entire alphabet song simply because I haven’t felt it important enough to sing to her.  She just…figured things out.

Yesterday, for example, when I was reading a story to her, Charlotte pointed at a word and said “THIS IS, THIS IS SHEEP!”

We have a lot of books about sheep, and quite frankly I felt a little skeptical that she could identify a full word when she can’t even wipe her own ass, so I picked up another book about sheep and asked her if she recognized any words.  She didn’t understand what a word was, but she pointed to the word ‘sheep’ and said “I SEE, I SEE THE LETTER SHEEP!”

So there we have it.  My kid has heard us read about sheep so many times that she has memorized the shape of the word “sheep” and she understands that the shape of those letters refers to something wooly that bleats.  She isn’t reading the word, she’s just recognizing it’s shape.

Suddenly looking at her, she looked so much older than she is and I’m not certain that she or I are really ready for this.  Once the written word is unlocked for her, there is no going back.  She is only small and innocent and prone to unbridled creative play for a short while in her life…and I worry that learning to read at such a young age will make that while even shorter.  (As I wrote that sentence, I was struck by a profound desire to tell me and my first-world problems to suck it, because really?  I’m worried about how reading might influence her creative play?  SOME KIDS DON’T EVEN HAVE FOOD!  So obviously I feel a little conflicted about that concern.)  It’s just…she’s two.  I want her to enjoy this time playing while she can.

Then Charlotte dropped to all fours and crawled around pretending “I am a sheep, Momma!  You are the momma sheep and I am the baby sheep!  I am such a cute little baby sheep.  Do you give me your milk?”

I knew in that moment that if we just listen to the cues of this precious, wonderful child then whatever age she is when the world of books is opened to her…it will be the right time.

*** In other education-related news, you should check this constellation kit out and tell me if you think it’s as cool as I think it is…or if I’m just a giant nerd, which is also entirely possible.

** Charlotte is two years and seven months old.


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  1. By Sheila on February 29, 2012

    My brother could read fluently at 3 1/2!  So I wouldn’t be too terribly surprised.

    On the other hand, all of our family are early readers and it’s not an unmixed advantage.  We spent so much of our childhood reading, and so little playing outside or talking to other people.  (Of course living in Seattle does put a damper, pun intended, on outdoor time.)  And we all read too fast—so fast we sometimes miss things.  It’s like we look at a page and just absorb it; we don’t see the words.  Whereas my husband, who learned to read at eight, hears the sound of every word in his head as he reads.  He doesn’t miss much, though it takes him much longer, obviously.

    But if she’s ready, she’s ready and you can’t stop her!  I just wouldn’t encourage it or push it in any way.  I know it’s tempting to see if she could learn more words, recognize more shapes, but it’s probably much better to wait.  She may lose interest for awhile and come back to it when she’s more developmentally ready.

    My plan for my son is to take no effort to teach him to read until he’s 6-8 years old.  However, it seems very likely he’ll read before then.  Right now, I just answer any questions he has (he likes to know what letter is what) but I don’t offer information he hasn’t asked for.  He would probably learn faster if I encouraged it, but I don’t know that that’s a good thing, so I’m letting it be for now.

  2. By joanna on February 29, 2012

    This wide-open-mouth picture is how I imagine Charotte when you QUOTE HER IN ALL CAPS.

  3. By on February 29, 2012

    I was thinking the exact same things as Joanna. :) Love the picture!

  4. By carolina on February 29, 2012

    She looks like a DOLL. :o)

  5. By on February 29, 2012

    Fantastic if she can read a word or novels.  SHE IS FLIPPIN CUUUUTE IN THAT LITTLE DRESS AND THOSE SHOES>>>>I want to eat her up!!!!!

  6. By on February 29, 2012

    At my Charlotte’s school, they work on sight words. She can recognize her classmate’s names and she knows the first letter of the names of everyone in our family & the ABC song. I don’t think it’s too early.

    My parents read to me so much, I was able to read before starting kindergarten ( which just made some kindy lessons boring for me).

    Anyway, WAY TO GO Charlotte!

  7. By Sarah Christensen on February 29, 2012

    Sheila - That was my childhood too!!  I remember being in kindergarten and rushing to a corner of the playyard to read.  In kindergarten!  I guess one of the advantages of home-educating could be that I can designate certain times as just free play while still giving her plenty of reading time, but…she’s so young!  She has ages to learn to read!  I just want her to play!

    Joanna - LOL =)  I quote her in all caps when she screams or otherwise exclaims with overwhelming enthusiasm, so that’s probably pretty accurate!

    Jessica - How old were they when the kids started learning sight words like that?  Did your Charlotte or any of the other kids push back against it at all?

  8. By on February 29, 2012

    James’ teacher told me that many Montessori kids can read and write by age 4, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to start introducing that now. In fact, I wouldn’t discourage any desire to learn if it’s what’s driving her right now. It doesn’t mean it will consume her whole world forever. It’s a phase… embrace it!!

  9. By Amber on February 29, 2012

    My husband pretty much taught himself to read by age 3, because he’s an overachiever like that, so ... yay!

  10. By momiss on February 29, 2012

    Oh, my.  She looks like a big girl!  Your baby is gone….SOB.  Luckily, you have all these pictures.  She is going to be a beautiful big girl.  Let’s not think further ahead than that.  lol

  11. By Heather on February 29, 2012

    That is so sweet. She knows what the word looks like. Don’t be aftraid of teaching her to read, or letting her learn. I don’t think it changes her ability to be creative and play one bit. I’m already working on letters with my one year old, just because. We tell stories about each letter (we do a letter of the day) and tell her about things that start with that letter. We write it on her hand and I make felt or foam cut outs for her to play with. I usually cut out an animal that starts with the letter, too, so she gets to learn about that as well. Today is G and giraffe. :) She loves it and thinks it is the fun game. I don’t have high expectations of her learning the alphabet song this minute or anything, or of her being able to write. But I think it is a fun basis for reading, which we do all the time, and it gives me something different every day to point out in the same books that we are constantly reading, since we read them all at least fifty times in a row.

    And I must say, that dress and those shoes are the jam! :)

  12. By on February 29, 2012

    My Charlotte is in a class of all 2 year olds (until her birthday in less than 2 weeks! Ack when did that happen???)

    So the kids are all between 24 & 36 months. I think they make a game out of matching up letters. They have the letters on the wall and they can Velcro on the matching ones. They post new sight words every month. I don’t think they push the kids, so I don’t know of any push back.

    I try playing with foam letters and little letter magnets with her, but only when she’s interested. And she can draw a relatively good “C” which is how She signed her valentines this year.

  13. By on February 29, 2012

    I think as long as they’re having fun with it, they think it’s just a game and there’s no need to stress.

  14. By Lindsay on February 29, 2012

    I was reading by 3. My mom had me in a reading group with kindergarteners then just because I loved to read. On the other hand, my sister didn’t learn to read until 6. She was crawling and walking before I ever did. It’s so crazy how kids can be so different. I’ve secretly hoped that my little guy is an early reader, too, though I never thought about it the way you did—you’re so right!

  15. By on February 29, 2012

    Letters and the words they make are all arbitrary - someone, somewhere a long time ago assigned a meaning & sound to a shape and now we have a lot of languages to show for it. And really, isn’t that what we as adults do? We memorized what shapes make what letters & sounds and what those shapes look like together as words. I guess what I am saying is that what she is doing is quite similar to how adults read - we just don’t think of it that way.

    As we get older of course we learn the rules (innately, because really, how many people can explain to you WHY they speak the way they do?), and things become more complex…but at it’s root, what we do as adults when we read is not that much more advanced than what Charlotte is learning to do right now.

    Also, I would be willing ot bet (based on how much you read to/talk to/explain to/show her), that Charlotte knows hundreds (maybe thousands!) more words than she verbalizes.

    I hadn’t thought of it before but there is something to the idea that the more she can read, the more she will be exposed to that is not quite so childish and innocent…that is a little more serious…but as you said, she will find her way when the time is right. Also, my imaginative “play” expanded exponentially the more I was able to read. It may have been a little more serious and grown up (I was reading things like the Little House on the Prairie series & the Anne of Green Gables/Emily of New Moon series which of course tackle serious things but are still pretty light & whimsical & sweet so it’s not like I was daydreaming about experiences based on Go Ask Alice), but it added a lot of depth to who I was as a (little) person.

    I could blab on about this forever so I will just stop there :)

  16. By on February 29, 2012

    p.s. When I say that reading added depth to who I was as a little person, what I mean is that my mind started to expand, I could think more deeply about things and my life experience was much richer (and I know that sounds silly to say about yourself as a child but goshdarnit, it’s true - my childhood was MAGICAL and books played a huge part in shaping that for me).

  17. By Sarah S on February 29, 2012

    I know kids who learned to read at 2 or 3 and it does kind of squash the imagination/creative play a bit. Also, you run into a bit of a problem with early readers in that their reading ability surpasses books that are approrpriate for them and they are exposed to more things (signs, newspapers, magazine…)

    My daughter was ready to learn at 3 but I held off, wanting her to play and work on other developmental things. I figured if she came to me begging to know what a word was i would tell her of course but we weren’t going to push it until school. It also helped that she went to a play—based preschool where they learned letters but that was it. By 4 she had a lot of books memorized, but wouldn’t “read” them and I didn’t push or try to teach her. Currently she is 7, in 1st grade, in the TAG program, reading Harry Potter and has the best memory of any kid I know, so I’m glad I followed my mama instinct and waited. Also, a shockingly high percent of the kids from this play-based preschool in a non-affluent area have entered the TAG programs at their elementary schools. You can shove a lot of knowlege down a kids’ throat but it doesn’t necessarily make them smarter or enrich their world.

    Also and I’m not sure i need to say this but just in case - this is entirely my opinon and what worked for us. Different kids, different families, you know…it comes down to whatever works best for you.

  18. By on February 29, 2012

    Sarah,
    My mother is a teacher and read to us constantly when I was little. I started reading at 2 1/2 - 3 and was reading chapter books well before kindergarten. My brother and I were raised in this the same, and he was a late reader, struggling in the first grade and a little beyond. To this day, he is still an absolutely wretched speller. So, my point is that I believe it is entirely dependant on the child. If Charlotte is showing an interest in words, I would encourage that and let it flourish, but I wouldn’t push it at this point if she loses interest. Lastly, I have always been a very creative person, and I don’t think reading inhibits creativity at all….in fact, I’d suggest the opposite.

    Best of luck with your darling girl. :)

  19. By Sarah Christensen on February 29, 2012

    Lindsey - I guess my concern is that her imaginative play would expand in some ways because the worlds books would open for her are immense…but that it would shrink in other ways because she would use books as her basis for play more frequently and her own originality less frequently.  I can already see that her creative play is largely dictated by the books that we read together and that when I read something new to her, she begins playing with that new idea.  The question is: is she still playing with her own ideas at the same time or is she restricting her play to incorporate ideas that I’m passing to her through books?

    I also worry about her not being emotionally mature enough for books that could shortly be at her reading level…but are clearly written for children older than her who are ready for the themes they contain.

  20. By on February 29, 2012

    I was full-out reading by age 3 and I can tell you that it didn’t hurt my creative play AT ALL. I spent pretty much every day playing pretend games and telling elaborate stories to my toys well into my elementary school years. In fact, the #1 comment on my report cards is how “creative” I was.

    The problems came later. I was well ahead in my reading ability and had already read the kids books, so I started in on teen and young adult stuff and then adult stuff very early. I wasn’t ready for some of that.

    As far as the themes in every under teen books… no problem. I read Grimm’s fairytales, I read all the Wizard of Oz books… Roald Dahl can be a little creepy and I read all those. I was fine. I find that they’re more distressing to me as an adult than they were to me as a child.

  21. By on February 29, 2012

    I had the same issue as Kim. I started adult books very early. I will say though that some books while I could technically read them, I didn’t really “get” them because they were too old for me.  Little Women Was like this. Totally did not get what was going on.

  22. By on February 29, 2012

    ‘I also worry about her not being emotionally mature enough for books that could shortly be at her reading level…but are clearly written for children older than her who are ready for the themes they contain.“

    This is the biggest dilema for parents of gifted children. The friction between what their minds understand and what their emotions are ready for.  At seven, my son was intellectually 12 but emotionally 4 (as per a testing program for special needs kids)  Technical books, science and nature studies involve intellect but not so much emotion. Poetry is good too.  The other thing I found comfort in is that the mind cannot imagine what it is not ready to handle, unlike pictures/movies which present images that children may not be mature enough to handle.

  23. By Sarah S on February 29, 2012

    I think I need to amend my earlier comment, I don’t necessarily think early reading squashes imagination or creative play per se, but it can somewhat replace it time-wise. Also TAG is not the be all end all of smart kids, there are plenty of smart kids all around that don’t need a test to tell them that.

    The books being too mature is a real issue. At 6 my daughter started reading the Diary of a wimpy kid series which is really not for 6 year olds. Then you end up discouraging certain books, which is hard.

  24. By on February 29, 2012

    I can’t speak from parenting experience, but I was an early reader (chapter books by first grade). My parents read books to me every night and nothing was off-limits, although they definitely tried to steer me towards more age-appropriate books. I don’t think my free play was affected too terribly much by the content of the books I read, as even if I stole a few ideas here and there, it was still MY story. My teachers commented a lot on my creativity and my ability to understand things when they were first introduced in class which I attribute to being able to read EVERYTHING.

    That love of reading at an early age transferred all the way through school and continues to this day. I have quite a large book allowance built into my budget haha. My siblings did not start reading as early as I did, and I think that was a hindrance to them as they grew up. My sister is currently scoring about 200 points lower on the SAT verbal than I ever did. She also hates reading for class; something I never had trouble with.

    One final note about reading early: since I WAS reading chapter books by first grade, I would say I was reading adult books by the age of 8 or 9. While my parents never told me a book was off-limits, I actually had a teacher tell me that “I was not old enough to read his copy of The Lovely Bones.“ This prompted me to go out and buy it myself. Telling Charlotte something is off-limits might only fuel her desire to read it, so I would hesitate to discourage older books. Rather, read the book with her and talk about the mature themes in it etc.

  25. By on February 29, 2012

    Aah, I see…that hadn’t occurred to me.

  26. By on February 29, 2012

    Your neighborhood looks so pretty with the rolling hills.

  27. By Alicia S. on March 01, 2012

    Early reading instruction itself has been proven specifically not to inhibit creative play—but stress definitely will. That’s what “hot housing” is, and why - according to something I’ve skimmed recently - there’s like a “national goal” now of incorporating more creative play into China’s early education systems than ever before. (China, of course, is notorious for being bad about hot-housing their children.) Too much too soon is a killer of creativity. I probably never would have made that connection myself without reading up on it, but as the mom of a kid who did pretty much everything very early, I was really surprised to learn about it when I did, because Matthew is enormously imaginative.  And as an artist myself, I really, really prize his creativity.

    Matthew learned to read fluently at 3, and that was never an issue. (We encouraged it, trying hard not to push, and following his cues made that easy to do. A child is only capable of absorbing what they’re ready to learn, and a three year old who’s not engaged isn’t going to humor you for the sake of being polite—they’re going to start stomping around the room like a dinosaur and say: LETS PLAY DINOSAURS NOW.)

    But he also taught himself to write at the age of 2, and that was an issue. Knowing how to write the letters correctly, but having the physical “handicap” of only being 2 was incredibly frustrating for him. And to a two to three year old, a little frustration is enormously stressful. That’s the kind of thing you want to look out for.

    I agree with Lyndsey: Charlotte can probably sight read a ton of words right now. Just based on the little window you’ve given us into the knowledgebase she has about animals and plant life and such., it’s easy to see that Charlotte is “formally taught” a great deal. I really don’t think broadening that scope to include a few sight words or phonetics (that she’s clearly showing you she’s ready for) is going to dramatically change the shape of her childhood. You prize her creativity far too much to ever let that happen. And like I said before, the cues of a two year old are pretty straightforward. :-)

  28. By Gracia on March 01, 2012

    I learned to read the summer I turned 4 and I was VERY bored when my class was learning ma-ma and I was reading books, so my teacher just fed my need for books and I didn’t mess with her class.

    I agree it may be hard to find age-apropiate books for advanced young readers, but I loved reading classics like Treasure Island, many Jules Verne or even Neverending Story before I was 8. I would just ask my parents when things got complicated. It also taught me to guess a word by its context, to use a dictionary and that there were many many other things I didn’t know out there.

    I don’t think reading (or being read) will “limit” how much she uses her own ideas for play because after all her ideas come from the world surrounding her, including books, the things she sees, the things you tell her and how she understands and interprets it all. In my opinion, diversifying what she reads would only give her more and more ideas to be developed through play.

  29. By Bethany on March 01, 2012

    We are in the same boat with our 25 month old, so I’m reading all the comments with interest. (To date she has identified “up,“ “dog,“ and, hilariously, “apotheke” (German pharmacy) by sight. (Apotheke being due to the one across the street from us, whose sign she can see from the living room window. ;) Shocked the hell out of me when she identified it in a different context, though.)

  30. By on March 02, 2012

    I just find it ironic that you are surprised that she recognizes words by sight already, considering your devotion to childhood reading. Since I don’t know you personally, I see the forest more than the trees…think about all the books you have reviewed on this blog. :-) I just want to say good for you.

  31. By tara pollard pakosta on March 05, 2012

    Little SMartie charlotte! I love that she loves to learn and doesn’t even realize she is doing it!
    My daughter between 16—20 months was OBSESSED with learning her letters! she would bring me a pen and pad of paper and tell me “s” (her name was savannah) that was her way of telling me to write the letters then ask her what they were and she would tell me! she knew them all by 18-19 months right before her baby sister was born! it was awesome! kids are so smart, little sponges! I love that you are such a GREAT teacher to your little girl!
    xoxo
    tara


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