I receive many questions about school readiness, especially when it comes to reading. The most common question, “When should young children learn to read?” In the most educationally advanced countries, Finland, New Zealand, and Australia, children learn to read starting at age seven. In the United States, we start earlier. Rather than give a definitive answer, I want to explore the role of nature and nurture in learning to read.
Young child development is impacted by nature and nurture. Nature includes genetics and prenatal development creating biological milestones for development, creating individualized skill development. Nature governs when optimal windows of development are open in the brain. Everything from attachment to reading are governed by these biological optimal development opportunities. Nurture is focused on the environmental factors in young children’s lives that impact the exposure to experiences, relationships, and environments that provide enrichment to the physical body and the brain. Enriched experiences, relationships, and environments create complex neuro-pathways in the brain, providing the brain opportunities to maximize learning during the optimal biological windows.
Take reading for example, enriched experiences (making lists when going to the store, environmental print, exposure to many materials and experiences, etc.), relationships (being read to, asked open-ended questions, being authentically listened to, etc.) and environments (dramatic play, physical activity, varied and challenging toys and materials, etc.) all serve to create enriched neuro-circuitry in brain.
The more connections in the brain, the more the brain is able to capture new information and attach it to those connections. Thus young children exposed to many experiences, enriched environments, and secure and sustained relationships have a greater ability to capture, make connections, and use information that is presented in their daily lives to build context in understanding what print means and what print explains. The act of reading is biological, when the brain is able to myelinate---the act of brain cells going from forming connections tohaving connections---is the difference between learning and knowing. Myelination, as a biological function, is determined by the body’s internal clock. However, how much children understand, think critically, and scaffold between their experiences and the text are all impacted by nurture experiences of early childhood. These early experiences are so important to create critical thinking that reading comprehension scores in 4th grade are used to forecast future prison funding because by fourth grade trajectories for future success are statically accurate.
Since young children develop asynchronously---physical, socio-emotional, and cognitive development---is different for each child, so young children learn to read at different ages. The most important work we can do in early childhood classrooms is provide deep, meaningful experiences that support young children in developing many connections that later support critical thinking.
If you want to support school readiness, offer many new experiences that support young children’s exploration, experimentation, and theory building. That’s how you prepare for school.