My Preschooler Can’t Read Yet (And That’s Ok)

as an ex-primary school teacher, you might think my kids would be ahead of the curve when it comes to education. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. My preschooler can’t read yet, and actually, there are two of them. Although they are not foreign to bedtime stories, my 4-year-old twin boys can’t read a word yet. Yes, not even a few sight words and I’m not the slightest bit worried—in fact, I’m happy. Here’s why.

Kids Don’t Have to Be Born Reading Geniuses to be Smart

pre schooler

There is no evidence that learning literacy and math skills earlier is beneficial to students overall learning and education. Contrary to popular belief, there is a lot of evidence that starting too early, before children are developmentally ready is harmful to a child’s learning in the long term. However, I really hate to use the word ‘harm.’ We use it far too often in parenting literature. This I think contributes to parents’ overall anxiety believing that they are accidentally going to damage and harm their child without even realizing it. 

So let’s peddle back the rhetoric a little. There’s nothing that says early reading will be helpful to your child’s learning.     

We need to worry less about the age our children are learning to read and more about when they are developmentally ready to start working on this lifelong skill. Then again, perhaps your child was ready for letters and numbers at the young age of three. As parents, we pick up these changes in our children. That’s the funny thing about being a parent; you actually know your child better than anyone from the moment they are born.    

My boys turn 5 this year, and I don’t worry about their ability to read. I’m not even concerned about their interest in the matter. My boys can’t read but:

  • My children love books 
  • They love story time before bed 
  • They have access to lots of different types of books
  • Books and reading are a part of their life even though they can’t read yet 
  • Right now I think this is all they need

Why It Doesn’t Matter that My Preschooler Can’t Read (Yet)

struggling readers

It doesn’t matter because they love books. Aside from that, they have no feelings of inadequacy or fear around their ability to read. My boys ask me to read different things to them without feeling embarrassed or ashamed. They enjoy watching youtube videos about letters and numbers and will sometimes sing along. This makes me really happy. Right now it’s fun, there is no fear and no shame around their ability and their learning. This is more important than being able to read. Right now they are happy and not interested in learning to read. I’m not interested in pushing them to spend time learning letter sounds, sight words, and trying to get them to read before they are ready.  

 “A significant number of 4-year-olds had already decided that they were smart or dumb, good or bad! So, for a little boy who is developmentally not ready to perform some of the tasks being asked of him, he runs the risk of creating one of these negative mindsets.  Not only that but day after day his self-worth barometer is emptied.” 

Carol Dweck, Psychologist and Researcher

I will always be more concerned with my children’s feelings of self-worth and their mindset than their intellectual ability.  Right now they tell me they are clever, they are strong and they are handsome.  These are things we tell them every day.  I don’t want them believing anything else.    

I actually started to see the first knock to my boy’s self confidence when they were three years old.  The daycare had started to teach phonic and were giving simple worksheets.  For the first time I started to hear my boys say “I can’t do it” Heartbreaking for any parent and nerve-wracking to answer.  They were not ready for phonics and worksheets.  Of course they couldn’t do it and quite frankly I didn’t want them doing worksheets and learning phonics.  I wanted them outside running, jumping, getting dirty, and playing make believe.  

My Preschooler Can’t Read Yet: So What?


I’m happy to report we are now at a new play-based daycare where all learning is through play, exploration, and experimentation.  It’s been such a boost to their self-confidence.  They also astound me with their inventive creations.       

Considering the findings of Carol Dweck and others in the early childhood education sector I do feel nervous about my boys starting school.  I don’t want their confidence to be crushed in their first year of school, affecting their internal dialogue about their ability.  All this because they are developmentally not ready for formalized reading and writing.  They are just not ready to sit still either.  Something lots of little and big boys find very difficult.     

I’ve become a big believer in the push for play-based education.  Later in the year, my boys will start kindy in Western Australia.  I’m nervous. Will they be ready?  However, with my boys turning 5 after the 30th June cut off they will be among the older group of kids in their year level.  This gives them a benefit of relative age over their peers whose birthdays are  before the 30th of June.  According to Professor Lionel Page from UTS “We know from academic studies that relative age has an effect on school achievement: kids who are relatively older tend to perform better. It could be because they are more mature and relatively more confident,” 

In fact, research into early childhood heavily favors later starting ages for children.  This is why I’m totally unconcerned about my children’s ability to read now in preschool.  They aren’t developmentally ready.  When they are ready, they will learn to read and it won’t damage their confidence and perception of their ability,   

Children who are pushed too much, too soon have a much higher chance of struggling with anxiety, depression, addictions, poor health, and poor relationships, throughout their lives because they become wired to be hypersensitive to stress.

– Maggie Dent, Mothering Our Boys

what to do when child don't read

I want my boys to love school.  I want them to enjoy learning and not feel stressed or anxious about their ability to learn.  If my boys had shown they were ready and wanting to read  I would have started some activities with them. 

This is also why I support Dent’s mission to make starting ages of kids in Western Australia more flexible.  If kids are ready for school at 4 years old, why can’t they wait a year?  The research shows this extra time helps prepare them in the long term.  If you would like to support Dent’s campaign to allow parents more freedom to decide when their children should start school follow the link.  

I’m also looking at completing Dent’s online common sense parenting course “Getting Ready for Big School.” I think this will be a great way to ensure a happy and healthy start for my boys.

My Preschooler Can’t Read Yet But is Ready for Other Things

young reader

My husband and I always marveled at our friend’s daughter who at the same age as the boys could speak 4 languages, read, count, and sing nursery rhymes in 4 different languages too.  Girls often (but not always) develop quicker than boys and are often developmentally ready for reading and a learning environment at a younger age.    

As much as we marveled at our friend’s little girl, they were impressed by our boy’s fearlessness, swimming, and athletic ability which surpassed many of their peers. This reminds me of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote “Comparison is the thief of joy”. Just because other kids might be reading, doesn’t mean there is something wrong with mine (or yours) if they aren’t.  

If their ability to read doesn’t matter, what does? 

What really matters to me is the desire to learn, a love of books, and exploration at their own pace and development. 

For instance, yesterday morning my son picked up my husband’s book on his bedside table and proceeded in a very serious manner to ‘read’ me the book.  He very happily turned the pages and read to me.  

“Mummy works in the kitchen. Daddy is old. Mummy and Daddy are married. Ho Ho (Santa Clause) will come with more presents soon.” 

Now, while I take objection to his statement that ‘Mummy works in the kitchen’ I love seeing him ‘read’.  In fact this pretend experimental reading is just where reading should begin.  

We also read the same books over and over again.  Their current favourite is a book about time and what time they do things such as brush teeth, go to school and have a bath.  They also love the story of Aladdin, we have read it countless times.  

They have just started to realize that some words sound the same but mean different things.  For instance, their latest discovery is mussels and muscles.  They also like to sing along to youtube songs about letters and numbers.  All of these fun things they love are pre-literacy skills that will help them when they finally begin to learn how to read.    

The Finnish System 

how to get child to read

A few years back I became obsessed with the Finnish system.  They managed to turn around their education system and consistently produce top scores for their high school-aged children.  The school also focuses on play-based education for younger children and school starts at 7 years and is only half a day!  They don’t give tests and they have long recesses.  Reading all of this I decided that I wanted to keep my boys out of school until they were 7 to maximize their playtime and ensure they were developmentally ready for school.    

In all honesty, with two working parents and a new baby, it’s not going to be a reality.  I also think they need more than just me in their daily life.  Right now they love their daycare and the teachers who provide wonderful play and learning situations that I would never have the time or patience to create.  While I`ve given up on the idea of homeschooling in the early years I can focus on my fostering my children’s self-esteem.  I also have a feeling I’ll be an annoying parent.  Do ex-teachers make the worst parents for other teachers? 

Although the academe praise the Finnish system for their approach to school, research also maintains that Scandinavian languages are much easier to learn than English.     

It’s no wonder that some kids and some of us adults really struggle to read.  Ability will come and ability will increase with age.  We don’t need to push too fast too soon.  I remember trying to read Jane Austin’s Emma when I was 13.  It was quite a challenge, but not anymore.  I remember trying to read Dr Zhivago at 21, it was quite a challenge.  I haven’t attempted it again.  Reading and learning to read is a lifelong learning journey that we all take at our own pace.  This is what I’ll be teaching my boys as we ready them to enter the school system.        

My Preschooler Can’t Read Yet So When Will I Worry? 

sight words

I’d worry more about disinterest in books rather than their ability to read.  However, by 9if  they couldn’t read I might start to get a bit concerned, particularly as this would inhibit their ability to succeed at school and feel good about their learning. There is nothing more important to me than their perception of their intelligence and learning.  I think if they couldn’t read by this stage they would be having difficulties at school and feeling dejected.  

A Word Wall

I used to see these in early years classrooms all the time.  It’s great for kids to visualize words they come across and see the letter combinations and patterns.  Might be a feature for the toy room in our house.  

Flashcards with Pictures

Words such as sight words do need to be rotely learned. You can’t sound them out and children just need to see the word and know it.  We can practise every night before bed.    

Read to Them Every Night

We’ve made reading a part of our bedtime routine since the boys were about 12 months and it’s never too early to start.  They love story time.  We often read the same book over and over and over again.  You know what i’m talking about!  But this is actually an excellent practice for helping our kids learn to read.  If bedtime has got away from us, I let the boys listen to a story or meditation on my phone as they fall asleep.     

Ask Questions While Reading 

My husband is great at this when he reads to the boys.  Asking questions increases their comprehension ability.  More important than being able to read is actually understanding what they are reading.  I’ve seen plenty of kids at school read really well and have absolutely no idea what they just read.  

So yes, my preschoolers can’t read yet.

They can’t read a word. 

And, i’m totally ok with that.   

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