I’ll never forget the moment I watched in amazement as my newly-turned 4 year old sounded out her first few CVC words. With input from her father, “fart” followed within a day or two, and I was horrified, but also excited that she mysteriously managed an r-controlled vowel without any explicit instruction. Within a week, she was reading short, made-up sentences I scrawled out on the whiteboard for her in our living room. You’ve found this post because you’re likely in the same position, thinking “Holy crap! My tiny little 4 year old can read! What now?”
As a former 3rd grade reading teacher and a mom of two other babies, I know early reading is a blessing to appreciate like any other strength. I did VERY little work to getting her reading those first few words; she was a magical little unicorn decoding the mysteries before her like it was no big deal at all. Reading development varies tremendously from one child to the next. It’s counterproductive to push a kid with actual reading lessons who isn’t ready.
Turkey Burger is now 6 and her obsession with reading has only deepened. Here’s what I’ve learned about encouraging an early reader.
Here’s a quick disclaimer. I strongly believe the vast majority of kids benefit from in-depth phonics instruction. If you’re between the ages of 20-40, you probably did not get true phonics instruction in school and won’t have the foggiest clue how to teach it to your child. Telling your kid to “sound it out” will just frustrate both of you. Get your baby a teacher who loves phonics and has extensive training in it!
Occasionally, you’ll find a kid who just “gets it” and needs very little assistance learning to decode. They are likely naturally gifted with language and also had tons of early exposure to books. If your child is late into kinder or the early elementary years and doesn’t seem to just magically understand reading, skip this post. It will just frustrate you, and that’s soooooo not helpful!
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Once your 4 year old can read, identify your child’s reading level and gather books.
When you first notice that your 4 year old can read, there’s no need to immediately purchase level A, B, or C level readers. Just write short sentences on a whiteboard like this one, and be sure to draw funny pictures. Pictures aid comprehension and are an important part of learning to read.
As you write fun little personalized sentences, pay attention to your handwriting. Print carefully so you don’t confuse your child with unfamiliar looking letters.
Once your child can read sentences you’ve written like “My dad loves me,” and “I have a dog,” it’s probably a great time to celebrate with some readers. We began with level E and F books. These were fabulous! You get 20 books for less than $20 in many cases.
You may have seen “I Can Read” books. Here’s my only hesitation about these books: they aren’t quite as targeted to ability level. The leveling system isn’t as sophisticated. You also won’t be using the “I Can Read” leveling system in elementary school.
Many teachers use the Fountas and Pinnell alphabetical leveling system. Check with your elementary school ELAR department and find out what leveling system they’ll use when your child begins kindergarten. By the time you switch away from a whiteboard, your kiddo will probably be somewhere in the D-E-F range.
Preserve the joy of reading no matter what.
If you pay close attention to all the other tips below, you’ll notice an overriding theme: keep reading joyful and non-threatening. If you play your cards right, your child will love to read for his or her whole life because it came easily and was always geared toward enjoyment. Much like athletic kids love to play ball and dramatic children love the stage, early readers love books. Let’s keep it that way!
This hilarious little book is called Ewe Loves You, and it’s a book that teaches homophones.
Discover the library together and create library habits.
Focus on exploring the library, even before your child can read.
Let your child explore the library without pushing him or her to the “right” section of books for his or her reading level. You can obviously point them to a great spot if they’re feeling overwhelmed by all the choices, but follow cues.
One way you can make the library a successful trip is to independently gather books for your child while he or she explores. Go ahead and choose books you know will be just perfect. If your child isn’t interested, drop the matter.
When your kid wants to bring home a book that doesn’t work for their reading level, let them. If they want to bring home a book about mummies and you think that’s creepy – oh well. Don’t micromanage the library.
The library will often have games, puzzles, and coloring activities. If it interests them, let them play without protesting, “We have all that stuff at home! Look at the books!” The library should be fun.
If you think of libraries as nothing more than a way to borrow books for free, you’re missing the point. No matter how much money you can throw at your kid’s reading habit, the library is still a better experience for them.
This is our color-coded home library is perfect if you’ve got a 4 year old that can read. Color coded library systems are easier to keep organized for young kids. I learned this hack from #thehomeedit!
Utilize your librarian.
Don’t be afraid to ask the children’s librarian for help – they live for these moments! Librarians are obsessed with reading and love helping people find great books. Be aware that they are sometimes shy and quiet types that prefer to be approached before getting in your way.
When necessary, make use of online holds and curbside pickup.
During 2020, we’ve had to be creative about the library. Our kids haven’t gotten to use the library properly this year. That bums me out, because the three year old boy, Chicken Patty, is at the perfect age to discover the joy of library time. However, our online catalogue is pretty easy to use, and it’s no big deal to place holds.
So we’ve created a routine where a couple of times each week, I’ll use the online library catalogue to put a hold on about 10 different books. I try to select a wide variety, covering both fiction and non-fiction. Once the books are available at our branch – typically about 48 hours later – we pick them up at the librarian’s desk after school.
Your routine might be different, but if you’ve got a voracious reader, you probably need some sort of system for quickly and easily changing out your books.
Grandma sent this book called “Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls,” and Turkey Burger loves it!
Don’t obsess over reading level at the expense of your child’s interests.
Knowing your child’s reading level and being able to quickly identify books that are appropriate is very helpful. But once your child is a happy, independent reader, don’t obsess over having him or her read the “right” books.
If your child is on a guided reading level M but loves outer space, he or she could very easily read a non-fiction text about planets written at a level N or O. When it comes to non-fiction, gorgeous pictures and quality text features make a huge difference in comprehension.
Similarly, just because a book is below your child’s reading level doesn’t mean it lacks worth for your child. If my daughter is going to pick up a book about epidemics and plagues, I’d love for it to be below her guided reading level. She’s not familiar with the topic, and I’m just excited she’s trying something new. Make decoding as easy as possible to support comprehension.
When your 4 year old can read, the appropriateness of the text matters more than the reading level.
One challenge of having a 4 year old who can read is that they’re often well into chapter books by 6. If your child is a 6 year old reading on a 5th grade level, they are perfectly capable of reading something like the Twilight Saga, which is written on a 4th grade level. Obviously, that’s not what you want.
Focus on interest and appropriateness, and then just get reading level in the ballpark. My 6 year old reads larger chapter books, beginner graphic novels, children’s Bibles and picture books with minimal text.
Turkey Burger reading a copy of a picture book about Anne Frank from the library. We think this is appropriate for her, but may not be right for all kids at this age.
Institute a “Read and Rest” in your family routine.
Since Turkey Burger dropped napping around age 3, I’ve had a daily “read and rest” time to protect my own sanity. Since she’s relentlessly busy and bad at resting, we compromised. She didn’t have to nap, but she did have to rest in her bed with books.
Over time, she has built up her reading endurance. She now consistently reads for up to two hours a day. Occasionally, she’ll lose interest in her library books or her own reading material and begin crafting in her room quietly.
My middle child, Chicken Patty, also loves books and is growing disinterested in napping at age three. He is also allowed to read in his room. On the days he’s not tired enough, he will read in his room for up to two hours using the books on his own bookshelf. He’s a very different child with lots of physical energy, so I know with some practice and discipline, all kids can learn to enjoy books and alone time.
If you can’t imagine your child staying put in their rooms for any period of time without you, I highly recommend the Hatch sound machine and okay to wake clock. You can customize the settings from an app on your phone. Chicken Patty knows he isn’t allowed to leave his room until his Hatch machine turns from a white light to a pinkish red hue. We worked up to longer lengths of time.
Value your child’s interests while broadening their horizons.
Whether shopping on Amazon or using the local library, I generally follow a 60/40 rule of thumb. I make sure that about 60% of the books will be familiar favorites – additional chapter books in a series she already loves, picture books from favorite authors, or simply books on a topic I already know she enjoys.
The other 40% will be wildcard books – a nonfiction book about viruses and plagues, a Bible written like a graphic novel, or a chapter book that’s one level too high but in a super high-interest category. For example, she’s currently on a guided reading level S, but if it’s a book about unicorns with plenty of pictures, she might easily read a level T.
For your child’s whole life, they’ll be expected to read things that are outside their comfort zone. Take advantage of his or her natural curiosity at this age to build confidence and enthusiasm for new challenges.
I never force my kid to read something boring or outside her natural comfort zone. I simply make the book available and act excited about it. Sometimes, I’ll read the beginning of the book with her to spark her interest. I have found she will choose these books last during Read and Rest, but if she’s getting bored with her current collection, she’ll give it a try and sometimes discover a new love.
I checked this one out from the library as part of my 60/40 rule. Spoiler alert: she hated it.
Bridge the gap to chapter books with graphic novels.
If your child loves picture books, making the leap to chapter books can be really intimidating. It’s totally age appropriate and normal to love the pictures in a book and find comfort in them. Pictures also aid reading comprehension.
The perfect bridge to chapter books is graphic novels. Kids need to learn that it’s totally normal to not finish a book in one session, but if you think about it, that’s a huge change to make!
Graphic novels cover the gap perfectly. The pictures are familiar and there’s less text on a page than a traditional chapter book, but they are longer than a typical picture book. They learn about stopping and using a bookmark.
My daughter’s all time favorite graphic novel series are the Bad Kitty books.
Bad Kitty books are a guided reading level M.
Another great series is the Phoebe and her Unicorn set. These books are written on a guided reading level Q.
If your 4 year old can read or look at books independently, encourage outdoor reading.
Kids need to be outside, but I struggle to get my reader outdoors. She has never been one to run around aimlessly, and digging in the dirt doesn’t seem to come naturally. Next up, we’re trying to incorporate more organized sports.
One way I can get her outside is by encouraging outdoors reading. I want to make nature exploration a priority, but until I gain some parenting skills in that area, reading can be easily moved outside for some Vitamin D. I’m hoping that just by being outdoors on nice days, she’ll develop an appreciation for nature. We also regularly go for walks and go hiking.
As a third grade teacher, I had a classroom overlooking a courtyard. My room had big windows, so I could easily keep an eye on the weather. I often found that when my students got off to a rough start, I could improve behavior by simply allowing them a 20 minute independent reading time in the courtyard. The quietness and fresh air was like doing a hard reset on their brains.
Prepare for school challenges unique to early readers.
Prepare for developmental differences to emerge.
Turkey Burger started pre-k at age 2 and was the youngest in the 3 year old class, because she has an August birthday. She was ready for pre-k due to her language abilities and fine motor skills. I was working, and daycare cost the same as pre-k. However, she struggled with outbursts and temper tantrums, as well as gross motor skills. She was simply immature.
I remember she cried on the way home from her first day. Turkey Burger was perfectly capable of articulating the problem: all the other kids could put on their own backpacks, and she couldn’t. She did not have the gross motor skills to manage the straps. There will be other challenges that come her way!
If your 4 year old can read, resist the urge to skip kindergarten or first grade.
There are always kids who overachieve academically and others who struggle at any grade level. Still, kids who are super advanced with reading and language as they enter kindergarten level out quite a bit by third grade.
However, the social and emotional developmental differences are often glaringly obvious. As a third grade teacher, I could always always pick out the youngest and oldest students in the class on the first day of school without checking my roster. There would occasionally be high achievers who were the youngest in the class, but they almost always struggled socially.
Just because your child reads early does not mean they need to skip grades. There are so many other factors to consider.
Turkey Burger may always be advanced in language. Nevertheless, I do not want her attending college at age 17 or struggling with behavioral issues in middle school, so we are glad to have held her back.
Boredom happens, but it’s not the end of the world.
When kids are bored in school with work that’s too easy, they will occasionally act out. Judging by the Facebook mom groups, you’d think it was the source of every classroom behavior problem. In my experience, it’s not half as common as you’d think. Most kids act out because the work is TOO hard, not the other way around.
While it can be hard for a teacher to make work easier, it’s very easy to raise the bar for advanced students. For example, when teaching third grade writing, I can easily just hold the child to a much higher standard on their writing by asking them to incorporate more figurative language or write a stronger opinion statement. Likewise, if one of my students was reading a text in groups that was way too easy for them, I could usually construct higher-level questions to differentiate instruction.
I’ve even had an advanced student skip my mini lessons at the rug if I knew he or she would be bored, and encouraged them to re-alphabetize my bookshelf (something that’s difficult for most elementary school kids).
If your 4 year old can read, prepare for less individualized attention than other students.
Turkey Burger doesn’t get much guided reading time with her teacher. That’s because the whole class needs to be ready for first grade, and there are other higher priority students during reading time. That’s normal and expected for public school. It does NOT mean your child’s teacher is doing a bad job.
While Turkey Burger doesn’t get much one-on-one support from her teacher, she does get to help other students during center time, and she loves that. So it’s a trade-off she doesn’t seem to mind.
I make up the difference by pushing her more at home in the areas where she’s less naturally inclined.