Early Literacy: Review of the Research

[This is the third post in a five-part series on early literacy.]

I am not a specialist in literacy, child development, or early education, but from my (somewhat cursory*) look at the research in this area, I’ve come to the following conclusion: a lot of work has been done on factors that contribute to literacy development, but very little work has been done on age effects and literacy. That is, we know what skills and abilities a person needs in order to develop literacy skills, but we don’t know if/how the development of these skills and abilities is affected, or constrained, by age.   

I won’t go into what skills and abilities are needed for literacy because that is not the focus of this post. But for those interested in reading about it, I think the Handbook of Early Literacy is probably a good place to start. As for studies on the role of age and literacy, there are few, and they tend to focus on either children of low-income families or children with speech delays.  I did come across one study, Phillips et al. (1996), that showed early literacy predicted higher reading proficiency. However, this study looked at reading proficiency of the students when they reached fourth grade. Therefore, they are basing their conclusions on students who are nine years old and just transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn. In order to look at “ultimate attainment” of reading ability based on the age at which instruction began, studies need to look at differences among children who are at least ten years old. 

In the article, Starting school at age seven ‘can boost pupil’ reading skills, the author, Graeme Paton, critiques the British education system for beginning reading instruction at age five. Paton points out, “Academics suggested that infants given more time to naturally develop their language skills in the early years had a better foundation when they started conventional tuition at seven.” He cites a recent study showing that not only do students who start reading before age six not have an advantage over students who begin reading at age seven, but students who don’t begin reading until age seven show an advantage over their early reader peers by age 10.  I decided to read the original studies cited by Paton to determine whether these statements are representative of the data. 

In the 2009 study looking at 2006 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) data, Suggate looked at reading proficiency in 15-year-olds from 55 countries, with the age of school entry ranging from age four to age seven. The data showed no significance difference in reading proficiency at age 15 among any of the age-of-entry groups, nor did entry age predict reading achievement for any given country. This study controlled for a number of social and economic characteristics, but one major limitation, as noted by the author, is the unknown cultural factors that may have played a role. 

Addressing these limitations, Suggate et al. (2012) conducted a more controlled and focused study. The authors looked at reading proficiency over the first six years of schooling of children who started reading instruction at either five or seven years of age. By age 11, differences in letter naming, non-word, word, and passage reading, and decoding had disappeared between the two groups, and interestingly, students who began reading instruction at age seven outperformed the students who began reading instruction at age five in reading comprehension. The authors conclude, “Around age 10, children learning to read at seven had caught up to those learning at 5. Later starters had no long-term disadvantages in decoding and reading fluency. For whatever reason, the later starters had slightly better reading comprehension.”

As with any research question, it is important to conduct replication studies to ensure the results are reliable and generalizable. Based on the limited number of studies I found on age effects in literacy, there is a lot of work to be done before we understand the optimal age to begin teaching reading. However, from what I have read, I would conclude, at the very least, that staring earlier does not provide an advantage over starting at age six or seven. 

In next week’s post I will write about what happens in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms that incorporate reading instruction and those that do not. Specifically, I will explore how children spend their time and consider the development of skills - other than literacy - that typically take place during these early childhood years. 

*Feel free to email me additional references on this topic!


Neuman, S. B., & Dickenson, D. K. (Eds.) (2011). Handbook of early Literacy, Vol. 3. The Guilford Press: New Yok, NY.

Paton, G. Starting school at age seven ‘can boost pupil’ reading skills. The Telegrpah. June 24, 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9289480/Starting-school-at-seven-can-boost-pupils-reading-skills.html

Phillips, L. M., Norris, S. P., Mason, J. M. (1996). Longitudinal Effects of Early Literacy Concepts on Reading Achievement: A Kindergarten Intervention and Five-Year Follow-up. Journal of Literacy Research, 28, 173-195.

Suggate, S. P. (2009). School entry age and reading achievement in the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). International Journal of Educational Research, 48, 151-161.

Suggate, S. P., Schaughency, E. A., & Reese, E. (2012). Children learning to read later catch up to children reading earlier. Early Childhood Research Quarterly.