Longitudinal Effects of Learning to Read Early

By Dr. Robert Titzer

The studies conducted on this topic report that when children are taught to read in the first four years of life, regardless of the method, they have long-term advantages compared to children who are taught at more traditional ages.

The earlier the child is taught to read, the better the child reads.

In the 1960s, Durkin conducted longitudinal studies over a six year period1,2,3. Children who were taught to read at ages 3-4 read better than children of the same IQ who were taught at ages 5-6. Those with the same IQs who were taught at ages 7-8 were even farther behind. Six years later, the children who were taught to read earlier were still ahead of the same-IQ children who were taught later. In addition, the earlier the child was taught to read, the more likely the child enjoyed reading.

In a five-year longitudinal study4, Sénéchal and LeFevre (2002) found: “Parent involvement in teaching children about reading and writing words was related to the development of early literacy skills. Early literacy skills directly predicted word reading at the end of grade 1 and indirectly predicted reading in grade 3. Word reading at the end of grade 1 predicted reading comprehension in grade 3.”

At age 7: What is the best predictor for success 35 years later?

A study from the United Kingdom shows that early math and reading abilities have very long-term benefits5. Children who performed better on reading and math tests at age 7 were more likely to earn higher wages later in life according to researchers at the University of Edinburgh. The team analyzed data from the 1958 National Child Development Study in the UK. They found children with early reading and math skills at age seven had better jobs, better housing, and higher incomes at age 42. Children who advanced by just one grade level in reading by age seven earned an average of 5,000 GBP (about $8,000 USD) per year more at age 42 than their classmates.

People usually state that there are many confounding variables and the early reading or math skills were probably not the main factor associated with doing well 42 years later. However Ritchie and Bates (2013, p. 6) state that “mathematical and reading ability at age 7 are substantially and positively correlated with SES at age 42, independently of relevant confounding variables.” In other words, it was the actual reading and math abilities at age 7 – not just the child’s socio-economic status, the child’s IQ, or other factors – that had a lasting impact on the person’s life.

Ritchie and Bates state, “Achievement in mathematics and reading was also significantly associated with intelligence scores, academic motivation, and duration of education. These findings suggest effects of improved early mathematics and reading on SES attainment across the life span.” They noted that early reading and math skills had a larger impact on future socio-economic status than intelligence, education level, and social status in childhood. This study makes a very strong case for teaching early reading and math skills. They call it a route to social mobility because initial socio-economic status was not as important as whether or not the child had early reading or math abilities at age 7.

According to six longitudinal studies, what is the best predictor for academic success throughout elementary school, middle school, and high school?  

While the parents’ IQs, the child’s IQ, and the families’ socio-economic statuses are all important, they were not the best predictors. From a meta-analysis of six large longitudinal studies (four in the US, one in the UK, and one in Canada), economist Greg J. Duncan, PhD, of Northwestern University, and many co-authors6learned that early math mastery of numbers (including understanding the order of numbers) best predicted later success. Early language skills — including reading — were next in predicting later achievement. Remember by “early” here they mean learning by about age 5 years. Therefore, strong cases for developing early math and reading abilities can easily be made.

A child’s attention-related skills such as the abilities to control hyperactive behavior, to focus on finishing a task, and to be motivated to learn were also important.  Behavioral and social problems when entering school did not appear to cause problems with later learning. Duncan et al. (2007) found that performance when entering kindergarten was most associated with long-term academic success in reading and math across all six studies.

According to these six longitudinal studies, the early learning prior to entering school was the best predictor of long-term success in school. In other words, parents should be involved in helping the child learn math and reading skills prior to entering kindergarten because the best indicator of how well a child will do academically through high school is how well the child is doing on math and reading when entering Kindergarten.

Early reading ability may actually have a positive causal influence on intelligence7according to Harlaar, Hayious-Thomas, and Plomin (2005). The children in their study were not even taught to read during the first years of life in that study. 

Would 20-30 minutes a day of direct instruction of reading during kindergarten be better than a traditional approach of focusing on the names of the letters and other pre-reading skills?

A longitudinal study investigated using direct formal instruction of reading in Kindergarten instead of using the widely-accepted traditional approach that teaches “pre-reading” skills in Kindergarten. A large national scale study was conducted across 10 states and 24 school districts with 3,959 participants10. The study compared high school seniors who were taught to read in Kindergarten with direct formal instruction with the high school seniors who were taught with other types of “pre-reading” instruction in kindergarten, such as learning the names of the letters of the alphabet.

Hanson and Farrell (1995) state: “The results of the study refute the prevailing conventional wisdom about schools, programs, and particularly, current policy regarding teaching reading in Kindergarten. In addition to showing a positive effect on such school-related factors such as grades, attendance, and the need for remedial instruction, this study demonstrated a remarkably clear and consistent pattern of increased reading competency for high school seniors as a result of receiving formal reading instruction in Kindergarten.”

The researchers stated that their findings were completely unexpected. Not only did at-risk students benefit from formal instruction, but so did the advantaged groups. The researchers state that, “Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that, collectively, the high school seniors who participated in the kindergarten reading program had a lower social class rating than those who did not. Thus, in spite of an overall lower social class level, the students who received the kindergarten reading program still outperformed the higher social class students who did not. It is only in rare circumstances where a group with lower social class rating outperforms one with a higher social class rating on a norm-referenced test of reading achievement. Further, the fact that these differences can be linked to an educational intervention makes them even more extraordinary.”

The reading program consisted of between 20 and 30 minutes of group instruction per day for about 25 weeks. The researchers mention that it did not take away from play activities. In conclusion, the Hanson and Farrell state that “students who learned to read in kindergarten were found to be superior in reading skills and all other educational indicators measured as seniors in high school. Further, this finding held up across districts and schools, as well as ethnic, gender, and social class groups. Also, there were absolutely no negative effects from learning to read in kindergarten. … Thus, any district with a policy that does not support kindergarten reading should be ready to present new and compelling reasons to explain why not beyond the old and now refuted myth that it has long-term, adverse effects on students’ reading skills, attitudes, and behaviors.” 

Longitudinal Case Studies

In addition to the above studies on early reading, there are longitudinal case studies that show results for children who learn to read very early in life. I completed two case studies11,12on my own children learning to read (Titzer, 1997Titzer, 1998). Entire books have been written on the topic that include many case studies. For example, Cohen and Söderbergh have a book in French13on the long-term benefits of learning to read very early in life. The book also includes a case study of my older daughter, Aleka.

Summary of the Longitudinal Studies on Early Reading

The studies have consistent findings – children who are taught to read prior to entering Kindergarten are likely to do well in school and they may have additional cognitive benefits from learning to read early in life. Additionally, the benefits of learning to read early in life are long-term. The longest studies went for 35 years and the benefits of learning to read early in life still had a lasting impact over the person’s life independent of any confounding influences.

1 Durkin, D. (1966). Children who read early. New York: Teachers College Press, 1966. 

2 Durkin, D. (1966). The Achievement of Pre-School Readers: Two Longitudinal Studies. Reading Research Quarterly,1,(4),5-36.

3 Durkin, D. (1987). Teaching Young Children to Read.  Allyn & Bacon, 1987.  

4 Sénéchal, M., & LeFevre, J. A. (2003).Parental Involvement in the Development of Children’s Reading Skill: A Five-Year Longitudinal Study. Child DevelopmentVolume 73, Issue 2, pages 445–460. 

5 Ritchie, S. J. & Bates, T. C. (2013). Enduring Links From Childhood Mathematics and Reading Achievement to Adult Socioeconomic StatusPsychological Science.

6 Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., et al. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43,1428–1446.

7 Harlaar, N, Hayiou-Thomas, M.E.  & Plomin, R. (2005). Reading and general cognitive ability: A multivariate analysis of 7-year-old twins. Scientific Studies of Reading. 9,197–218.

8 Thompson, T., & Tarver, T. (2011). Language and cognitive performance of infants and toddlers: A case for early infant reading and written language enrichment. Houston, TX.

9 Thompson, T., Tarver, T., & Woods, A. (2011a). A case for early infant reading and written language enrichment: The secret of getting ahead is getting started. Houston, TX.

10 Hanson, R. A., and D. Farrell. 1995. The long-term effects on high school seniors of learning to read in kindergarten. Reading Research Quarterly 30(4), 908–933.

11 Titzer, R. (1997). Case Study of a Second Infant Learning Written Language. (Unpublished study on Keelin Titzer).

12 Titzer, R. (1998, April). Case Study of an Infant Exposed to Written Language. Presented at the International Conference on Infant Studies. Atlanta, Georgia.

13 Cohen, R. & Söderbergh, R. (1999). Apprendre a lire avant de savoir parler,  Albin Michel Éducation. Paris, France.