Be patient if your child is slow to start reading

When parents lament that their children are not yet reading and consider hiring tutors and pricey evaluations to find out what's wrong with their six-year-olds, I tell them to be patient and keep reading to their young ones.

A woman and her son read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Photo: AFP

When parents lament that their children are not yet reading and consider hiring tutors and pricey evaluations to find out what's wrong with their six-year-olds, I tell them to be patient and keep reading to their young ones.

In most cases, when a child's ability catches up with his or her interest in the narrative, the lifelong reader is launched. Reframing the situation not as a problem, but as a sign that their child might just have high standards for what makes a good story, helps to alleviate some of the underlying anxiety.

As a mother of three children - two adolescent avid readers and one developing reader - I have some insight, butressed by a growing body of research in the area of brain development and functional readiness to read.

Dr Martha Denckla, director of the Developmental Cognitive Neurology Clinic at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and neuroscience researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, is a leading expert in brain development and reading readiness. Regarding the trend in schools of teaching reading earlier and earlier, she says: "They are doing enormous harm by blithely disregarding the neurological readiness to learn these skills."

Books have been an integral part of our parenting since my son was born 14 years ago. When he was tiny and we lived in California, we made daily trips to the library and lugged home stacks of picture books, delighted in bookstores and attended a weekly local story time. Our evening routine after he brushed his teeth involved reading two picture books that he would carefully select to read together.

Besides the picture books, I read chapter books far beyond his reading ability to him as he fell asleep. Even when he didn't understand everything on a practical level, he absorbed the melody of the well-crafted tale as his language was forming. A good novel is as beautiful to hear as it is to read.

With our family focused on literature, I was sure he would be an early reader, but he was not. At the end of kindergarten, he wasn't reading. His teachers weren't worried, and neither was I. After the first year of primary school, he still wasn't reading. Again they weren't worried. I noted it, but I didn't worry. When second grade came and he still wasn't reading, I began to express concern, but his progressive school said, "Don't worry. He will read."

Just before Christmas of that year, I read the first Harry Potter book to him. He was hooked. Over that holiday, we relocated to London, and he spent the first few weeks reading hundreds of pages a day, for hours at a time. He has never looked back.

We moved from London to Hong Kong when my daughter was five. By the middle of her second year, she could plod through books, but not with any enthusiasm. On a trip to New Zealand that spring, I took along Roald Dahl's , and that was the magic one for her. She read three more Roald Dahl books that holiday and hasn't been far from a book since.

To fall asleep in the evening, she listened to books on CD. After I read to her, I would put on a CD, and the books would play, sometimes all night if I forgot to turn them off. , and are embedded in her subconscious. Acting is her favourite activity now, and she does accents with ease. I attribute both her love of great stories and her talent for mimicry to the narratives that lulled her to sleep.

My son is now in ninth year and his sister in sixth. Both place reading for pleasure at the top of their list of leisure activities. Without flash cards or tutors, they knew how to spell and write a story. Their love for books, I expect, will stay with them the rest of their lives.

My third child is in second year now and, true to form, is still not reliably reading. Technically he can do it, but he does not yet enjoy it. I continue to expose him to narratives as I did the other two, wondering which will be the book that launches him.

Reading is the gateway through which we discover the world, and loving to read makes that process all the more enjoyable.

Anxiety, impatience and busyness unintentionally inhibit the journey to raising lifelong readers. Patience is more than a virtue when it comes to nurturing readers; it's good parenting.

Gweneth Rehnborg is a board member of Bring Me A Book a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Patience works best for kids who are slow to start reading