From the moment we learn to control our mouths, lungs, and vocal cords as infants, we yearn to speak. As babies, we babble and attempt to copy words, and with no formal instruction at all, we can typically grasp the basics of speaking in under a year and begin to communicate. Neurolinguists have shown that our brain’s superior temporal region and Broca’s area in fact “hardwire” us for speaking. As any first grader can tell you, however, the act of reading does not come to us quite so easily.
Reading must be taught, and this process is done differently and at different ages around the world. The language itself plays a significant part in determining at what age children become literate, but socioeconomic and cultural factors play even greater roles.
For languages that use the Roman alphabet (English, French, Dutch, etc.), children are generally taught to read at around the age of six. They first learn to recognize individual letters and sounds, and then use what is known as phonics to decode words and give them meaning. This seems like a straightforward process, but some languages, like English, have many common words that make this quite difficult. For example, a sign in a school library that says “Read here” would commonly be pronounced as “Ree-add he-ree.” This is true of many basic words like “the,” “are,” and “where,” all of which are now taught as “sight words” and must be memorized.
Languages that use character systems for reading/writing, like Chinese hanzi and Japanese kanji, require pure memory. Children who speak these languages typically start learning to read at age three because parents and educators know that the young learners have a long road ahead of them due to the sheer amount of learning required. So although instruction may begin earlier, the character system means that the literacy process requires more time, and in Japan some of the more advanced Kanji may not be taught until 9th grade.
Learning to read non-Roman alphabets presents its own difficulties, such as in Korea. The country’s unique hangul alphabet requires detailed instruction, and many Korean words can also be written in Chinese, which adds another layer of complexity for young learners. Students in countries that use the Arabic writing system, known as abjad, must learn its right-to-left script and usually do so via memorization rather than phonics as in Western languages. Despite these challenges, children learning these languages typically still learn to read at age six or seven.
While the individual language’s complexities contribute to the average age at which kids learn to read, many developing nations face significant socio-economic challenges that delay the literacy process. In some low-income countries, for example, only 20% of children have access to preschool. When students in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are able to start a formal education, school resources are scarce, and classes are usually overcrowded, with multiple grade levels in the same class. The exception to this overcrowding is harvest season, when attendance rates in countries such as Ghana drop as children are needed for fieldwork.
Children in countries in Africa face particular challenges learning to read, as basic health and safety needs must be met first. These countries have combated a dearth of reading resources by maintaining a strong tradition of oral storytelling, but overall literacy rates remain low in countries like Niger, where only 37% of adults can read.
Culture and Gender Norms
In countries like Afghanistan, the average reading age varies greatly by gender, as the scarce educational resources are often given to boys. This is seen as an investment in the family’s future, as the men are expected to find work and provide, while women are expected to keep house and raise children. Current statistics indicate that only about 23% of women in Afghanistan are literate due to traditional gender roles and economic difficulties. So while some boys there begin to read at age six, it is unlikely a girl would at that age, if ever.
Similar gender literacy discrepancies are seen in many Arab countries, especially in conflict areas like Yemen. Education for young girls has typically not been prioritized there, as in 2017 more than 2/3 of girls there were married before turning 18. Experts predict that this gender literacy discrepancy will remain at least until the year 2040.
What is the Best Age for Kids to Learn to Read?
Though parents and school administrators often fret over exactly what age children are learning to read, on a global level, the much more pressing issue is that children learn to read at all. In addition, many literacy experts now believe that the exact age is not as important as previously thought. What is actually important, regardless of language or country, is that children do in fact have the opportunity to learn to read at some point.