When children pick up crayons and scissors at three or four, they should also begin picking up a key school-age skill: reading. Oh, they likely won't begin reciting The Cat in the Hat for another year or two, but they should be building the skills they'll need to recognize and read the 220 different words in Dr. Seuss' book.
If they don't acquire those skills - and between 20 and 30 percent of school-age children don't - their reading difficulties usually aren't identified until late in the first grade or early in the second grade. Often, they never recover. "If you're a poor reader in second grade, you're likely to remain a poor reader," says Richard Wagner, a Yale-educated researcher and an associate director at the Florida Center for Reading Research and the Binet professor at Florida State University.
And reading proficiency often translates into trouble with school overall. Wagner notes that between 60 and 70 percent of dropouts had poor reading skills in the third grade. "Even if you could snap your fingers and make reading easier for them, they've already failed at it," he says. "And the problem is they're so far behind at that point it's really hard to catch up. They've got a bad taste for reading and school in general. So there are a lot of negative components that go along with being a struggling reader."
But now, Wagner and his colleagues have devised a test that shows whether kids as young as potty-training age are acquiring those prereading skills. "What's new here is we found out we really can measure those precursors, skills that aren't reading yet, but that need to be in place to be able to read successfully," he says. "And we can do that as young as three years old, certainly by four."