When Should Kids Learn to Read, Write, and Do Math?

Your child starting to read is just one of many educational milestones to watch for as a parent

Medically Reviewed by John M Goldenring, MD, MPH, JD on April 01, 2007
5 min read

At one time or another, most parents wonder how their child is stacking up in school. Part of answering that is knowing when kids should learn to read, write, and do different kinds of math?

Ross A. Thompson, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis tells WebMD there is a wide range of normal variation in many areas for young children. This can make it difficult, he says, to tell if a delay is really a problem. Thompson also says that measuring children against defined age benchmarks sometimes raises undue anxiety in parents.

Still, general milestones can be helpful to parents as a guide. Missing a milestone doesn't always mean a child has a learning deficit or disability. It may simply mean that you need to make some changes in the classroom or at home to help your child learn and reach their full potential.

Pat Wolfe, EdD, education consultant, former teacher, and author of Building the Reading Brain, says you can tell by kindergarten-age whether children are likely to have trouble with reading. "Can they hear rhyming words? Do they know that squiggles on a page stand for sounds when they talk?" These are key pre-reading skills that lay the foundation for reading.

Often children start reading in the first grade. During that school year, watch for these signs of reading difficulty:

  • confusing letters
  • connecting the wrong sounds with letters
  • skipping words, not remembering words, or frequently guessing at unknown words, rather than sounding them out

If your child is having trouble reading by the end of first grade, begin by talking with their teacher to find ways to resolve the problem.

Ages 4-5: learning pre-reading skills

Kids learn to:

  • substitute words in rhyming patterns
  • write some letters
  • pronounce simple words
  • develop vocabulary

Ages 6-10: learning to read

Kids learn to:

  • read simple books by mid-first grade and know about 100 common words
  • understand that letters represent sounds, which form words, by mid-first grade
  • enjoy a variety of types of stories and talk about characters, settings and events
  • remember the names and sounds of all letters and recognize upper- and lowercase by second grade
  • read independently and fluently by third grade
  • sound out unfamiliar words when reading

Ages 11-13: "reading to learn"

Kids learn to:

  • read to learn about their hobbies and other interests and to study for school
  • comprehend more fully what they've read
  • read fiction, including chapter books, and nonfiction, including magazines and newspapers


Sheldon H. Horowitz, EdD, director of professional services for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, says, "Writing is a high-level skill, not as simple as sitting down with pencil on paper." It requires:

  • fine-motor skills to use a pencil or pen
  • understanding that letters make up words, and words represent things or ideas
  • organizational skills
  • grammar, spelling and punctuation skills
  • different kinds of memory

Horowitz tells WebMD that it helps for kids to learn the foundation of writing at the same time as they learn how to read. That's because reading and writing complement each other, says Steve Graham, EdD, professor of special education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "Each helps facilitate the learning of the other."

Reading problems are almost certainly also a sign of a problem with writing, says Graham, although good readers will not always become good writers.

Graham says that milestones are less standardized for writing than they are for reading, but the following markers may be helpful.

Ages 6-10: learning to write

Kids learn to:

  • write consonant sounds by the end of kindergarten
  • write legibly and with ease, with an understanding of words by first grade
  • write stories with a beginning, middle, and end and with a character, action, setting, and a little detail by second grade

Ages 11-13: learning to write

Kids learn to:

  • use the correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling most of the time
  • become more fluent writers, increasing in speed; handwriting becomes more automatic
  • use varied sentence structure, including simple, compound, and complex sentences
  • write different kinds of compositions such as reports and persuasive writing
  • use references from various sources to write compositions
  • use the computer for writing and research

Math also requires a wide range of skills and involves a broad vocabulary and variety of concepts. Math skills often build on one another. Some kids are strong in some types of math but weak in others.

Think back: did you have an affinity for geometry, or algebra? Were you a whiz at fractions but winced each time you faced a word problem? Chances are your child has math strengths and weaknesses as well, although they may be different from yours.

Ages 6-10: learning math

Kids learn to:

  • count and understand numbers
  • understand quantities such as how many items are in a set of objects
  • identify basic shapes like squares and triangles by first grade
  • tell time and understand the value of different denominations of money by second grade
  • understand the place-value structure in our "base 10" numbering system
  • compare and represent whole numbers and decimals
  • understand fractions and do word problems by fourth grade

Kids generally learn basic math skills on this timeline:

  • first grade: kids learn to add and subtract with single digits
  • second grade: kids learn to add and subtract with double digits
  • third and fourth grades: kids learn to multiply and divide

Ages 11-13: learning math

Kids learn to:

  • perform more complex math problems with multiple steps
  • work with ease with fractions, decimals and percents
  • do beginning algebra and geometry
  • fully understand concepts of weights, measures, and percentages

How can you know if your child needs extra help? Often a child who's struggling will show signs of unhappiness, says Horowitz, giving you a social or emotional barometer that clues you into their frustration. "That's when you definitely jump into motion."

To find out if there's really a problem, work with your child and gather data, says Horowitz. "If you're concerned about whether your child is reading or spelling at the level he should - with the accuracy and precision he should - investigate. Read with your child and see. Write with your child and see. Does it take three times longer? Then talk with your child's teacher about it."

Graham agrees. But base your assessment of writing on at least three compositions, he says, since a child who's struggling may have missed key instructions the first time around.

Some kids simply have minor lags in learning. But even when parents suspect a learning disability, they tend to wait almost a year before seeking help, often to avoid stigmatizing their child. But early intervention can help. Research shows that the best time to help a child with reading challenges, for example, is in the first two years of school.

It's up to schools and teachers to be on the lookout for children with learning disabilities. Federal law requires schools to test children with possible learning problems and develop remedial programs so that children can succeed. If you're concerned about your child's performance, ask your school for testing to see if an intervention is needed.

As a parent, it's wise to keep an eye on milestones. But use a child's signs of struggle to motivate you to investigate, not to press the panic button. Remember, reading, writing, and 'rithmatic include a range of complex skills to learn. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither are a child's three Rs.