In teaching reading, educators strive to find the balance between a code-emphasis approach and a meaning-oriented literacy approach. However, little is known about how different approaches to literacy can benefit bilingual children’s early reading acquisition. To investigate the novel hypothesis that children’s age of first bilingual exposure can interact with different approaches to literacy, we tested 56 Spanish-English bilingual children (ages 7–9), with birth exposure to Spanish and either early (before age 3) or late (3–4) age of first bilingual exposure to English. The children attended reading programs identified with either phonics or whole language emphasis. Consistent with our hypothesis, differential outcomes were linked to different ages of first bilingual exposure. Early bilingual exposure to English was associated with more advanced reading abilities under whole language emphasis, while later (ages 3–4) exposure was associated with better decoding and reading abilities under phonics emphasis. The findings show that knowing the age of a child’s first bilingual language exposure, as it corresponds to different periods in child development, may contribute to an educator’s design of reading instruction that best accommodates young bilingual learners.