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Raising a little bookworm? Reading is a milestone typically associated with the early grade school years. But parents can help foster reading skills from an earlier age.
Whether you can actually teach your toddler to read has a lot to do with your individual child, their age, and their developmental skills. Here’s more about the stages of literacy, activities you can do at home to promote reading, as well as some books that will help reinforce these skills.
The answer to this question is “sort of yes” and “sort of no.” There are a number of things that go into developing the skills for reading. While some kids — even young kids — may pick up on all of these things quickly, this isn’t necessarily the norm.
And beyond that, sometimes what people observe as their kids reading may actually be other actions, like mimicking or recitation.
This isn’t to say you can’t expose your little one to books and reading through activities like reading together, playing word games, and practicing letters and sounds. All of these bite-sized lessons will add up over time.
Reading is a complex process and it takes the mastery of many skills, including:
Letters each represent sounds or what are called phonemes. Having phonemic awareness means that a child can hear the different sounds that letters make. This is an auditory skill and does not involve printed words.
While similar, phonics is different from phonemic awareness. It means that a child can identify the sound that letters make alone and in combinations on the written page. They practice “sound-symbol” relationships.
That is, knowing what words are and connecting them to the objects, places, people, and other things in the environment. With regard to reading, vocabulary is important so kids can understand the meaning of the words they read and, further down the line, whole sentences.
Reading fluency refers to things like the accuracy (words read correctly versus not) and rate (words per minute) with which a child is reading. A child’s phrasing of words, intonation, and use of voices for different characters is also part of fluency.
And very importantly, comprehension is a big part of reading. While a child may be able to make out the sounds of letter combinations and put together words in isolation, having comprehension means that they can understand and interpret what they’re reading and make meaningful connections to the real world.
As you can see, there’s a lot involved. It may seem daunting, prompting you to research different products meant to help teach even the youngest babies and tots to read.
A study from 2014 examined media designed to teach babies and toddlers to read and determined that young children do not actually learn to read using DVD programs. In fact, while parents surveyed did believe their babies were reading, researchers say they were actually observing imitation and mimicking.
First and foremost, it’s important to understand that all children are different. Your friend might tell you that their 3-year-old is reading books at a second grade level. Stranger things have happened. But that’s not necessarily what you should expect from your tot.
Facts: Most children learn to read sometime between the ages of 6 and 7. Some others may gain the skill (at least somewhat) as early as age 4 or 5. And, yes, there are those exceptions where kids may start reading earlier. But resist the urge to try to force reading too early — it should be fun!
Experts in the field explain that literacy for toddlers does not equal reading per se. Instead, it’s a “dynamic developmental process” that occurs in stages.
Skills toddlers have and can develop:
- Book handling. This includes how a toddler physically holds and handles books. It can range from chewing (infants) to page turning (older toddlers).
- Looking and recognizing. Attention span is another factor. Babies may not engage much with what’s on the page. As kids get a bit older, their attention span increases and you might see them connecting better to the pictures in books or pointing out objects that are familiar.
- Comprehension. Understanding books — text and pictures — is a developing skill as well. Your child may imitate actions they see in books or talk about the actions they hear in the story.
- Reading behaviors. Young kids do verbally interact with books as well. You may see them mouth the words or babble/imitate reading the text as you read out loud. Some kids may even run their fingers over the words as if following along or pretend to read books on their own.
As time goes on, your child may also be able to recognize their own name or even recite an entire book from memory. While this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re reading, it’s still part of what leads up to reading.
So what can you do to foster a love of language and reading? A lot!
Literacy is all about exploring. Let your child play with books, sing songs, and scribble to their heart’s content. Remember to make it enjoyable for both you and your little one.
1. Read together
Even the youngest kids can benefit from having books read to them by their caregivers. When reading is part of the daily routine, children pick up more quickly on other building blocks for reading. So, read to your child and take them to the library with you to choose books.
And while you’re at it, try keeping the topics of these books familiar. When children can relate to a story in some way or have a good reference point, they may be more engaged.
2. Ask ‘what will happen next?’ questions
Talk to your child as often as you can. Using language is as important as reading when it comes to developing literacy skills. Beyond asking “what will happen next” in a story (to work on comprehension), you can tell your own stories. Be sure to incorporate new vocabulary when and where it makes sense.
Over time, your tot may make the connection between the words you speak and the words they sees written on the pages of their favorite books.
3. Point out letter sounds and combinations
Words are all around us in the world. If your child is showing an interest, consider taking the time to point out words or at least different letter combinations on things like their favorite cereal box or the street signs outside your home. Don’t quiz them just yet. Approach it more like: “OH! Do you see that BIG word on the sign over there? It says s-t-o-p — STOP!”
Look at labels on clothing or words on birthday cards or billboards. Words don’t just appear on the pages of books, so eventually your child will see that language and reading is everywhere.
4. Make text a game
Once you’ve observed the words and letters all around your child’s environment, turn it into a game. You might ask them to identify the first letter on the grocery store sign. Or maybe they can identify numbers on the nutrition label of their favorite snack.
Keep it playful — but through this activity, you’ll slowly build your child’s text awareness and recognition.
After a while, you may see that your child initiates this activity or that they are starting to pick up on full words on their own.
5. Practice sight words
Flash cards aren’t necessarily a first choice activity at this age — they tend to promote memorization, which isn’t the key to reading. In fact, experts share that memorization is a “lower level skill” compared other more complex language skills kids gain through meaningful conversations.
That said, you may consider introducing sight words in other ways, like with phonetic reading blocks. The blocks offer practice with rhyming skills, too, all while allowing your child to twist and create new words.
6. Incorporate technology
There are certainly apps you may want to try that can help introduce or reinforce reading skills. Just keep in mind the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding digital media for children under 18 to 24 months and limiting screen time to no more than an hour daily for kids 2 to 5.
Homer is a phonics-based app that lets kids learn letter shapes, trace letters, learn new vocabulary, and listen to short stories. Other apps, like Epic, open up a huge digital library for reading age-appropriate books together on the go. There are even books that will read aloud to your child.
When looking at different apps, just remember that toddlers can’t learn to read using media alone. Instead, look at technology as a bonus to the other activities you do together with your child.
7. Play writing and tracing games
While your little one is probably just learning how to hold a crayon or pencil they may enjoy the chance to work on their “writing.” Spell out your child’s name or have them trace it on a piece of paper. This will help show your little one the relationship between reading and writing, reinforcing their reading skills.
Once you’ve mastered short words, you might go on to your child’s favorite words or perhaps working together to write short notes to family members or friends. Read the words together, allow them to dictate, and keep it fun.
If your little one isn’t into writing, you might try getting some alphabet magnets and forming words on your refrigerator. Or if you’re OK with a mess, try writing letters in sand or shaving cream in a tray with your index finger.
8. Label your world
Once you’ve gotten the hang of some favorite words, consider writing up some labels and placing them on objects in your home, like the refrigerator, couch, or kitchen table.
After your child has become more practiced with these labels, try collecting them together and then having your child place them in the correct location. Start with just a few words at first and then increase the number as your child becomes more familiar.
9. Sing songs
There are lots of songs that incorporate letters and spelling. And singing is a lighthearted way to work on literacy skills. You can start with the regular ABCs song.
10. Engage in rhyming games
Rhyming is an excellent activity to develop literacy skills. If you’re in the car or waiting in line at a restaurant, try asking your child “Can you think of words that rhyme with bat?” And let them rattle off as many as they can. Or alternate rhyming words.
PBS Kids also maintains a short list of rhyming games children can do online that feature favorite characters, like Elmo, Martha, and Super Why.
Your child’s interests may guide your book choices, and that’s a good idea. Bring your tot to the library and let them choose books that they can relate to or that cover a subject they might enjoy.
The following books — many of which are recommended by librarians or beloved by parents — are appropriate for early readers and help reinforce things like learning the ABCs, writing, rhyming, and other literacy skills.
Reserve these books at the library, visit your local indie bookstore, or shop online:
- Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr.
- ABC T-Rex by Bernard Most
- ABC See, Hear, Do: Learn to Read 55 Words by Stefanie Hohl
- T is for Tiger by Laura Watkins
- My First Words by DK
- Lola at the Library by Anna McQuinn
- I Will Not Read This Book by Cece Meng
- Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
- How Rocket Learned to Read by Tad Hills
- Do Not Open this Book by Michaela Muntean
- Not a Box by Antoinette Portis
- Dr. Seuss’s Beginner Book Collection by Dr. Seuss
- My First Library: 10 Board Books for Kids by Wonder House Books
What to look for in books
You might be out in the library browsing around and wonder what is most appropriate to bring home for your tot. Here are some suggestions based on age.
Young toddlers (12 to 24 months)
- board books they can carry around
- books that feature young toddlers doing routine things
- good morning or goodnight books
- hello and goodbye books
- books with only a few words on each page
- books with rhymes and predictable text patterns
- animal books
Older toddlers (2 to 3 years)
- books that feature very simple stories
- books with rhymes that they can memorize
- wake-up and bedtime books
- hello and goodbye books
- alphabet and counting books
- animal and vehicle books
- books about daily routine
- books with favorite television show characters
Reading books and playing with letters and words can help set your toddler on a journey to becoming a lifelong reader, whether or not they start fully reading at a young age.
There’s so much more to literacy than reading chapter books — and building the skills to get there is half the magic of it all. Academics aside, be sure to soak in this special time with your little one and try to enjoy the process as much as the end result.