The skills young children need to enjoy a lifetime of learning through reading are planted early. Earlier than most people think.
There's a lot of talk about creating 4-K programs across the country for this purpose and although it may prove helpful, starting to teach skills for reading at the age of 4 is too little too late.
No teacher in the world, no matter how experienced and knowledgeable, can teach a child pre-reading skills if the child doesn't see a reason to learn them. They have to develop a love and appreciation for reading and storytelling well before the age of 4. Here why:
In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second.* After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process
called pruning, which allows brain circuits to become more efficient. In light of these findings, focussing on early childhood only makes sense. -Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University-
Young children need to develop an emotional connection to reading in their first and second years of life in order to become lifelong readers who enjoy reading for learning and pleasure. That emotional connection opens the doors to the motivation they need to process the multiple complex brain connections necessary for reading.
Some of those emotional skills, such as self-control, emotional regulation, and delayed gratification are needed in other areas of life also.
I've taught early childhood for over 43 years. During that time I earned a BS in elementary education and a MA in human development. I always apply what I learn.
I’m sharing with you today, my top 7 techniques for planting the seeds of reading in children early on.
Since I've spent years researching and applying these techniques in real-life situations, I'm also including a section on common pitfalls on the road to reading that may happen early on and some ideas on how to correct those problems
7 Ways to Plant the Seeds for Reading Early
Laptime is time spent reading or talking about emotions in close physical contact with your child. It's time spent together, looking at books or magazines, reading and speculating how characters, ourselves, or others in the world might feel.
It's also chatting about facial, body, and language expressions that help us know what others are experiencing outside of ourselves. It's based on this premise that all feelings are OK, all actions (and words) are not. Here's a link to another article I wrote that explains a little more about Laptime.
Being able to read requires a great amount of focus in young children so if you want your child to have an easier time of it start getting them to focus early on. One good way to do this is to point out things in the environment that may be of interest to them.
Birdies, flowers, trucks, cars, trains, balloons, lights, stars, insects, apples. Point them out and give them a name! Later on, you can progress to questions like. Where's the stop sign? See the birdie? What do those golden arches mean? Tell me about the nutrition on those granola bars.
Play I spy with my little eye…..I see something blue, shiny, huge, tiny, etc. These games can be really fun when you play them through the eyes of a child and with a sense of humor.
Even peek-a-boo develops skills like delayed gratification and visual acuity needed for reading later on! You can do the same types of games using sounds for auditory development.
If you think your child might have a hard time focussing or meeting any other developmental milestone you might want to visit the CDC website here. They feature a free checklist for all ages.
Language and Listening
Talk them through the things you do, starting from birth. Also, talk them through the things they do. Use single words and/or short sentences as they get ready to speak.
Making the effort to do so makes a huge difference in language development which makes a huge difference in reading abilities. Be expressive and use body language. Cultivate circles of communication (Greenspan 2000) so your child feels listened to even before they can speak.
Take advantage of nursery rhymes. It's like standing on the shoulder of giants when it comes to teaching pre-reading skills. Nursery rhymes can lead to a love and appreciation for reading. They also teach phonemic awareness which is an important skill.
Are you teaching your toddlers these songs? I'm sure you could add a few good ones to the list!
Row, Row, Row
Itsy Bitsy Spider
Hot Cross Buns
These and many more can be done with movement. Nursery Rhymes can be found in all languages and many new and interesting songs can be discovered by looking into and asking about people's cultural identities.
This is an easy one. Let your children see you enjoying yourself with a book sometimes. Use "I" messages" to insist on some reading time for yourself. You deserve it.
And when you do read to them because I know you do, make sure to do it with gusto. This really makes a difference in both the child's and the adults' enjoyment of reading.
It feels more like you're reading with them instead of for them. It's your own emotional enjoyment of reading that makes a difference in your child's motivation to read.
Don't worry about reading the same book over and over again. It helps their brains process and learn. If you get bored, you can always set a limit by saying "last time" and sticking to it. If you need to stay motivated try adding some drama to your retelling and give yourself a chance to be in the limelight.
Chances are that if you had an acting career going, it's probably on hold right now with all of your responsibilities so ham it up in this arena! No one's watching but your toddler and it would be surprising if they critiqued your acting skills.
Putting interesting and age-appropriate books at the kids' level with at least some of them facing out so they can easily view the cover art makes a big difference in kids' motivation to read. They see what's in front of them and often want to explore and learn. Since some children are too young and too kinesthetic to handle regular books we now have board books and even non-destructible books with nursery rhymes for babies. I've had a couple of those non-rippable books for a few years and through a few babies now and no one's been able to rip one or chew through one yet!
Make reading a part of your daily schedule. It'll help your family or your classroom environment to incorporate some downtime. Limiting their choices to books or reading in some way is really helpful with refusniks. But you've got to find a way to really stick to it.
It could be 3 books to look at in bed during the start of naptimes, uninterrupted reading or book time for everyone in the household (including all adults) for 20-30 minutes daily at the same time, and/or weekly trips to the library. It's the schedule and the consistency that make it stick.
Kids are notorious for short attention spans. Figure out where there are and build from that. Read short indestructible books that use sounds and actions for more focus and attention.
Wait until everyone is comfy for reading. When they squirm, stop reading, and please tell them when it hurts you. Kids can have sharp elbows. They need to know we have feelings, too.
Stop reading and calmly tell the group you'll read again when they're settled. Make the book interesting with your voice but stop each time they interrupt. Put the book down on your lap but keep the page with your thumb. Give the whole group the responsibility to get it together and they just might challenge each other to do it!
One last thought. When you raise readers, they're like bunnies, they multiply fast. (Wells 1997) And they do that by spending time reading to each other. So cozy up and have fun.
Greenspan, Stanley I., and Nancy Breslau Lewis. Building Healthy Minds: The Six Experiences That Create Intelligence and Emotional Growth in Babies and Young Children. Perseus Pub., 2000.
Wells, Rosemary. Read to Your Bunny. Scholastic, Inc., 1997.
“CDC's Developmental Milestones.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31 Mar. 2022, https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/index.html.
Want more ideas for raising kids who care?
Join us here and get my 22-page slideshow that gives you the exact developmentally appropriate words to use to Get Your Kid To Listen Without Yelling or Time-Outs. If you join us today, you'll get it free right away plus you'll stay in the loop! don't wait, it won't be free for long!
Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human dev from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI and is the founder of early childhood rocks, a non-profit org dedicated to creating change through early childhood education.