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Raise a Baby Bookworm

Your child's ability to read will be tied to language development that begins at birth. Here are nine easy ways to start forming good habits now.

On weekends, Rudi Blankestijn, a first-time dad in Orange County, California, likes to relax on the couch while reading the paper. Frequently by his side is his 23-month-old daughter, Fiona, a pert toddler with soft brown curls, clutching a magazine and turning the pages. "She'll have The Economist and will be looking at some report," chuckles Elisabeth de Leon, Fiona's mother. "It's pretty hilarious."

Fiona may not understand all those articles about inflation, but this adorable act of mimicry is actually preparing her to one day pick up a book, decipher its words and comprehend their meaning. In other words: read.

Most kids learn to read at around 5 when they go to school. Unfortunately, many arrive unprepared, with limited vocabularies and little to no exposure to the act of reading. Those children will likely have a harder time reading, which is a problem that can snowball. According to a 2007 study by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, of 50 children having trouble learning to read in kindergarten, 44 still had problems by the third grade.

As a result, a growing number of literacy experts firmly believe that the development that takes place before a child ever sets foot in a classroom is critical. The National Institute for Literacy (NIFL), in Washington, D.C., recently pored through more than 8,000 research studies related to children's pre-reading years. In a report issued last year, they concluded that a child's familiarity with the sounds in language--such as the "buh" in baby--was a key predictor of reading success. The more familiar a child was with the sound letters make, the more likely they were to have reading success. It would seem, then, that children who are read to and talked to extensively have a greater familiarity and facility with words. Interestingly, this vital piece of the reading puzzle has its roots in the first days of life when a baby's brain sets out to acquire language.

Timothy Shanahan, Ph.D., who helped oversee the NIFL's ambitious study and runs the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois in Chicago, says he began reading to his daughters at birth. "There are a lot of people--especially men--who don't talk to babies because they think, 'What's the point of talking to someone who can't talk back?'" he explains. "Well, it's crucial."

The lesson: It's never too early to encourage good language habits. A panel of experts offers its best tips for getting your baby hooked on the power of words--even now.

1. Talk and Read to Your Baby

Shanahan was right to read to his babies straight out of the womb. "There are two major predictors of later reading," explains Maryanne Wolf, Ed.D., a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. "How much a child is spoken to and how often the child is read to."

BONUS TIP: Jean Ciborowski Fahey, Ph.D., early literacy and research specialist at the national pediatric literacy group Reach Out and Read, encourages parents to read to their babies five to 10 minutes every day. Baby books, naturally, are a great place to start, though reading The Financial Times out loud is fine in the first six months of life too. Your baby won't know the difference, explains Wolf, since the infant brain at this point is recording the cadence of language, not individual words.