You are here

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.

2. Make Time for Rhyme

Mother Goose has been around for centuries for a reason. "When a child hears Hickory Dickory Dock, they're hearing how words are segmented," says Wolf. "This helps them learn that words are made up of individual sounds composed of individual letters"-an important aspect of reading.

BONUS TIP: From the start, read books that have rhyming words and phrases. You can also make rhymes part of everyday activities. "All of this reinforces the rhythm of language," explains Wolf.

3. Let Them Handle Books Early On

This can begin at around 7 months when children begin holding objects. Even if all your baby does is chew on the pages, she is beginning to develop an understanding of what a book is and how it operates.

BONUS TIP: You can help cultivate baby's interest in books (as something other than a chew toy) by choosing ones that capture her attention, says Megan Riede, senior director of education programs for Knowledge Learning Corp., a national early childhood education provider. "Board books, pop-up books. Your child will want to see these again and again."

4. Sit Baby on Your Lap

This will make him feel nurtured, associating reading with pleasurable experiences, says Wolf. It also allows baby to see the book as it's read, and "soon, they'll understand that what you are saying is connected to the symbols on the page."

5. Respond and Expand

Once a child begins to speak, expand on what she is saying. "If they're saying 'da' and pointing at the dog, say, 'Yes, that's the dog,'" instructs Riede. If the child says "ball," follow up with, "That's a blue ball." "You'll be giving them additional language for their verbal bank," she adds.

6. Build a Toddler Library

"Keep books on a shelf where toddlers can reach and choose," says Ciborowski Fahey--even if all they're doing is playing with them. "It creates a positive attitude toward reading." If your toddler chooses the same book over and over, that's natural. "Repetition and frequency are highly important in learning how to read."

7. Walk the Walk

One reason Fiona is drawn to reading is because she sees her parents doing it. "Our children like to model what we do," says Ciborowski Fahey. Want good readers? Make sure they see you reading--for yourself. It doesn't really matter if it's a magazine, a cookbook or a trashy novel.

8. Don't Push Too Hard

Most kids learn to read by 5, others at 6 or 7. Be cautious of educational systems that purport to teach reading prior to this time. "It's physiological," says Wolf. "The brain's parts are not yet integrated enough to pull everything together until age 5."

BONUS TIP: Playing word games and reciting poetry is great, unless it begins to feel like a drill. Look for signs of overstimulation. "They will cry, have a lack of eye contact or disorganized body movements," says Ciborowski Fahey. When this happens, it's time to give it a rest.

9. Have Fun!

The best thing a parent can do is make reading a joyful experience. Be silly, make up nonsense rhymes, play word games and sing songs. "Many parents teach their kids to read so they can go to Harvard," Shanahan says. "I've always seen it as an expression of love--a gift I've passed on to my children." And while there's nothing wrong with taking baby to the library for story hour, experts recommend this more social approach starting at age 3, when children have a better grasp of language and social skills.

Baby's First Library

Jean Ciborowski Fahey, Ph.D., is a pro at getting families to read together as the early literacy and research specialist at the national pediatric literacy group Reach Out and Read. Here are her picks for must-have books:

From Head to Toe by Eric Carle When your tot can't help but wriggle, the animals stomp, kick and wave, asking "Can you do it?" It's an excellent tool for teaching vocabulary in an active way.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown This 1947 classic has gentle rhymes that soothe babies to sleep.

Bonus: The illustrations will keep them entertained well into toddlerhood.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. Repeating a similar sentence structure-"Blue horse, blue horse, what do you see? I see a green frog looking at me"-allows toddlers to pipe in once they've memorized its cadence.

Tickle Tickle by Helen Oxenbury Bright illustrations and fun words ("scrub-a-dub") make story time entertaining and playful.

Check out our 25 favorite books to build your baby's library!