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While technical reading instruction usually doesn’t begin until children enter elementary school, early literacy development — during the first 3 years of life — builds the foundation for children to progress as readers and writers.
Don’t misunderstand: actual reading and writing is not developmentally appropriate for a toddler. In fact, Zero to Three, a National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, stresses that “formal instruction to require young children who are not developmentally ready to read is counterproductive and potentially damaging to children, who may begin to associate reading and books with failure.”
But literacy begins with age-appropriate activities that can help foster a love of reading and writing even in infants.
Early literacy activities include scribbling with crayons on paper, playing with a newspaper, turning the pages of a picture book, singing nursery rhymes and hearing stories read aloud. Even chewing on the pages of a board book is a worthwhile exploration! Any positive interaction with literary materials can help a child develop an interest in learning to read when the time is right.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) stressed that, while reading and writing are critical to success in school and beyond, early literacy learning needs to be developmentally appropriate. Parents can help by engaging their children in conversation, teaching letters and sounds, and reading to their kids.
Research has shown that reading and writing skills develop at the same time a child develops language, and these skills are all very closely related. In his renowned book The Read-Aloud Handbook, author Jim Trelease noted that just as talking to a newborn is second nature to a parent, so too should be reading to the child.
An infant doesn’t understand language yet but learns much from the experience. “If a child is old enough to talk to,” wrote Trelease, “she’s old enough to read to. It’s the same language.”
Just as important as reading to a young child is reading to an older child, even if he is capable of reading on his own.