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Reading to Your Infant Builds Literacy Skills

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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. According to Trelease, “Almost as big a mistake as not reading to children at all is stopping too soon.”

One argument is that, while a first-grader may be capable of reading some books independently, she may be capable of understanding more complex stories if they are read to her aloud. This challenges her and enables her to grow further in her literacy.

Beyond that, there is an emotional bond created between people who read aloud together. As a child grows older and more independent, reading together is a way for a parent to stay connected.

How can parents begin to introduce literacy skills to their infants and toddlers? Zero to Three has created a valuable resource in its “Early Literacy and Language Tips and Tools,” giving specific suggestions about how to engage your young child in literacy.

As time goes on, embrace opportunities to engage in literacy with your child. Reading together or discussing books and newspaper articles can remind your child that you are interested in him and what he is learning, and it can help you build a lasting bond that benefits you both for years to come.

"Early Literacy." ZERO TO THREE. Web. 9 Sept. 2011.

"Where We Stand On Learning to Read and Write." National Association for the Education of Young Children | NAEYC. Web. 9 Sept. 2011. http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/WWSSLearningToReadAndWriteEnglish.pdf.

Trelease, Jim. "Read-Aloud Handbook Contents." Jim Trelease's Home Page. Web. 9 Sept. 2011.

Reviewed September 9, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Jody Smith

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