Five big tips for little learners: getting babies and toddlers ready to read

Government officials may disagree on much, but the U.S. Department of Education deemed early reading skills so important that several years ago it produced and has since made downloadable, a booklet titled Toddlers Get Ready to Read: How Parents Can Help Their Toddlers Get Ready to Read. The introduction says, “You are your child’s first and most important teacher.”
James Hoffman, Ed.D., co-founder of School Zone Publishing, along with wife Joan, was an educator and reading specialist, who was passionate about the importance of reading in a child’s life. He authored The Right Stuff to Teach Your Child to Read. In it, he expressed sentiments that parallel the Department of Education: “Learning to read well and with enjoyment is the single most important achievement in your child’s early intellectual life. The child begins to work on this achievement soon after birth, by improving visual, listening and speaking skills. You are the guide during this early development. You are the key to opening the door to the confidence, satisfaction, and knowledge that reading provides.”
Listening, observing, and imitating—all important to reading readiness—begin in the first year of life and accelerate. In the second year, between 18 and 24 months, a child’s vocabulary will increase from 50 simple words to more than 300.
Many of the activities we tend to think of as “classic” playtime activities with infants and toddlers, such as peek-a-boo, are also developing sensory and motor skills important for reading. Here are some basic activities and materials for developing toddlers’ reading readiness skills.

  1. Plan a regular time each day to read to and “with” your child. It’s no surprise or news to any parent that little ones enjoy hearing the same story read over and over. But there is a good reason. Repeated phrases make it possible for young children to participate by “reading” the repetitive part with an adult. Check out an 18-pack Start to Read! set, complete with short, rhyming stories and companion read-along and song CDs.
  2. Show books (paper and electronic) and magazines to babies/toddlers as early as their first year. Sure, they may not be interested for more than two minutes, but that’s fine. Their focus will grow. Let them also see you reading.
  3. Call your toddler’s attention to sounds, and then show or explain what made them. Things like engines running, trucks braking, dogs barking, leaves rustling, birds singing, and wind blowing, are all good examples. Also call out sounds around the house: vacuum cleaner, electric razor, mixer, furnace, footsteps, the cat’s purr. The fun My First Coloring Book Sticker Skill book series of toddler activity books, geared for ages 2+, links sounds, pictures, and vocabulary words and includes Vroom, Vroom!; Buzz Buzz!; Splish, Splash!; and Toot, Toot!; Scritch, Scratch!; and Oink, Oink!.

Connecting animals and animal pictures with the sounds they make is both time-tested fun and a great pre-reading activity. Starting in the second year, try “listening hunts.” Go to another room and imitate the sound of a dog barking or cat meowing. Say, “Find the dog (or cat).” Stay there until your little one crawls or walks to your location.

  1. Just before the age of one, a child can follow simple dressing directions. “Put your arm in the sleeve,” or “put on your hat.” This can be expanded into dress-up games such as “Let’s put grandma’s shoes on Jenny’s feet.” The child is having fun, learning body parts, and following directions. This is also the time to start introducing the concepts of lines and shapes. The Watch Me Color! series (Friendly Forest, Wavy Water, Zippy Zoo, and Friendly Farm) is designed for the almost-littlest learners age 1+.
  2. Play Show Me, Where, and Give. Ask “Where is the ___ (ball, table, bed, door, stroller),” “Show me the __ (scissors, cat, dog, stove, window),” and “Give me the ___ (bottle, apple, diaper, block, cup.) As the child grows and learns, expand this by adding other commands and varying the directions: Where is your mouth? Where is your hand? Stamp your foot. Raise your arms. Turn the pages of the book. Stand next to the chair. Games like Simon Says achieve similar results, and usually a few giggles, too. Learning materials that build focus, fine motor skills, and the ability to follow directions also contribute to reading readiness. For example, the Little Ones toddler book series introduces and reinforces Shapes, Lines, Colors, Numbers, Opposites, and stretches the ability to Think.

Easy teaching, learning, and playing techniques combine to one day produce reading.