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Want to Teach Your Baby to Read?

Want to Teach Your Baby to Read? - Grown Ups Magazine - Don’t fall for gimmicks. Get your little ones ready for reading with stimulating conversation!
Don’t fall for gimmicks. Get your little ones ready for reading with stimulating conversation!

Your Baby Can Read
Hold on! Raising lifelong readers doesn’t require media-hyped tools or daily lessons. As the mom of two, I know how easy it is to fall for gimmicks. But if you focus on the facts, you’ll set your kids on the path to reading success.

Time is of the essence

Learning to read is a complex process that works best when approached systematically over time. I learned that babies and toddlers need time to study how facial features look as mouths shape sounds and combinations of sounds; time to recognize sound combinations as syllables; time to combine those syllables; and time to connect words with their embedded knowledge––to divine the meaning from heard language.

Babies imitate heard language that’s interesting and makes sense. They observe talkers and then make up their own rules. Because infants and toddlers want to be understood, they want their own language imitations to be accurate. To attain that accuracy, children need to listen to spoken words again and again. All of this takes time. Before a child can crack open a book, they must experience language.

Fluency versus comprehension

If you’re reading this article, chances are good that you’re reading silently, fluently, and rapidly. As an accomplished reader, you’ve internalized your reading tasks. You don’t need to vocalize each letter’s corresponding sound as you scan the page, and you automatically relate those sounds, words, and sentences to information you already know.

I’ve had many students who performed reading’s separate tasks well, but had no idea how to combine those tasks to obtain meaning. My five-year-old demonstrated such “word reading.” Flawlessly, she read aloud a long paragraph from a college textbook, then asked, “Daddy, what do all those words mean?” Indeed, reading for meaning is a combination of a complicated consortium of complex skills.

What does the research say?

Doctors Betty Hart and Todd Risley spent decades observing the linguistic development of children in the home. Their groundbreaking research underscores the importance of oral language development––reading aloud and talking––during a child’s first three years. Their work not only ties the importance of oral language experience to reading successes, but also suggests that it’s an indicator of academic successes later in life.

What it looks like when a baby is ready to learn

You’ve noticed a baby’s concentrated seriousness, an expression that seems to say: “I’m busy. I gotta get my eyes to look and my ears to listen at the same time. I gotta figure out what all this means.” Because “talking face” scenarios come and go, it takes time for infants and toddlers to figure it out and decide how faces should look when they make each of any number of sounds and sound combinations. Children need to hear language sounds repeated until they feel ready to try to say it.

You may need to change your modeling style to accommodate your child. My toddler, who’d been using pronouns in sentences to refer to himself, started using his name instead. I wondered why until I listened to my modeling: “Mommy will help”; “Give it to Mommy”; “This is Mommy’s pen.” Because I referred to myself in the third person using my own name, my toddler followed my lead.

How should caregivers respond to developing language?

Your response is all-important. Suppose, for example, he’s heard you say “dog” during walks and daily read-alouds. And suppose, you hear him say some approximation of that word. His “duh” needs your response that you did, indeed, understand: “Yes! Dog! You said, ‘dog!’” Your child’s confidence with language grows with every conversation, read-aloud, and affirmation. With all your repetitious modeling, it may seem that you are leading this language-learning dance. But your child soon takes over and does a workout of all workouts!

Repetition is the key to build oral language. My students and my own children will repeatedly request the same book, poem, or song. Infants and toddlers who want repetition will wiggle and giggle to make their wishes known. I enjoyed this language dance with my babies, and now I’m participating in my grandbaby’s language-learning dance. And it’s an all-new experience as I watch her manipulating her tongue and cheeks and lips. Her first days of vocal attempts were all body talk as each sound seemed to wiggle upward from her tippy toes. Her look of surprise and delight lights up her face when each new sound or word pops out. I listen breathlessly outside her door as she practices in the quiet of her crib every sound, every word she’s heard today.

My approach

As a mother and teacher, I learned that my job was to immerse my children’s ears in language sounds, helping them model their listened and observed language experiences. We would, I concluded, party on with talking and reading aloud. We’d wait a few years to invite––and expect––my children’s eyes to read and their hands to write.

I’ve learned that babies roll over in their own time. They crawl, walk, dress, and feed themselves eventually, too. As with birthdays, each skill is a milestone that occurs naturally—with the passing of time. Learning to read is another milestone, one that occurs, I’ve learned, when a child has a lengthy and rich oral language experience.

When put to the test with my own babies, I chose to focus on reading aloud and talking to stimulate their potential rather than rely on read-to-learn exercises. Our read-alouds and conversations emphasized vocabulary and world knowledge. Oral language and more oral language, I believed, would prepare them to be the best readers they could be. As expected, both began to read when they were ready––one at age four; the other during second grade. And today? Both of them are avid readers.

About the author

Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz

Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz

Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz is a best-selling children’s author, career educator, parent, grandparent and entrepreneur. Most recently, Babs has launched a new company, Babsy B, devoted to helping parents and caregivers feel confident as their child’s 1st best teacher. She has a poem in her pocket for every situation and she looks forward to entertaining and engaging a whole new population of infants and toddlers with her newest Board Book series.

  • What a helpful article – I will definitely be passing it along to some of my friends who have children! 🙂

    • Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz

      Thank you, Jenn. Your sharing with friends makes a difference in children’s lives!

  • Karissa Ancell

    Great article. I did a lot of modeling of language for my daughter when she was a baby.

    • Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz

      Thanks for your comment, Karissa. Bet your daughter is a powerful reader and talker!

  • This is very interesting. When my girls were babies I loved reading to them. I also love watching them learning how to read. It’s very rewarding when they figure out how to do these things on their own!

    • Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz

      Oh, yes, Jessa! Learning to read is the one milestone that never stops paying forward. Glad you enjoyed the read!

  • I try and read to my toddler as much as possible. Reading to them at an early age is a great way to encourage their love of learning.

    • Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz

      And you’re reading aloud every time you read tall the environmental print, such as the stop sign at the corner or signage in stores. Thanks for giving your toddler the gift of readiness for learning, Amanda!

  • Brenda

    Great point! My mom used to read to my sisters and I every night before bed and i’m not sure if it’s directly related, but you always find me with at least one book in my purse wherever I go.

    • Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz

      My half century of observing children who are being read to tells me your mom gave you the bestest of all gifts! Much gratitude to your mom, Brenda!

  • Love this. I agree babies do things in their own time, but talking to your baby and pushing them along helps guide them. Ive seen a few babies without guidance and it takes a lot long for them to hit milestones.

    • Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz

      So true, Candace. Thanks for sharing.

  • Erica

    We’ve been reading out loud to my little one since before he was born, and he is now almost two. I’ve never forced books on him, but he absolutely loves them and I could not be happier! 🙂

    • Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz

      To that, I say, take your hand and reach around to the back of your opposite shoulder. Now pat that back, Erica. It is your modeling of reading that has shown your child how print works. A true lifelong gift you’ve given him. Thank you for sharing his joy with books.

  • Definitely sharing this with my old boss. Her little girl is so eager to learn how to read

    • Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz

      Thanks for sharing it wider, Astrid.

  • Megan

    I learned how to read when I was 3. I still attribute it to my love of reading!

    • Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz

      Reading never goes stale for you, does it! Thanks for sharing!

  • Sheila Perry Erb

    Great, Grown Ups article!!! Reading aloud to your child doesn’t have to end when they are no longer toddlers. My 3 teens and I always read a novel aloud together every summer!!

    • Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz

      How true, Sheila! Reading a novel together is a great way to maintain connection with teens. Your comment reminds me of researcher Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. Summarized, his concept guides us to read aloud to children those books they comprehend and find interesting, but stories they are not yet able to read alone with fluency. This “reading ahead of their decoding abilities” models for children the kinds of books and print they will soon be reading on their own. For example, we read aloud classic mythology to our children when they were but four and three, so they loved and could retell all those stories long before they could read them on their own. And when they did encounter those stories in print, they found the big words and unusual names of the characters to be easy to decipher. Reading aloud with children never ceases to be fun for all…and free!

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