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.
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.