Children are energetic learners, trying to make sense of the world around them. One of the most important activities to help a child stretch his mind, especially in the early years, is reading. From birth to age 5, development in all areas of the brain is rapid, so it is especially important during this time that parents make an intentional effort to integrate reading into a child’s daily routine. This practice helps mold your child into an active reader and establishes the foundational literacy skills he needs for future success in school and life.
“The first five years of life offer a critical window for brain development and learning,” said Anne-Marie Fitzgerald, executive director of Reach Out and Read, an evidence-based, national nonprofit whose pediatricians promote early literacy and school readiness to 4 million children nationwide. By reading aloud and talking to their children from birth, parents can play a key role in helping their little ones develop essential foundational language skills and eventually, arrive at kindergarten ready to read, learn, and succeed. Learning does not begin on the first day of school; it begins in the home with engaged parents who take the time to share stories, words and a love of reading with their children.”
While picking up a book and reading to your child may seem like a simple act, many children miss this benefit. A 3-year-old child’s vocabulary should span about 600 words with 80 percent intelligibility.
This means that a person who has not previously heard this child speak can understand eight out of 10 words. Providing children with a solid foundation in literacy skills not only equips them to thrive in the 21st century, it also impacts our country’s ability to compete in the global workplace.
“The future of our children and our country depend on coordinated community efforts to prepare all students in the U.S. to excel in a dynamic, global society,” says Jo Kirchner, president and CEO of Primrose Schools, a family of more than 270 private preschools across the country. “Together we have a responsibility to step up to the challenge by pooling our knowledge, time, expertise and ideas to improve early literacy and education outcomes.”
Raising a reader
As you read aloud to your child, keep these tips in mind to maximize your reading time together:
• Start early. Begin reading and speaking to your child the day she is born – it is never too early to start.
• Practice every day. Make reading with your child a daily routine, reinforcing the development of language and literacy skills.
• Serve and return. A key part of language learning occurs in “conversations” with our children. After a baby listens to people around her talking for a few months, she begins to respond with her own rendition of those sounds, starting with coos, babbles, or shrieks. Dr. Jack Shonkoff of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University calls this back-and-forth interaction “serve and return.” As we “serve” words, children “return” sounds. Before we realize, the child is beginning to speak intelligibly and meaningfully – first with syllables and single words, then with phrases and complete sentences. Use “serve and return” when reading together as your child starts to learn about story background and context.
• Play word games. Letter puzzles, rhyming games, breaking words into sounds, and other phonological play helps your child build a foundation that will later be used to decode words.
• Have a conversation. While you are reading a book with your child, engage in conversation about the characters, the plot, the setting, and ask your child questions. This offers him an opportunity to build his vocabulary and comprehension skills.
• Pick books at the appropriate reading level. When your child is reading to you, pick books that have words that your child is familiar with – repetition is one of the best ways to learn. Books at or just below your child’s reading level allow her to work on fluency and build confidence. When you are reading to your child, pick books at a higher reading level so that your child hears new words in context first, before being presented with the challenge of reading them himself.
• Wait before interrupting. Rather than correcting your child mid-sentence, wait until he comes to a comfortable stopping point and then go back to the trouble spot to talk it out together. Stopping your child to correct him each time he makes a mistake can erode his confidence.