Language and literacy develop together as a baby grows from an infant, to a toddler, to a school-aged child and older. This development happens in an expected order, through social interactions, most often with parents. The key to development is that interaction.
Babies’ and toddlers’ brains grow quickly and the first three years are critical for language development. Handing a child an iPad or having them use a computer program to learn means they will miss important social interactions. And, once that opportunity passes, it's hard to make up. The brain cells that would have been nurtured and developed start to fade away.
Building literacy and language skills help children be kindergarten-ready, so they enter school with a love of books and ready to learn. This is important for school success because eventually they move from learning to read, to reading to learn. At that point, if children struggle with reading, they’ll struggle with learning. This is also important for self-esteem, and building resilience to avoid drugs and resist peer pressure.
What Can You Do to Promote Reading at Any Age?
No baby is too young to be spoken to. Talk to your baby so they hear words with expression and emotion. Make fun noises like animal sounds and look for them to mimic you. As they get older, name and point to objects, talk about what you're doing, like making dinner or going for a walk. Help them explore their world by naming and showing things.
It's never too early to start reading to your baby. A 3-month-old will love being cuddled on their parent’s lap and begins to associate reading with warmth and love. Board books are made for babies to get their hands around and for them touch, feel, and explore, the same way they explore their whole world.
As they get older, you can share more complex books; books with pictures, counting, animal and farmyard stories and little plots. Books can have paper pages because toddlers can do more with their fingers and turn pages without tearing them. As you share stories together, you can anticipate what’s going to happen and talk about it.
A toddler may not want to sit still as you read, but that's okay. They can run and play and you can read an exciting story while they listen to it. Maybe they will act it out!
Make reading part of your child’s bedtime routine early on, and encourage it in school-aged children. This helps make bedtimes go more smoothly and can lead to a lifelong habit. Reading as you drift off to sleep rather than a looking at a stimulating screen helps people of all ages sleep better.
Don’t stop reading to your child when they get older. The books change, but parents can still read to kids and kids can read to parents. Read aloud, or try reading in parallel, because sometimes, with longer books, it may be hard to read lengthy passages; so get two copies at the library and read side-by-side.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
Before you go on outings or trips, consider if there are books to fit the theme. For example, if you’re going to the zoo, get books about animals. When your child reads a story about a giraffe, then sees one in person, they may want to read more about it afterward.
Make the reading environment fun. Try a blanket fort, or a reading nook with pillows.
On short and long car trips, try listening to audio recordings of books. For books that are made into movies, try to read the book first so you can paint a picture of what all the characters and places look like beforehand.
A parent-child book club is great for kids in middle grades or early high school. Pick several titles and vote for one for everyone to read; meet every couple of months and talk about it. It’s a nice way to try a book you might not read on your own and think about it in more depth or from another perspective.
Don’t forget libraries. They are wonderful, free and have many other programs linked to stories, like musical instruments, crafts, or summer reading programs for various ages. Go to the children's area or the young adult reading area and spend time there as a family.
To learn more about Nationwide Children’s Hospital Reach Out and Read program, which helps promote early literacy and a love of reading click here or listen to our PediaCast: Pediatrics in Plain Language – Family Literacy and Great Books for Every Age. We know parents and children who go through Reach Out and Read have more books in their home, talk about reading as one of their favorite activities, and read more to their children; and their children have better vocabularies.
Remember, explore any books that capture your child’s fancy, and make reading fun! Our Pediatrics in Plain Language Family Literacy podcast has some great ideas to get started.