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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship from the start, and supporting your infant’s development now in ways that will help your child read when they are older is a great way to do it.
It may seem that the only things infants are capable of in these early months of life involve eating, sleeping, and crying. In fact, they are learning so much. Your infant’s brain will double in size in the first year of life. Preparing to learn to read begins as early as possible, long before your child can read a word on a page. No matter what age, it is always good to build a habit of reading books together, and there are many other things that you can do to develop early reading skills as well.
Reading skills are grown by talking and singing, playing rhyming games together, and reading to your infant often to build their vocabulary and knowledge about the world. The early years are the right time for developing language skills, playing with sounds, and enjoying books together, so children will be ready for reading in the future.
Throughout the first year, your infant is turning to you to help them figure out what is important to pay attention to in the world. When you fill your infant’s day with talking, singing, rhyming, and reading, they learn that language is important. Your infant is interested in your voice, the words you choose, the rhythms of your speech, the songs you sing, and the books you love.
The steps below include specific, practical strategies to help you have fun with your infant while building a relationship that includes reliable and unconditional support and love.
Your infant’s experiences including singing, rhyming, and playing with you are essential to developing a healthy brain, growing creativity skills, learning about language and emotions, and strengthening their relationship with you. These experiences will also help them learn to read when they are older.
You can begin by exposing your infant to songs, sounds, and books they can explore – even if that means drooling on them in the first years! As time goes on, they will turn to you for new words and stories and will connect language and reading with the joy they feel when they are having fun with you.
Today, in the short term, building a foundation for reading can
- develop a foundation for language skills,
- provide opportunities for fun times with you as you learn new songs and stories together, and
- create a love of learning that will encourage your infant to explore and be curious.
Tomorrow, in the long term, building a foundation for reading
- prepares your child for success in school;
- provides a firm foundation for exploration, learning, and speaking up;
- helps them identify thoughts and feelings and struggles, which grows self-awareness;
- helps them manage impulses so they can stay focused on the story, which grows self-management;
- helps them become more socially aware as they learn how to take cues from others about how to use language together in games and songs;
- helps them grow responsible decision-making skills as they learn good reading habits and learn to ask for help when needed; and
- creates shared family stories, games, and memories.
Five Steps for Talking About Reading
This five-step process helps you and your infant provide a foundation for developing language skills, playing with sounds, and enjoying books together, so they will be ready for reading in the future. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your infant are not tired or in a rush.
Intentional communication and actively building a healthy parent relationship will support these steps.
Step 1. Getting to Know and Understand your Infant’s Input
Infants use facial expressions, body language, crying, and other sounds to communicate with you. Paying close attention to your infant’s facial expressions, body movements, and sounds helps you better understand what they are trying to communicate. Your efforts to learn from your infant build trust and create empathetic interactions that let them know you are interested in what they are thinking. This will make a big difference for setting the stage for early reading. Your infant will give you lots of cues about what they are ready to learn.
In paying attention and noting small differences in your infant’s cries, body language, and speaking, you
- show them that they can trust you to notice how they feel,
- let them know that you will help them face challenges, and
- deepen your ability to communicate with one another.
- Language development and relationship development set the stage for later reading success. Simple interactions can engage your infant. Your infant may not be able to respond with words, but they can respond with their eye contact, their facial expression, and their body movements.
- Copy your infant’s sounds. If your infant makes a cooing sound, you make it too to show them you are listening. Then, encourage your infant to do it again.
- Make sounds together. You might help your infant to touch your lips as you press them together to make an “M” sound for “Mom.” Exaggerate the “M” sound, and they will be able to feel the vibrations. After you have paused and given them plenty of time to make sounds and expressions, you might share what you notice. For example, “I see you smiling when I make the “M” sound. Do you want to try making it too?”
If your infant seems unengaged when you are singing or reading together, don’t worry. Infants have very short attention spans, and it is ok for them to look away and then re-engage again later.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Infants are learning how to engage in their world through your loving interactions, which include growing skills that will help them learn how to read when they are older. Skill building takes intentional practice.
Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your infant is experiencing.1
- 0-3-month-olds will turn their head toward, become quiet, or smile in response to a familiar voice. They start to make eye contact around three months. They cry differently depending on the situation. They will coo and enjoy playful facial interaction with others.
- 4-6-month-olds listen and respond when spoken to. They make consonant sounds through babbling to gain attention and will make different sounds to express feelings. They enjoy playful interactions like peek-a-boo and will begin to raise their arms to be picked up.
- 7-9-month-olds use sounds and syllables in babbling to communicate and gain attention. They recognize their own name and turn to objects and people when mentioned. They participate in two-way communication, can follow simple directions when paired with physical gestures, and offer simple nonverbal cues like head shaking to indicate “no.”
- 10-12-month-olds are using “mama” and “dada,” can follow simple directions, and say one or two words with full sentences of imitation babbling. They understand “no.” They will use their hands to communicate needs and point to objects of interest. They will explore when placed on the floor.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your infant up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Read together. Read books together during the day or as part of your bedtime routine. Your infant will eventually be able to hold a book, look at the pictures, and will likely put the book in their mouth. Encourage this exploration.
- Read or chant rhymes or poetry to your child — particularly ones with repetitive words and sounds.
- Make your thinking and emotions explicit. Talk about what you notice, how you are feeling, why you are feeling it, and what signs you are giving. “I have so much fun singing songs with you. La La La La La!”
- Cultivate a love of playing with language and stories. This might include sharing funny poems and making silly faces every time you make a rhyme. Diaper changing time is a perfect time for silly faces and rhymes.
Don’t expect your infant to have a long attention span with any one activity. Follow your infant’s lead. They likely will signal with a short cry or simply change their attention when they need to shift their focus.
Step 3. Practice to Build the Foundation for Reading
Your daily routines are opportunities for your infant to practice vital new skills. With practice, your infant will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your infant works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themself.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy – a child’s sense that they can do a task successfully. This leads to confidence. It helps them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
To build a foundation for reading, it is important to talk, sing, rhyme, read, and play.
- Keep age-appropriate books within reach so your infant can enjoy them when they choose. Books that let children press buttons to make sounds give them a chance to take some control of their own sound making.
- Use your infant’s dolls or stuffed animals to act out moments of enjoying language and reading. This is a good way to practice what it feels like to be a reader and to build that part of your infant’s identity. “Let’s bring teddy over here so he can hear the story too.”
- Provide opportunities for your infant to use language and words in a way that is just a bit more challenging than what they have done before. The goal is to come up with experiences that are just beyond that which they are comfortable. If they have already made the “M” sound with you for quite some time, add new sounds. Or add a new sound next to the “M”: “Mmmmmm-bop.”
- Practice making music together. Softly clapping your hands together is a fun activity to engage your infant.
Step 4. Support Your Infant’s Development and Success
At this point, you are developing your infant’s language skills by playing with sounds and enjoying books together so they will be ready for reading in the future. You allow your infant to practice, so they can learn and grow.
Now, you can offer continued positive support and generate excitement and positive feelings about language and reading.
- Learn about your infant’s development. Each new age presents different challenges. Being informed about your infant’s developmental milestones promotes your empathy and patience.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I notice you are making a singing sound. Hooray!”
- Build reading and songs into your daily routines and comment on how important those parts of your routines are. “It’s time to change your diaper; that means it’s time to sing our favorite song.”
Step 5. Recognize and Celebrate
There are so many amazing changes and developments to celebrate with your infant. Each little achievement is something worth recognizing and celebrating.
Taking the time to recognize and celebrate can promote safe, secure, and nurturing relationships. It makes children feel secure and loved, which helps their brains develop. It builds a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
You can recognize and celebrate your infant with the following actions.
- Smile at your infant.
- Make eye contact.
- Use caring facial expressions.
- Be physically gentle and caring with your infant.
- Use words to celebrate and encourage. When your infant is listening and following your expressions, call it out: “You are moving your arms and legs when you hear the clapping sound — Love seeing that!”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your infant is interacting and let them know you see them. “I see you trying to play peek-a-book with me. Yay!”
- Build celebrations into your everyday routines. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
The first year is filled with amazing changes — and not just for your infant. Don’t forget to recognize and celebrate your own development and milestones as a parent.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for infants to start to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, and to work on their relationship skills.