); Skip to content

Literacy from birth?

Reading to your baby opens literacy potential.

Maybe when you read that title you assumed I was talking about ABC’s and flash cards for babies. Maybe you thought of those “high performance babies” you may have seen on TV or You-Tube. You know the ones, the babies who say the sight word printed on a stack of flashcards. Well, that’s NOT what this post is about.

This post is about how reading TO your baby opens his/her full learning potential for written language. This includes reading and writing.

There are many excuses. NONE Of them are good enough for the risk.

SOME PEOPLE FEEL SILLY READING TO A BABY. Unfortunately, some say “THE BABY CAN’T UNDERSTAND THE WORDS ANYWAY SO WHAT GOOD IT IT?” However, the language and literacy benefits begin long before actual word comprehension. Of course babies don’t even know what a book is, let alone understand the words that are in it.

In the beginning

Initially, it’s the close physical contact with a caregiver that initiates the sequence of literacy development. Hearing a caregiver’s voice while “experiencing books” together begins to create the infants interest. It is that interest which will start the process of learning to read!

First it’s the closeness. Next it’s the attention to voice that evolves into attention to intonation patterns. Once the baby’s attention is on the adult’s voice, his/her brain begins to actually develop around the input of sounds.

Within the first few weeks of life newborns have been shown to react more to a familiar voice. In addition, infants respond to specific sounds of the native language they hear regularly. Scientists have described this period of brain development as a stage of “data collection and analysis”.

Personally, I find it’s really incredible to think about the connection of this period of a child’s life with their ability to crack the code of print, later down the road, between 5-7 years of age. Reading to your baby opens his/her full learning potential for literacy. Read about the importance of auditory memory skills that are learned from these experiences and necessary for literacy development too.

Exposure by kindergarten helps

Children that start kindergarten ready to read are the ones who had consistent book experiences as infants and toddlers. Sadly, those children that don’t come to school with a connection to books, stories and print have a huge disadvantage. Sometimes they don’t even have the interest in the formal lessons of print that come with school. Teachers can see the difference within a few days/weeks of meeting the child.

It’s not about learning to read words early. It’s about having the underlying experiences and motivation to support the content of formal reading instruction.

Photo by Lina Kivaka from Pexels

Even the most fun, interesting and skilled kindergarten teacher can’t recover years of lost experiences. Even late starters can potentially learn to read. Just remember, it’s a much steeper hill to climb if you are trying to catch up. Frequently, the children who have had the early experiences before they come to school tend to arrive eager and ready. For most of them it’s a relatively smooth transition from spoken sounds to print.

Reading to toddlers IS hard sometimes

SOME PEOPLE DON’T READ TO TODDLERS CLAIMING “IT’S IMPOSSIBLE, HE WON’T SIT STILL.” Although it’s true that a squirmy toddler may have more interest in moving about than listening to a book you CAN’T give up. People often mistakenly stop trying read-alouds in hopes it will get easier when the child is older. Remember, listening to a book develops in stages and often beings with only fleeting moments of attention.

This is one of those things that gets better with practice so it’s best to work through it. Strategically, keep short but frequent book experiences throughout your daily routine.

Grow a reader, as Jim Trelease says “on a lap one page at a time.” A toddler may only listen for a sentence or two on a single page. That’s ok. Meet each child at whatever level they are comfortable. Make it a goal to gradually stretch attention over time.

What you can do to stretch attention

To begin with, maximize the “captive audience moments” so you build on success. For instance, reading to a toddler right before/after nap time when energy level might be a bit calmer. Be creative, get washable books and read during bath time. Read at every meal time when the baby is strapped into a high chair. Keep a bag of books in the car. If you arrive somewhere early you’ll have a few books on hand for the parking lot or waiting room. So, even though it’s not very likely to arrive anywhere EARLY with a toddler, you still might end up having to wait.

Only with patience and PRACTICE will the goal of sustained auditory attention be reached. Don’t wait for it, grow it!

SOME PEOPLE DON’T READ DAILY TO PRESCHOOLERS CLAIMING “I TRY BUT WE JUST DON’T HAVE THE TIME.” The benefits to reading aloud to children are too numerous to pass up. Honestly, just showing a child that you MAKE the time for reading together speaks volumes. Keep books stashed all over the house so you can grab one at any time you have a few loose minutes. These minutes add up over time and the effect of reading aloud to a child has a cumulative effect over the long haul.

What about older children?

SADLY, MANY PEOPLE STOP READING TO THEIR CHILDREN ONCE THEY LEARN TO READ FOR THEMSELVES. However, there are still so many benefits to continue reading to children even after they can read independently.

First, the books you choose for a read a loud can be slightly higher level than the comfort level of a young reader. This helps vocabulary and grammar grow.

Second, hearing fluent readers read provides a model of what it should sound like. Having this internal idea of what reading sounds like helps a young reader to accomplish that too. The child learns where and how to pause.

In addition, the child learns when to imagine different voices that match character traits. Also important, the child begins to learn how anticipation of the climax of a story slowly builds. This strengthens comprehension of language in general which in turn helps the child in his/her own reading.

Don’t miss this very important part of the reading development process that occurs BEFORE SCHOOL AGE. Literacy rates are lacking nearly everywhere. I don’t care where you come from or live there is room for improvement. Reading to your baby opens his/her full learning potential for literacy.

In conclusion…..

Pick up a book


it’s a huge investment

in their future.

Pamela Talbot

Pamela is an ASHA certified Speech-Language Pathologist dually certified as a teacher of the hearing impaired. She is a Listening and Spoken Language LSLS-AVT. Pamela has extensive experience training parents and professionals at the international level.