Put away the flash cards. Save your money on the software and workshops that will show you how to teach your baby or toddler to read.
It’s not that they can’t or shouldn’t. You just don’t need special resources to teach a toddler or preschooler to read, as long as they are interested and motivated. All you need is your own love of books, and patience with endless questions. Most important, the child must really want to read and find information, satisfaction, and attention by reading themselves.
In my childcare home, I encountered children who were born to read. I also encountered children who could care less, but loved a good story. As they got older they all read pretty much on the same level. The common factor was that they read because they had an interest. Some read as toddlers, some read in the primary grades.
My oldest son started teaching himself to read when he was 18 months old. Every day, the questions “What dis say? What dat sign say? I see letter S! I see letter T! I see letter O! I see letter P! S-T-O-P! What dat say? STOP! STOP SIGN! Yaaay!” Within a month he had figured out “bus stop” on his own. “Exit” was another obsession. And every time we stopped for gas, it had to be GULF. Only he didn’t call it “gulf”; he called it “fuig”. The sign rotated, and he wasn’t sure what direction the letters were going in.
Early readers have a few things in common, according to Jim Trelease, author of The Read Aloud Handbook. For one thing, they are read to on a regular basis. Story time teaches that reading is a pleasurable relaxing experience. It also shows children that this is how you find out what happens next! The homes of early readers are full of books and magazines. It is clear to the child that the adult reads for pleasure and information. Pencils and papers are also readily available. And finally, Trelease says that the adults in homes with very young readers are always answering questions, writing down stories that their children dictate, visit the library, buy books themselves, and display the child’s work proudly.
We used to write letters to Santa, and to Grandma. Sometimes, we would write down an idea to remember it later. In child care, I wrote “experience charts” for the parents to see what their children were saying and learning. We would do an activity, and I would write down what each child wanted to say. Then, we would hang it up so that parents could see it when they walked in. Imagine a three year old proudly pointing to a sentence and telling her mother “Look what I said!”
Living day in and day out with an early reader can make life interesting. We never missed the bus stop, or a highway EXIT. Supermarket shopping was also an adventure. It was difficult to explain that we did not need something, and be met with a plaintive “But it says SALE!” Young readers can read those tabloid headlines we scoff at – and believe them. Parents and teachers have to safeguard young toddlers and preschoolers who read, because some of the things they can see are clearly inappropriate.
To encourage literacy with any child is to encourage the love of reading, the need to read, and the interest in “finding out” what’s in that world of words and letters.