I can’t believe how many programs are out there that claim they will teach a toddler to read. Toddlers can be taught to memorize, but they can’t really be taught to read. Not in the true sense of the word “read”.
Luckily I knew this from my schooling in child development and wasn’t sucked into trying one of these programs. I am happy to learn that the “Your Baby Can Read” program no longer exists (and with good reason)!
I am going to share with you my reasons for not teaching my toddler to read.
Teaching Your Toddler To Read The Right Way
As a former Speech-Language Pathologist I can tell you that there are many skills a toddler can and should be learning, but reading is not one of them. There is no study that I could find that correlates early reading ability with later academic success.
However, there is plenty of information that supports the idea that toddlers with superior oral language skills (this is often seen in children who partake in lots of pretend play) do better with reading and writing once they are in the higher elementary grades.
My children are 7 and 9 now and both of them are doing very well with reading (for their age) and neither of them could read a word prior to the age of 4.
Developmentally, most children are ready to start reading and being taught to read between the ages of 5 and 6 (this is an average, some aren’t ready until the age of 7). Prior to that age children’s brains are not able to decode a letter, combine letters and then form words.
Children also need to have a large vocabulary base in order to understand the words that they are reading or to decode new words. And the best way to expand a toddler’s vocabulary is through play!
Did you know that children who are taught to read before they are developmentally ready often struggle with reading comprehension in grades 3/4? This is because much of what they learned has been memorized and not truly understood.
Other studies are finding that executive functioning skills, or lack thereof, play a role in students who struggle with reading. These types of skills need to be gained before reading will be successful.
These types of skills can be learned through play and interacting with others.
There are many activities that you can do with your toddler that will help him learn to read once he is ready.
Here are some of the activities that will help prepare your toddler for reading:
Play and Play Some More
Yes, playing will prepare your child for academic skills including reading. Play is a building block for skills that a child will acquire later on. When a child is playing he is learning new vocabulary.
A study conducted by Meredith Rowe in 2012 found that the size of a child’s vocabulary in kindergarten can predict his ability to learn to read (A Longitudinal Investigation of the Role of Quantity and Quality of Child-Directed Speech in Vocabulary Development. Child Development: 83(5), 1762-1774). Rowe also found that it isn’t simply the amount of words used that matter, but also the types of words.
So go ahead and introduce your child to new words during play. But don’t go overboard. Make sure you keep the interactions natural. For example, when playing with a toy train, instead of saying the “train driver” you could say “engineer”. But make sure to let your child know that someone who drives a train is called an “engineer”. Be explicit when introducing new words. Tell your child exactly what the new word means.
It is best to introduce new vocabulary words during a play activity your child has expressed interest in. He will be more likely to retain the new words than if it were in a not so exciting activity. This is why it is important to follow your child’s lead in play!
Another great way to introduce new words is when you are reading to your child. Many words that you probably wouldn’t use with your child often come up this way.
When a child is playing, especially during more advanced pretend play that you will see 3+ year old children engaging in, he is making symbolic connections. For example, you may see a child pretending a block is a phone and “talking” into it. This symbolic representation is a precursor to the symbolism that happens during reading as each sound is symbolized by a letter. Each letter makes up a word which is another symbol. And then that word is given meaning.
Point Out Logos/Signs
This may seem like an odd thing to suggest, but I will explain how this relates to reading. A logo or sign is a symbol for something (a store or restaurant are great examples). So the next time your child point’s out the McDonald’s Golden Arches, think of it as a good thing.
This means your child has made the connection between the sign/logo and a place he likes to eat. Reading is very similar. You must understand that letters make up words and each word has a different meaning. Therefore, your toddler has learned a pre-requisite skill for reading by making the association between a logo and a place.
Read To Your Child
This is a given. Your child needs to hear others read before she will be able to read by herself. Most children enjoy listening to their parents read to them starting around 6 months of age. (but you can start reading to your baby right from birth) This introduces your child to books.
Start with simple picture books, as your child gets older you can read books with rhyme and repetition. Before you know it she will be trying to “read” just like you do.
During book reading, make sure you point to pictures. Wait and see if your child will point to a picture. Does he say a word or wait for a response from you? By labeling the pictures you are teaching that pictures are a symbol for something real. Just like the letters that make up a word are a symbol.
You can also make up your own story. You do not need to follow each book word for word. The goal of reading to a toddler is to get them interested in books.
Have books easily accessible for your toddler. Observe her with a book. How does she hold it? Does she turn one page at a time or multiple pages at once?
Model the correct way to hold a book. If your child is looking at the book upside down, turn it around for him and comment “oops, the book is upside down, turn it around”. But don’t do this all the time. Give your child space to explore books freely as well.
When you are reading with your child, occasionally use your finger to follow along with the words so that your child sees that you are looking at the text.
Letter Puzzles/Magnetic Letters
Have some letter insert puzzles or magnetic letters (the kind that stick on the fridge) around for your toddler to play with. Point out the letters in his name. Most children start recognizing their name in print around the age of 3. Say the sound that each letter makes when you are talking about letters.
This will help your child with reading later on. But be careful to not go overboard with this. Incorporate this activity with his other toys so that it is still seen as playing.
The ability to rhyme is part of what speech pathologists refer to as phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is a whole other area I am not going to get into, but basically a child’s phonological awareness is an extremely accurate predictor of reading success later on. For now we will stick with rhyming because it is something toddlers and children love.
Sing songs with rhymes (e.g. Down by the bay), so that your little one starts hearing the subtle differences that occur when you change one sound in a word. Make up your own rhyming game. There are also many books that contain rhymes. These are great first books because they introduce phonological awareness in a fun way.
Encourage Invented Spelling
Just like when a 2 year old “writes” a story (think of scribbles on a paper), a 3-4 year old may try to write “words”. But the word in question may be difficult to figure out as it might just be a single letter. But this is a good thing. As children get older they will include more letters to their word so the “b” that mean “baby” when your 3 year old wrote it might become “by” by the age of 4/5 and by the age of 6 you might see it spelled as “bby”. For many children, vowels seem to be the last letters to get included.
What your child is doing is inventing his own spelling based on how a letter sounds phonetically.
But what does this all have to do with reading? Instead of me going into it all in this article, here is a great piece written by a teacher that explains it very well!
Will You Still “Teach” Your Toddler To Read?
As you can see, there is a lot a toddler needs to know before he can learn to read. Do not skip these steps. Yes, a toddler can learn to memorize words and even match them to the correct picture (e.g. C-A-T and then find the picture of a cat) which makes it seem like they are reading.
We all know how important literacy is so of course it’s natural to want children to learn this important skills as soon as possible. But our brains develop a certain way and we can’t force things prematurely as they end result could be quite different from what was intended.
However, if your child does not have the necessary pre-reading building blocks blocks in place, she may not become a successful independent reader once she starts school. Reading is more than just recognizing and saying words. You must also understand what you have read for there to be any point to reading.
These are some of the many reasons why I did not teach my toddler to read! Have I convinced you not to try and teach yours either?
Try not to rush your toddler into becoming a school aged child. There is plenty of time for that. Focus on giving your toddler what he needs now to become successful later on!
Please share your thoughts in the comments below!