*Updated November 2021*
Were you searching for “ways to teach my toddler to read?” when you stumbled on this article?
Whatever brought you to Seeme & Liz, I am glad that you are here so I can share with you why it’s best to avoid programs that claim they will teach a baby or toddler to read.
Toddlers (and even babies) can be taught to memorize, but they can’t really be taught to read.
Not in the true sense of the word “read”.
Reading is very complex and requires many foundation skills to be in place in order for a child to be a successful reader.
In this article I am going to share with you my reasons for not teaching my toddler to read.
The Best Ways To “Teach” Your Toddler To Read!
There is no study that I could find that definitively correlates early reading ability with later academic success.
In fact, in many Scandinavian countries where children excel academically, they do not receive formal reading instruction until the age of 7.
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 12 and 14 now and both of them are doing very well with reading 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 closer to the age of 6 (this is an average, some aren’t ready until the age of 7).
And, children who can read at the age of 4 aren’t any further along than those who started reading later by the time they reach grade 4.
Prior to that age the majority of 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.
Skills such as these are learned through play and interacting with others.
There are many activities that you can do with your toddler that will help them learn to read once they is ready.
Activities To Help Prepare A Toddler To Read
*This article may contain affiliate links*
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 they are learning new vocabulary.
A study conducted by Meredith Rowe in 2012 found that the size of a child’s vocabulary in kindergarten can predict their 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 always saying the “train driver” you could mix it up and say “engineer”.
But make sure to let your child know that someone who drives a train is sometimes 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.
They 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 will 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, they are 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 they like to go 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 prerequisite 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 they will be able to read by themselves. Most children enjoy listening to their parents read to them starting at around 6 months of age. But it is totally fine to start reading to your baby right from birth. This introduces your child to books.
Start with simple picture books and as your child gets older you can read books with rhyme and repetition. Before you know it they 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 your child 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 your child with a book. How do they hold it? Do they 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 them 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 their 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 their 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.
Below are great first books because they introduce rhyming 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 only 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 their 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 they can learn to read.
Do Not Skip These Important 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.
And it’s an impressive looking skill seeing a 2 year old match a word to a picture!
We all know how important literacy is so of course it’s natural to want children to learn this important skill as soon as possible.
But our brains develop a certain way and we can’t force things prematurely as the 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, they may not become a successful independent reader once they start 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.
Here is a great infographic by The Classroom Key showing exactly what is involved in learning to read.
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?
There is plenty of time for that.
Focus on giving your toddler what they need now to become successful later on!
And that is face to face interactions with important people in your child’s life.
While a young child may love sitting in front of the TV watching “learn to read” videos, this is not the best way.
Please share your thoughts in the comments below!