No Theory: Just A Road Map to Early Reading

I have mentioned this before. My children were reading at age three. By kindergarten[age 5], they were reading at second grade levels, beginning with my first born. That is no exaggeration or falsehood. What I did for my children is not impossible and it didn’t require an extraordinary number of resources. It came natural to me since I was an avid reader and happened to have access to resources, a college degree and a mother who was a middle school teacher. Ultimately though, none of that really mattered because the efforts were mine and my children’s alone.  It wasn’t rocket science at all. You, too can cultivate early reading skills with your children. I will try to map out the process that worked for me.

Every first time mother has lots of questions about the developmental process of their child. Parents see other children at the same age as their child and compare skills. If your child is not doing the same things as another child, you worry. “Is my child normal?” If noticing a tiny bump, we worry that it is some devastating skin disease. We worry about everything.

While pregnant, I had already bought a few books on pregnancy, baby names and childhood development. I worried. I was careful. I was conscientious. While breastfeeding, I read, and still compared my child with the ‘average’ child’s  developmental milestones. You get the picture. My first born was like my ‘test’ or ‘practice’ baby, so to speak, and I wanted to get everything ‘right’. She set the standard for the two that followed, and I promise you that it does become easier, although no less challenging, no less conscientious.

My daughter appeared to focus on ‘my’ books while I was reading, even when what I read was often scary. The funny thing was that almost every symptom that I looked up in my favorite ‘go-to’ baby book[by Penelope Leach], was a condition that I was sure my baby had. If she coughed, I thought it was croup. My pediatrician also became my best friend. Certainly many first time parents experience the same fears.


family reading story book

Once again, you get the picture. That was my cue to break out the baby books. She was about 5-6 months old. Here’s the map.-short and sweet. It really Is quite simple, but not effortless. Basically, all that is needed is that you:

  1. Point out items on each page, including colors, objects, people’s facial expressions and
  2. Each time that you read, read with extreme emotion, excitement-animation. It’s okay to use your baby talk/tone.

This doesn’t happen overnight, but if you are a stay at home mother or father, amidst all of your home duties, you will carve out the time. After a few months have passed, your child will bring books to you. You will comply and read with her/him.[Just wait until your child pretends to read to you! Adorable! Go with it.]

As soon as she could focus, and then sit up, I read…with her. Every opportunity that we had, I would prop her in my lap and we read.  It doesn’t matter that you may have only one book in the entire home, that will work. Even though you may grow rather bored with that same book, trust me, your child won’t. So, continue to read with a sense of excitement. The time in infancy is just a primer to reading. It sets the stage. Just make sure those first books have large letters sand colorful pictures. Shapes and colors attract children, as well as faces.

Make Sesame Street your best friend. You know how it’s said that black people are always talking during movies and talking at the screen. In this case, that is a good thing for babies and toddlers. Talking to your child about what she’s seeing also helps build vocabulary. When reading a book, and it is focused on sight, early sounds and object recognition[ABC’s, animals, etc…],  point out letters, repeat them, sound out the object it refers to, and repeat the letter again. That’s pretty straight forward.

Sometimes children will turn the page too soon or skip pages altogether. It doesn’t matter. Stay with it. Don’t force them to return to the ‘right’ page. Order is not the aim. It is letter-sound-object-word recognition. It is cultivating a love for books and reading.

woman with tattoo carrying baby

What I found helpful to do was when beginning a storybook, like bedtime stories, as soon as you open the first  page, saying, “Once upon a time…” and “The end” at the end. It just helps children to recognize that there is a story inside of every book. It encourages a feeling of excitement, anticipation and routine. Soon enough, your child will come to you and pretend to read that book. She will begin with, “Once upon a time…” That will be so cute and encouraging also.

What I am talking about are real books, not e-readers or electronic books. They work as well, but the tactile and fine motor skills are better developed when your child must physically turn and manipulate pages. Somehow, e-books can’t really offer that, despite their usefulness for many obvious reasons.

The road map to reading, is not as technical or grounded in phonics and reading philosophies as experts would have you believe. It is more nuanced than that, as the way your child reads will be a combination of techniques. It will be individualized. The way one child reads will not work as effectively for another. You will know exactly what works for your child, and you’ll know when.The bottom line is that you introduce books early, you read frequently and you read routinely with excitement. When you’re excited, so is your child.

For those parents who have limited books and reading material in the home, there is always the library. I went to my local library about once every two or three weeks to borrow books for my children and myself. During this pandemic, it is safest to avoid libraries, unless your library is open and conforming to CDC safety guidelines. Otherwise, there are still many options for helping your child to read from home.

Wherever you are, your living situation, the amount of furnishings in your home, there are central similarities among all families. Any items that you do have readily access to, label them. Begin by the first letter of each select item. For example, your stove begins with the letter ‘s’. Place a big colorful ‘S’ on the stove. Point out the letter, the item, and repeat. You get the picture. When your child gets older, write the entire word on those select items around you.

As you move about during your day, or if you live in the city, look out your window and play “I Spy” to identify what you or your child sees. There are many other ways to encourage early reading. You aren’t deliberately aiming to force or demand that your child reads. You are setting the stage for its natural, but early development. Make it a habit to keep engaging your child with words, letters and sounds. Don’t forget to label emotions and feelings. That helps build social-emotional literacy.

beautiful girl in white and yellow floral dress covering her face with her hand

Whether boy or girl, help your children label their emotions. Feelings are important to share and name, particularly when your child becomes a toddler. Developmentally, children begin to test and assert their individual will, and ‘no’ becomes a regular part of their vocabulary.  It is much more pleasant and manageable for your child when he can come to you and say, “I’m sad” or “I’m angry” etc… When hearing these things from you first, they will then do likewise. Even when you think your child is not watching you, be mindful of your coping own strategies. Your child will model them. You are their first teacher.

Admittedly, this thing called ‘parenting’ is complex. It can be the most rewarding role you’ll ever play in life. You’ve heard this many times, but you are your child’s first teacher. You don’t need credentials to teach. You just instinctively know that besides you and those around you and your child, there is no one from whom your child is learning. Learning to read is not a theory or a philosophy; it is a developmentally, child-guided process. Just be led by the ‘readiness’ of your child. As skills are developed, use each new skill as your cue to  support the new growth, by encouraging new ones-building upon the old ones.

As parents, it is critical that we understand that children absolutely love to learn new things-every day- and want you to be the vehicle that drives that learning. They desperately want to please you and know that you are proud of them when they do. Your child wants you to notice every new skill they learn, and want to practice them as many chances they get. Provide them with opportunities to learn and become literate. Don’t grill or drill them into skill acquisition; make it pleasant, fun, creative and relevant. If you think creatively, there are endless opportunities to build early readers, both with and without books. Think creatively! Your child will be reading before you know it, and like me, you’ll wonder how you did it.


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