Learn to read - Birth to One Year

The first in the learn to read series. Everything you need to know for preparing your baby for reading, from the womb, to 1 year old

We’ve all seen the You Tube videos that show a baby pointing to cards as the parent says a word, proving that this tiny child can read. It’s amazing! It’s phenomenal!

It’s also a crock.

Sure, you can train a child to recognize cards based on the shapes of the letters on the card. If you want to call that reading, be my guest. But reading isn’t recognition. Reading is comprehension. Sure, you can train a 10-month-old to recognize the word “Pandora” on a card, she will have no idea what the word means. Comprehension takes time and thousands and thousands of words pouring into your child’s brain. So, If you are looking for the magical program that teaches your baby to read minutes out of the womb, keep searching.
This is not that kind of program.

This is a realistic program. One that helps you set your child on the road to not only read, but love books. By starting and sticking with an early reading program you can give your child a leg up in every academic subject. And by early, we mean in the first days of life. So, let’s take a look at what you can do to help your child become a reader from the beginning.

Birth to Three Months

In the first three months, your child is getting used to the basics: eating, drinking, breathing air. But she is also learning at a fantastic rate. Her brain is making new connections so fast that her brain triples in size and complexity in the first three years of life. She is making early connections and reinforcing what she has learned before birth.
Yes, you read that correctly. Babies learn before birth.

Your baby started to hear at about 24 weeks gestation. From that point on, he listened. After birth, babies have been shown to not only recognize their mother’s voice, but also the language that she predominantly spoke while pregnant. It kind of gives a whole new meaning to the term “Mother-Tongue.” Because the baby is inside the mother, he can hear mom’s voice best. So when Mom speaks or reads to baby, it is a continuation of what that baby already knows.

Dr. Pamela High with the American Academy of Pediatrics points out that reading, talking and singing to your infant helps to create new neural synapses that will last throughout the child’s life. These connections not only stimulate the child’s academic skills, but also serve to foster better emotional and social skills later in life.

So, create these beneficial habits while your baby is getting used to living in the outside world. Setting a new routine that involves reading after eating and before bed, is easier to do at this point than when your child is older. It also helps your child learn to bond to both you and books. Let’s face it, if you read to your child after she has eaten and before she goes to sleep, she learns to associate the act of reading with security, closeness and having all her needs met. This will encourage her to seek books during times of stress later in life.

So what do you read to your newborn?

The short answer is: whatever you want. Your baby doesn’t recognize words yet, or understand their meaning. The tone of your voice carries far more meaning for your little one. So you could read Goodnight Moon in a clipped, deep voice associated with anger, and your child will cry. Or you could read the instructions for installing print drivers on your computer in a light, happy voice and your child will smile back.

So for the first three months, read what you want to read. Share your favorite books, plays or poems with their baby. The rhythm of Shakespeare or the power of Browning’s words will have no impact on your child. But the reverence and joy you exhibit as you share what you love will shine through.

Three to Six Months

Your baby is developing and starting to relate more to the world. Language becomes more important as your baby begins to develop the structures needed to decode and use speech. You can tell this is happening because your baby will stop making random noises and start trying to shape his mouth into more specific sounds. You may also notice that when you stop talking, your baby will begin babbling back. This is the beginning of conversation.

Words are becoming much more important between you and your child. To encourage early reading skills, this is when you need to introduce books. Board books and strong plastic books are great for this age. Babies at this age view everything as a full sensory experience. So they are not just interested in what a book “says,” but also how it feels, what it smells like, what it tastes like and the sound it makes when it falls to the floor.

You should encourage your child to explore books this way. Toward that end, consider the type of books you give your child. I am a firm believer in recycling and passing down a wide range of baby items from one family member to another. But at this age, it is best to give babies books that no other child has chewed on. It is also important to keep your child’s books clean. Use a non-toxic cleaner to wipe down your child’s books every day. As you read books, be sure to turn the pages from right to left. You can also begin to draw your finger under the words you read, showing the child that words read from left to right. This sets the stage for proper reading orientation.

Because language is becoming more important to your child, you need to consider the types of language you read. Books for babies are all designed to fit easily in little hands. If your child can’t hold the book by herself, put it away until she is older.

Book types fall into three main categories

  1. One is basically a visual dictionary. You will see brightly colored pictures of simple nouns: cat, dog, car, etc., with the word the picture illustrates.
  2. The second type of book is interactive. They have pages that offer your baby the chance to explore with different senses. One page might be embedded with an aroma. Another page may have a crinkling plastic that makes a sound when the baby touches it.
  3. The third type of book is a simplified version of a larger picture book and is usually printed on heavy cardboard.

All three types of books are good for your little one, but you need to know when to “read” each book.

The first book

The first book is a great type to keep in the diaper bag or on the changing table. You can hand it to your baby during diaper changes. As your baby turns the pages, you can interact with your child: “Is that a cat? Point to the cat. Do you see the car?” and so on. As your child turns pages, encourage her to do so from right to left, as she has seen you do. This modeling will reinforce the skills she will need to read.

The second book

In many ways, the second, interactive book straddles the line between being a toy and being a book. Interactive books are a great option for baby’s playtime. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t “read” the book with your baby. Turn the pages and show him how to squeak the right spots. Stick your fingers through the holes. Pat the bunny. This shows your child not only how much you enjoy books, but how much you enjoy spending time with him.

The third book

Finally, the third types is a wonderful option before bed. Story board books have stories, with a beginning, middle and end. These are wonderful books to read to your baby before naptime and bed. Ask questions aloud, especially when reading new books. For example, you might ask what the caterpillar will eat next or what the gorilla is doing behind the zookeeper. Point out the character as you name them, so that your child learns to associate what she hears with what she sees.

Six Months to a Year

This is when whole language really takes off. For the first several months of life, your baby has been a sponge for language, but by the sixth month, she will want to start trying to be understood. Babbling takes off and your child will start making every sound of the language spoken in the home. In order to help your child prepare for reading, you have to help her see that the sounds she hears have a visual component. The easiest way to do this is through sign language. As soon as your baby can sit up independently, she is ready to learn baby signs.

There are dozens of advanced baby sign classes that teach children vocabularies of hundreds of signs. If you want to explore these, feel free. But the truth is, there are very few times your child absolutely must express an idea about turtles or camels. Instead, focus on the words your child can use almost every day. There are seven words that your child should know: more, eat, water, milk, sleep, mother and father. Start by teaching your child the word for “more.” The easiest way to teach the word is while eating. Take a finger food that your child enjoys such as cereal rings or veggie puffs and place one on his high chair tray. When he eats it and points to the container, say: “Do you want more?” and make the sign for “more” by drawing your fingertips apart as if you are pulling a string.

Then give your baby another piece of food. When he wants another bite, ask the same question. This time, take his hands in your own and pull them apart. Then say “Oh, you want more?” and give him another bite. Within just a few bites, your baby will understand that the gesture gets him “more.” Now, just like in speech, he hasn’t learned how to control his fine motor skills. So, his sign will probably be more like bashing two fists together than the nuanced sign you can make. But that’s all right.

This is also a great age to introduce the alphabet. Go ahead, sing the alphabet song. As you sing the song, point to the letters in a book, puzzle or toy. You can also use the manual alphabet, making the sign for each letter. These activities will help your baby start to associate the name of the letter with the visual image.

Books become more important to this age group. The visual board books with simple images are more interactive at this age. You can ask your child to point to the cat or the car. When she is closer to a year, you can ask her to find specific images in a familiar book and she should be able to turn pages to find the correct picture.

This group also begins to enjoy books that have rhythm and rhyme. So, simple poems such as nursery rhymes are a great option. If you can find books that pair the rhymes with simple illustrations, that is even better. Then, after you read about “Little Boy Blue,” you can point to the picture and involve your child. But don’t forget simple rhymes that encourage interaction. “This Little Piggy,” is a wonderful way to explore rhythm and rhyme with your child. But it also allows your child to explore prediction and even literary tension. After all, we’re all waiting for “wee wee wee all the way home.” However, the exploration all takes place in a safe context. This helps your child prepare for longer stories with deeper tension.

Because language is becoming more important, books should become more important too. Don’t just limit reading to bedtime, when your child is tired and may have a hard time paying attention. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to set aside some time during the day for reading. Choose a time when your child is fresh and content with few distractions. This encourages your child to focus on the book and explore all it has to offer. Read for only a few minutes to start. If your child becomes restive or wants to get down, let her. At no time should you force your child to listen to a book. But it is also important to teach your child to focus. That means that if your child gets down or wants to play, close the book. Don’t try to continue reading when your child is moving on to other things, and don’t ever make reading a story background noise for your child’s play.

By a year your child should have the following pre-reading experiences:

tips baby learning