When is the best time to start reading to your child? At what age do they really begin to benefit from reading?
You can (and should!) read to your children as early as possible, according to literacy expert and author, Maya Smart.
When you read to your baby, they learn much more than you might think, gaining valuable information that they’ll use to learn to read, speak, and write as they grow.
Remember: you are your child’s first teacher.
Knowing that your expertise is in children’s literacy from birth to 5 years old, we’d love your perspective on why it’s important for parents to read to their babies.
It’s really important for parents to read to infants and babies as soon as they bring them home from the hospital and get into those home routines, along with changing diapers, meal times, and all of those things. Bring reading into the mix right off the bat because it’s the way that their brain structure and function are built— through back-and-forth conversational exchanges with parents.
Books are a really great way to get parents talking to babies that are not yet forming words and responding. They’re a great jumping-off point for introducing all that wonderful vocabulary that kids will need to recognize in print down the road.
What are some ways parents can incorporate reading to their baby into the daily routine?
I’ve heard from parents who’ve read their kids all kinds of things. One friend read her baby her dissertation because she was a PhD candidate and that’s where her mind was. So, of course the child is getting language, but when you’re reading your dissertation, you’re not necessarily giving them the sort of bite-sized, infant-size vocabulary.
I always recommend just a big, thick, board book. And oftentimes, those will just feature a few illustrations of an object—something that’s easy for parents to point to and label and kind of begin to bring the infant’s attention in line with theirs. And Baby’s vision is almost as sophisticated as an adult’s by six months, but in the earliest months, they really are more interested in and engaged with books that have higher-contrast images in them. So, board books with high-contrast images are definitely a great way to start. And of course, even after they can see a full range of color and discern all of the visual things that we can, it doesn’t hurt (if they’re interested) to still share those kinds of books with kids.
That’s great. Our younger book clubs spotlight books with high-contrast images and tactile elements. Can you explain why those features encourage literacy development in babies and toddlers?
It’s really important for kids’ literacy development that they get interested in and familiar with handling and looking at books. When they’re five months old, they’re grabbing the books just kind of with their hands and not using their thumbs yet. But by seven months, they’ll start to grab the book with their fingers on one side and thumb on the other, and pretty soon they’re able to grasp small objects. But books that give them different textures to feel, and sort of that sensory experience of engagement with the book, just keeps their interest. So, those are wonderful ways to engage. It’s all about attention with the little ones.
Got it. And we know it’s important to engage really young babies and toddlers by making sounds in the books and pointing out objects, colors, and numbers. Can you explain why this encourages reading development, as well as anything else parents can do with their babies and toddlers while they’re reading together?
Pointing is great. Again, it just sort of brings the child’s attention in line with yours. So little ones, when you’re reading from the book, they don’t necessarily make the connection between the words that you’re speaking and the print that’s on the page and that understanding emerges over time.
You can point to the beach ball on the page in a book and say “beach ball.” If it’s the kind of book where it’s labeling individual objects, it introduces that vocabulary. It gives them the experience of hearing what you’re saying and connecting it with an image.
Pointing to books also gives kids important insight into how books work. So if you move your finger from left to right as you’re reading text across the page, over time, they’ll come to understand that text is read from left to right or from the top of the page to the bottom of the page.
There are so many little literacy lessons that parents can teach using books. And as adult fluent readers, we forget that kids have to learn all of those things. They have to learn that the words on the page are connected to the sounds and words that they hear in our speech. They have to learn that text has a direction, and so forth.
So, for example, if you’re reading about animals and there is a lion, the parent should point at the lion so their very young baby or child can start to associate the word “lion” with that visual cue?
Yes. Some board books will have just a few words, or in some cases, just one word per page. So, it’s not necessarily that the 3-month-old is going to make that connection, but it’s that the parent builds the habit of labeling and pointing so that as that awareness emerges over time, the parent is in the habit of doing those things. We have research that gives us some insight into when kids can recognize certain things, but each child is unique and the way that they learn is through experience and exposure. So, if you start things earlier, you’re laying the groundwork for it.
I think it’s really important for parents to understand that they really are their child’s first teacher, and that there are so many lessons that can be facilitated through books. Anytime you’re reading words on the page, you’re introducing your child to vocabulary words that they’ll one day recognize in print. And so you’re helping them build word banks.
You’re also giving them knowledge about the world when you introduce them to books that include objects from their everyday environment—but also experiences, stories, and things that are happening in other parts of the world, and beyond their world as babies and toddlers.
When you open up a book, you’re just building their familiarity with books and you’re increasing their experiences and exposure to print and letters. And you’re also giving them really important exposure to the sounds of our language, because it will become very important for them to be able to distinguish sounds within words.
The fact that “cat” has three sounds, for example, “c” “a,” and “t,” those are skills that are built when we do nursery rhymes and word play and all these kinds of things. And when we choose books that have those elements, it’s really helpful for us as parents who teach.
Explore Literati Book Clubs for babies and toddlers with our Dreamer, Seeker, Stargazer, and Discoverer book boxes!
We curate book boxes specifically for your child’s reading level and interests, then help them to grow as a reader.