Whole Parenting Family

Introducing Reading Early: Bring On the Books

People are always so surprised when I tell them (in response to the question, “What’s his favorite show?”) that SuperBoy doesn’t watch TV. Or have any screen time, really, except Skype with relatives out of town. I don’t think we’re that “out there” as parents to not have screen time for our less-than-two year old. Especially in light of the AAP’s serious recommendation of no-screen-time-before-two (see my post on that here).

But because he’s not accustomed to being entertained by something, most of his activities are self-driven. He loves to pounce upon a pile of blocks, books, cars, and start sorting, or just wading through them. He directs his own play, instead of being a passive participant in it. (I’m not judging parents who do screen time; I’m passionate about ensuring parents make the most informed and best decision they can for their family lifestyle.)

Does my child perfectly self-entertain while I do all the other things that parents need to do around a house? No way! I wish! But I will say that introducing books early has been my saving grace. Even if he doesn’t want to read by himself, he loves to read aloud to me. At almost 20 months, he’ll plop down in a chair in the kitchen and read to me so I can be at a hot stove, wash sharp knives, or blow my nose without his assistance. Sometimes the entire story is “mama, dada, baba, nunu (my mom’s name), NINA! (his beloved Great Dane).”

1) Introduce books early.

We’ve read to him since I was pregnant with him. We read the same books every night to my enormo belly: Where the Wild Things Are and Goodnight Minnesota. Obviously this is a luxury that first-time-pregnant folks can do. Nowadays, I try to remember to rub my belly occasionally and play our daughter’s birth song (Bach’s Violin Concerto No.2 in E Major). But ever since J was born, we’d hold up books in front of him and read aloud. Daily.

A teething baby, he’d pull on them (get out the books with dangly soft thingies), and tug, and sometimes not be interested. That’s okay, don’t force it. Take advantage of in-the-zone moments, or just before bed after a bath & massage. It’s just a habit to form.

2) Don’t worry about age appropriate books.

We’d read aloud from the newspaper, a book we were reading, one with pictures, an “age appropriate” book, or anything (the cereal box). I always look at the ages on the back of a book and think, Really? Does this mean like don’t read to your kid until 3 or don’t expect your kid to read it until 3? Why so restrictive?

It’s all about exposure to the cadence of sentences, the arch of breath, the shapes of letters, the funny voices you can do. Let go and be completely goofy with reading. It’ll get a laugh and it’s good for us not to take ourselves too seriously.

3) Don’t force anything or it will be a chore for a child.

Like I said, take advantage of down moments when your squirmy firecracker is relaxed, and bust out the book. But if it’s an obligation or chore in your mind, that will come across to the child. SuperBoy says no to literally every question right now, so we try to make more declaratory sentences than interrogatory ones. “Now, we’re going to read while we drink our morning smoothie” or “Please bring Mama Peter Rabbit so we can laugh at Mr. McGregor.”

NEVER underestimate your child’s intelligence, or absorption level. He or she gets just about everything you’re saying around 15 months. They may not respond accordingly, but trust me, those neurons are FIRING.

Many of my “unschooling” homeschool family friends don’t push learning letters and reading, but allow the child to come to it naturally. I’m not opposed to that approach. It’s all about making it available and interesting to the child, and letting the beauty of the written word and all the images it can conjure up take hold.

Our favorites right now are Corduroy and Peter Rabbit. We literally have to read Corduroy before every nap & bedtime. 


  1. Nicole M on February 16, 2012 at 8:16 am

    This seemed like a great one for me to comment on, so here goes (also we LOVE Corduroy, too…he still requests that from time to time).

    Here are the skills you need to learn to read:

    1) You need to know how to hold a book and that in English we read from left to right.
    2) You need to know that words have meaning.
    3) You need to have a large vocabulary….the larger the better.
    4) You need to be able to hear sounds and segment them.
    5) You need to recognize that letters and sounds go together.

    If you’ve got all that, then you can pick up reading sooner, rather than later.

    Teachers do it some ways, but parents can help out by getting their kids ready to read without really seeming to DO anything. Here’s the secret to raising an early reader (without even trying):

    1) Read with your child. We used to toss board books into the play area with the toys. He learned they were “interesting.” We are readers, so in every room of the house (I do mean every room) you will find print material of some kind. You will only find televisions and computers in some of those rooms. Though we have a child who watched a lot of tv and even has his own computer already…neither of which are in his bedroom or ever WILL be…he was filled more with books than screens, so he loves both and is inspired by both. Books are in the same category as toys for him, but they’re the toys that adults can help you with, so they excite him greatly and he’ll stop what he’s doing to hear a story. In so doing, he learned very early on how to pick up and read a book (even a non-board book). He was more gentle than his classmates with pages because he figured out if he wasn’t, we’d have to repair the book, and it wouldn’t look as nice. My aunt commented once that at two he handled books better than some of her kindergarteners. Thus, don’t HIDE the non-board books. They need to TRY to use them correctly and they will fail, but give them the chance to succeed.

    2) Kids learn that books have meaning because every time you read the book, the story sounds (roughly) the same. They watch your eyes scanning the pages. So again: read to your kids. Watch their eyes. At a certain point, they will ALSO start “following the words”…this is a good sign that they’re getting that the print has meaning.

    3) Large vocabularies are developed by experiences. Take your child to the museum, to a children’s play, to whatever. The more experiences your child has, the more words he has at his or her disposal. Then, when it’s time to decode words, he or she can guess at what the word is (the more words you can say and understand, the more words you can read). You have to work harder to “decode” unfamiliar words…imagine yourself in college dealing with a difficult text because you didn’t get the vocabulary! The experiences don’t have to be special, and that’s why in some families, simply watching Sesame Street can help with this skill because you take the child from where he IS and give him new experiences. Diverse experiences build vocabulary.

    4) When your child seems to be following stories, you can do more and more word games. Breaking words into beginning, middle, and ending sounds (not letters) helps build the foundation for phonics study, which is the most successful way to read (sounding out words). And yes, kids can discover phonics rules on their own, but they have to HEAR sounds. As in, “cat” has three sounds: (cuh, ah, tuh). Drumming out or clapping whenever they hear a new sound can help develop this, though we just played with spelling early. I make sounds and have him guess what word I’m putting together. We also have Modern Curriculum Press workbooks (the best phonics books out there) and we play with them from time to time (seriously…the funny thing about three- and four-year olds, they love solving puzzles like figuring out where they hear the “cuh” sound). I don’t push him and it’s a “let’s play around” thing so he has fun, and later I see him using the skills he learns to decode on his own.

    5) This seems obvious to us, but think about it from the child’s perspective: they get that sounds have meaning. That’s their world: sound. They get you might be doing something with reading, but they’re not sure what it is. Break down what reading is: reading is a series of characters we’ve assigned meaning to. This is what happens when we read the word “book”: it conjures up the image of a book in our mind because that word has meaning. We don’t even realize it because we read automatically now and we can skip the step of decoding “book” into a picture of a book. If you’ve studied a foreign language, it works the same way. I say, “gato,” for example, and some of you see the word cat. Others of you simply see “gato”…you’re likely more fluent in Spanish than the people still translating everything back to English. Kids, therefore, are slow readers to start because they’re still getting that print carries meaning to them. That’s why the flashcards and other games can be useful. One thing teachers do in preschool rooms is to label everything with words. They see “reading corner” and it has no meaning…but later on, seeing “glue” near the glue or “reading” near where they read will leap out at them. So, too, does showing a picture of an F and making a “ffff” sound (it doesn’t yet matter that it’s called an F…that’s a bonus…what’s important is what SOUND it makes). They will learn if they SEE words that they have sounds you can segment and blend together and they form words…but not if they don’t see the letters and you don’t tie those letters to sounds (we don’t say Cee ayyy teea, we say cuh ah tuh). It doesn’t matter WHAT you use (you could point it out as you’re reading), but you want to help your child realize those words are symbols for things they already know about.

    I never overtly taught my son how to read…he just started picking up words faster and faster. The funny thing was what made it click for him. I read at two by myself because I loved books. HE read at three, still loving books, because he loved (wait for it)…the computer. It’s faster to navigate the computer if you can read. So, he had a PURPOSE to read (I could just be made to read books for him so he didn’t really find meaning in that) and whammo….it was the key that unlocked the door. He reads around the second-grade level now (he’s 4)…but he’s a bit lazy…unless he’s on the computer. He really can impress me…but he had to make reading more meaningful for HIMSELF. So even though I laid all the ground work for him, he didn’t start to read until HE wanted to. Remember not to push…the goal is to make reading enjoyable.

    One thing to keep in mind: decoding is hard work and so it’s hard to ENJOY a story until you’re fluent in reading because you can’t comprehend (understand) it until you’re not using all your time decoding words (figuring out what they SAY). As such, kids will still need to be read to once they figure out the logistics of reading. Also, boys in general have a hard time with reading stories after a certain age (they’ll do it, but many will switch to non-fiction books), thus even adolescent boys (and girls, since why leave them out?) can benefit from family readlouds that last well beyond when many families quit. Reading aloud helps kids learn to focus on just listening, and also to appreciate stories they might not have the attention span to read on their own. So, don’t stop reading aloud just because your kids can decode…they still need you!

    Finally…you will have to work harder as a parent who reads to your child often starting before birth. There’s some chatter in the library and teacher community about the dearth of really GOOD picture books. We already have to throw in those obnoxious step 1, step 2 books (they’re really dull) for variety. I started reading aloud Junie B. Jones and Horrible Harry (early readers) because of the dearth of really good children’s books (they are hilarious, by the way). Most really good books are old books (Where the Wild Things Are, Corduroy, Dr. Seuss…) and it’s hard to find the “good stuff.” Here’s my tip for that: your library probably subscribes to Horn Book, School Library Journal, and even maybe Multicultural Review (Voya is great for your teens). You probably can’t check them out, but try to peruse them in the library (SLJ even helps and puts all the starred books on the back page) and you can check out the reviews of recent books and write a “shopping list.” Your librarian also reads them and they usually pick up the starred books (best of the best for the month). They also will do a “best books of the year” issue…copy that one when you find it. Through scrutinizing this, I’ve been able to find some really good picture books again (few in the sea of junk books published now…Maurice Sendak agrees…it’s just bad). This is critical because I, like many parents, started moving beyond picture books because we were (aside from the classics) getting bored…but young children (PreK-2) still can benefit from picture books, and some books (When Jessie Went Across the Sea and some books by Allen Say) are FABULOUS for older elementary and middle school. Picture books are an art form…but you’ll have to dig through the junk to find the good ones. It’s worth the effort. We’ve found some GREAT titles, but we have to work a lot harder since the publishers seem to push the junk…

    Another way-long posting BUT hope you can feel validated by it and inspired to persevere on your path!

    • Novice Natural Mama on February 16, 2012 at 10:28 am

      This is fabulous. F-A-B-U-L-O-U-S! And so helpful. The library suggestion is great, and the emphasis on decoding and phonics. Modern Curriculum Press is definitely in our future!!!! Thank you, oh, so, much!

  2. ejones217 on February 16, 2012 at 10:11 am

    LOVE THIS. C loves his books! Though he mostly likes opening and closing the cover and gnawing on the corners, but every once in a while, we get through a few pages 🙂

    I definitely think that if you make reading an everyday thing from early on, it’ll be a lifelong sort of thing. And as an avid reader myself, I hope C takes as much pleasure as I do in a fall morning with a cup of joe and a blanket twenty years down the road.

    (Also, as an aside, people sometimes **do** look at you rather strangely when you tell them your child doesn’t really watch television. Or when you bust out the organic puffs. Oh, well.)

    • Novice Natural Mama on February 16, 2012 at 10:29 am

      Reading is the best. And yes, people think parents who parent off-the-beaten path are weird 🙂 So if we all stopped judging each other, it would be such a better world!

  3. Hannah on February 16, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    I was raised without television and so far we haven’t used a TV nanny in our house. He has a few favorite books (at 1yr) that he likes to have read over and over again. I surprised my MIL when she asked if I wanted to raise him without TV and I responded with an empathetic YES! Kids don’t need TV – I know I grew up just find never watching Growing Pains or Silver Spoon. I applaud the fact that you and your husband are on the same page!

    • Novice Natural Mama on February 17, 2012 at 7:35 am

      Thanks, Hannah! It helps to hear about other children being raised this way too. We’re not going to not ever allow any screentime (poor J would be a real oddball then :), but this idea that it’s educational at such a young age makes little to no sense to me.

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