So much can change in your baby's world--and in yours--when you hold your baby in your arms and read a book to him or her. When doing research for Raising Confident Readers, I discovered some remarkable findings that might surprise parents. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about reading aloud to babies, and whether or not babies can read.
What's the Most Important Reason to Read to Your Baby?
The answer is love. "You will love your baby more by reading to her!" The most powerful enticement for early reading may be feelings--both the baby's and yours. When doing research for my book, I was surprised to learn that many bonding studies support the notion that early contact--touching, skin-to-skin contact, the parent's smells (and baby's pleasant scent), which are all part of early reading aloud, improve feelings of love and attachment and make you a better parent. Notwithstanding baby's vocabulary and later intellectual and academic success, joyful reading aloud with your baby in your arms is a wonderful way to bond. She loves your attention. Love your baby and read to him or her often.
What Do I Do When my Baby Seems More Interested in Eating the Book than Reading It?
Rejoice! Your baby is using one of his or her best tools for discovering what a book is all about. He's using his lips, along with taste, and smell, which are all part of early book exploration! Be patient. He will soon be turning the pages and responding to books with joy, surprise, laughter, and curiosity!
What Kind of Books Do Babies Like Best?
Babies are eclectic--they love rhymes, poems, songs, fun stories, and caption or label books. Babies love to learn. Babies love lifting the flap and touch and feel books. They love to celebrate the musicality of language with rhymes, songs, and poems. They love finger plays--remember "This Little Pig Went to the Market?" Books should make baby smile and laugh. Lifting the flap and anticipating what's behind it is all about making predictions, an essential cognitive activity that drives the meaning making process in adult reading. Hearing narratives in babyhood enables babies to construct their own narratives in speech and drawing at a very early age. And don't forget, babies love illustrations and art. They can see colors by three months of age and register their favorites--bold primary reds, greens, blues, and yellows. Babies delight in looking at faces and photos of other babies. (It's innate!) The language in baby books should be clear, simple, and happy.
What Are the Rules for Reading Aloud to Babies?
• Keep books simple and provide lots of repetition.
• Use face-to-face contact.
• Make conversation with your baby/toddler about the book.
• Use elaborations, make connections.
• Use affirmations but don't make corrections or use force.
• Have fun!
When Do I Start Reading to my Baby?
Your baby's brain is ready for reading at birth. Even before birth, baby's brain responds to the musical quality of the sound, which she can hear in the womb. She will recognize her mother's voice within a few days after birth and you will see hints of response and sparkles of recognition during read-alouds--coo's and ooooh's and aaaah's around two months of age, and often a babbling repertoire around five months. If you imitate and show delight in the sounds she is making she will babble more!
When Do I Start Teaching Phonics?
You start teaching the precursors of phonics informally whenever you read aloud to your baby. Her specialized brain is already wired to recognize human speech, pay attention to word boundaries and focus on categorizing the individual sounds of the language spoken by the parent. Reading aloud in the first two years of life enriches the language data your child's brain is processing naturally. By reading favorite books you increase the repetition during a critical period of learning when repetition is helpful, and you provide more words and a richer grammar--all of which help your baby lay down more elaborate language circuits than by just talking to her.
Does Reading Aloud Early and Often Help Vocabulary Development?
Your "read to" baby will hear over ten million words each year in the first three years of life--a 32 million word advantage over children who are not read to or talked to often. By six years of age your child will have a vocabulary of 16,000 words. By eight years of age he will be more intelligent, and have better grades in reading, writing, and spelling. Four out of ten eight-year-old American children are below grade level in reading proficiency; they are not the same children who were read to early and often as babies.
When Do I Start Teaching my Baby to Read Words?
Start at six to twelve months and beyond. (Research shows that five-month-olds can recognize and remember a visual stimulus for up to two weeks after seeing it.) Label a few common objects in the baby's nursery and introduce an activity called "Reading Around Baby's Room" for hearing and seeing how words are made. It's totally fun. You start with the sounds of the letters and stretch out the sounds as you track with your finger from left to right under the label. Some baby's learn to read words and phrases such as bed, toes and arms up with this game even before they learn to say them. How do we know they are reading? If you hold up the "arms up" card and the baby holds up his arms, what would you call it?
Are the Babies Really Reading? Can Babies/Toddlers Sound Out Words?
I've seen early starters sound out new words such as red, /r/-/ĕ/-/d/, red, before their third birthday. After their fourth birthday they can create a grocery list with spellings such as MIK, CHIKN, APPLS, PERS, LEDIS and COLEFLOWR.
How Will I Know I Have Been Successful?
You will know you have been successful when your baby is perfectly content to entertain herself happily flipping through a pile of books for twenty minutes while singing and chatting to herself by two years of age.
If I Start Early, When Will my Baby Learn to Read?
It's not unusual for babies and toddlers to learn to read before entering kindergarten. In some cases, albeit with lots of happy attention and time devoted to the process, I've seen five-year-olds read age-appropriate books at third- to fifth-grade level. But entering kindergarten already reading a few very easy books is a reasonable goal. One four-year-old learned to read the First Amendment of the Constitution before he learned to write his name. I found that to be a little strange. He could pronounce "abridging the freedom of speech. . ." although I doubt he could discuss its ramifications in the upcoming elections. I'm not worried though, his writing and comprehension should catch up in time. Reading the First Amendment at age five--even decoding and parroting it--certainly can't hurt him. Besides, he has plenty of favorite age- and content-appropriate books at fourth grade level that he reads on his own. It's a great start!
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Note: Endnotes and references for the statistics cited in this post are found in Raising Confident Readers.
Richard Gentry is the author of a book for parents, Raising Confident Readers, available on Amazon.com. Follow him on the internet at his website, www.jrichardgentry.com, on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/J.Richard.Gentry, on Twitter at, www.twitter.com/RaiseReaders, and on his YouTube.com Channel, www.youtube.com/RaisingGentryReaders.