Here are my top 10 reasons to teach your baby or toddler to read, with supporting facts. Embrace them, and add "reading" to the list of things your baby or toddler loves to do.
1. It readies your child for kindergarten.
Fact: Forty-three percent of children in America are not school ready when they enter kindergarten. Yet, children who get early literacy exposure with positive speech interactions have a 32-million-word advantage by age four over children who did not get this exposure. Teaching reading to preschoolers and being ready for kindergarten can be accomplished easily and informally with a little literacy activity each day in short durations.
2. It alleviates worries about reading disability later on.
Fact: Neuroscientists tell us that the preschool brain is malleable and more likely to reorganize dysfunctional or dyslexic reading circuitry if we intervene early. Early intervention starts at home. You should be your child's first reading teacher for this reason alone.
3. It makes learning to read easier for your child.
Fact: Picking up reading in babyhood and toddlerhood is easy; learning to read at age 6 from formal instruction in school is hard work. Babies and toddlers can learn to read as easily and informally during a critical period of brain development from birth to age 4 as they can easily pick up fluency in two complicated languages, say, Mandarin and English, during this same time.
4. It feeds a hungry brain.
Fact: A baby's brain will triple in size during the first year of life. Reading aloud and talking to your child feeds the child's brain 10 million words of raw data each year in the first three years of life, and enables their neural pathways to develop in different ways. A multisensory flash-word technique, or labeling objects and reading-around-the-room, can start as early as 3 or 4 months of age, during the brain's height of plasticity and synaptic formation. Such activities flex your child's mental muscles by feeding word traces into his brain, impacting both brain growth and cognitive development.
5. It engenders multisensory creative development and love for reading.
Fact: At the same time you are stimulating her speaking and reinforcing specific neural pathways that link sound and meaning, reading aloud and talking to your child feeds the baby's natural curiosity and helps develop right-brain creativity. By giving your baby opportunities to engage in listening, viewing, exploring with her mouth (cloth and board books), touching, and movement activities related to books and reading, it becomes a creative activity that engages both the creative and verbal sides of the brain. It also instills positive attitudes about books and jumpstarts the beginnings of a love for life-long reading.
6. It helps your child pick up phonics.
Fact: Tacit knowledge of phonics rules are hallmarks of toddler readers. They can't deliberately articulate the rules of phonics, but 2- and 3-year-olds can intuit phonics and exhibit the ability to decode and read words they have never seen in print. They cannot learn to do this through the kind of formal instruction used in school. They likely use special right-brain learning capacities and pick up phonics and word-pattern recognition just like they pick up multiple languages during this period. They lose these special brain capacities by age 6.
7. It helps your child pick up grammar.
Fact: Research shows that children stimulated with informal literacy activities can learn the basic rules of grammar for speech production by age 2. Tacit knowledge of grammar rules when learning to speak works similarly to a baby's and toddler's tacit use of phonics rules when learning to read. They can't articulate the rules of grammar, but babies and toddlers certainly use the rules of grammar in speech production.
8. It makes your child smarter.
Fact: If you read aloud to your child, and later allow your 3-, 4- , or 5-year-old child to choose books with interesting content and read them independently, he or she will grow in intelligence. Reading and being read to enables 2- and 3-year-olds to use complicated sentences, manage memory of distant events, build general knowledge, access new information, and develop powers of reflection. Reading stimulates language and vocabulary development, which is highly correlated with measures of intelligence. A 5-year-old reader acquires new knowledge from reading while a 5-year-old nonreader can only admire the pictures.
9. It helps build better schools.
Fact: Four out of 10 American 8-year-olds cannot read proficiently. For the first time in history, the current generation will be less well educated than their parents. The achievement gap in American schools starts before children enter kindergarten. Teach your child to read before he or she goes to school, encourage your neighbors to do the same, and you'll help fix a fledgling system that is currently in jeopardy.
10. It creates a beautiful legacy with a little time and effort.
Fact: The requirements of baby/toddler reading are simple: reading aloud routinely, friendly and fun verbal interaction, personal contact, and about 5 minutes/day of word play. Do this in the first three or four years of your child's life and you will raise a reader. It will have a powerful impact on your child's future behavior. You will feel good about giving your child the gift of reading, you'll be remembered fondly for this gift, and it will likely be passed on to your children's children when your own children continue the tradition or when you continue the practice as a grandparent.
Do you remember the person who taught you to read? Most people do. Your baby or toddler wants to learn from you. Language and reading are lying in wait in your child's brain. Every loving parent should bring them out. You should balance teaching reading with blowing bubbles, singing, dancing, playing, cooking, tasting, smelling, pounding, jumping, swinging, running, hopping, skipping, drawing, painting, planting, digging, scratching in the sand, and laughing. Add reading to the list things babies and toddlers love to do–and put it near the very top of the list.
(Dr. Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write--from Baby to Age 7. Available on Amazon.com. Follow Dr. Gentry on Facebook and on Twitter.)