Raising a Reader

It’s back-to-school time around here. Since Silas is only not-quite-two, “school” isn’t really a thing. We play, we talk, we do chores. That’s about it. I figure he’s learning what he needs to. We do a few things that are more or less deliberate and educational. When he helps with the laundry, we say, “Can you put this blue shirt in the dryer?” He has a couple of books about the alphabet and shapes and that sort of thing. Every now and then, we count something. It’s all very casual, and very much part of our day. We don’t ever “do school time.” We’re just nerds, and we share that with our kid. We have since he was tiny. The funny thing is, even though we do practically nothing deliberate, he knows all the basic colors. Not chartreuse, you understand, but pink and yellow and all of those. He knows most shapes, though he confuses squares and rectangles. He can count groups of three objects. He understands locative prepositions, although he doesn’t use them much.

With literacy, though, I would say there’s more of a plan. Literacy education is something I know a lot about, and, frankly, I can’t help myself. I used to work as a literacy educator with late-elementary students–kids who reached 4th or 5th or even 6th grade without really knowing how to read. I had a lot of fun with them, and I learned a ton. I volunteered as a reading coach at a local elementary school for several years. More recently, I worked at Rosetta Stone, where a large part of my job involved staying current on the research regarding how people learn various things.

Before I even say what we have been doing, let me say what we have not been doing. People constantly ask me if we did the Your Baby Can Read! curriculum. Uhm. No. No no no no. I did research it, out of curiosity, because of a handful of gushing anecdotes. Short version: No, it doesn’t teach your baby literacy skills, and might actually hinder their ability to learn to read for real. It will, however, give them the appearance of knowing how to read, up to a point. This has to do with brain development, and is really a longer rant than I feel like doing here. But no, we do not do that. Also, we don’t do Baby Einstein. Or whatever other faddish baby-so-smart thing is out there (my favorite of these, for sheer ridiculousness, is BabyPlus, the “prenatal education system.” Just go check it out, for fun. But keep your credit card in your wallet).

Now that that is out of the way, let’s talk about what we have been doing with Silas.

Print Motivation (aka, interest in books/text).

I once read a study (and now I can’t find it. Sorry.) that said that the number one predictor of whether a child grows up to read for pleasure is not whether the child is read to (that’s #2), but whether the child sees his parents reading for pleasure. I’ve taken this as an excuse to regularly ignore my kid while I finish a really great chapter.  🙂

It seems to be working. Silas surprised me this spring when he ended a tantrum by pulling out every book he could find and just touching them and paging through. Did he understand that sometimes I read just because I’m in a funk and can’t stand looking at anyone?

We also read to him a ton, every day, and have since he was quite small. As a little guy, he wanted to turn all the pages at once or go through them backward or jump to the picture of the lion, but he’s starting to understand that books have a certain order and logic and a beginning, middle, and end. All of this information is key preliteracy stuff–you can’t figure out how reading works without it.

We’re also careful about selecting his books. Almost all of the books he has are very beautifully illustrated, and have intelligent text or plotting. Even Where’s Spot? is a really smart, well-designed book. I’ve seen knock-off attempts at the same idea, and they aren’t rendered as well. I curate his books to a degree that most people would find ridiculous–after all, he’s just a little kid. Part of it is a desire to give him the very best reading experiences there are…and part of it is knowing that he’s going to demand that I read the junkiest garbage book he has, every day, for months.

We put a rain gutter bookshelf in his room, and he really loves it, because it lets him see what books are available without pulling all of them off the shelves. We stock it with books that are age-appropriate and that we feel okay about him handling unsupervised (most books, except library books, now fall into that category, but for a long time, we only left board books out where he could get to them).

Print Awareness (understanding that the letters on the page have something to do with what the person reading is saying)

Not going to lie, I’m terrible about this. In theory, I should be dragging my finger along under the text when I read to him, but I always forget. For a slightly older child, you’re also supposed to point out text on billboards and things (“That sign says, “Scenic Overlook”). I pretty much never do this…and yet, Silas has pretty incredible print awareness. For one thing, he learned, after much correction, that I need to be able to see the text in order to read to him. When he plays at having his toys read a book, he always make sure they have no obstructions between their eyes and the page.

(yes, that is an elephant reading a Babar book).

The most striking evidence of his print awareness came when he started coloring pretty seriously. He always wants us to color with him, and he often tells us to draw something very specific–“Draw hippo taking bath!” We oblige. For a while, he was getting incredibly peeved because he would say, “Draw green daddy,” and I would take a green crayon and do a rough approximation of JC. It clearly wasn’t what he wanted. For a while, I thought it was a comment on my (lack of) artistic ability. Somehow, I figured out that what he wanted was for me to take a green crayon and write the word “Daddy” on his paper. So I did. Now this is the thing, and he asks us to write all kinds of stuff. Amazing, and weird. Because, like I said, this is one preliteracy skill I’m not doing a great job of working on deliberately.


My former boss told me that, when his son was about six and learning to read, he said, “If I knew more words, I could read more words!” The kid was right. Reading is a combination of piecing sounds together and matching them with your experience of the world–the words you know–to contextualize those sounds into actual words. I have to say, Silas has a pretty incredible vocabulary, and I don’t really take much credit for that. We’re careful to use the correct words for things (for example, the name of a particular bird or plant, if we know it, rather than just “birdie” or “flower”), but a lot of the time, we don’t know. We read to him a lot, and that is a good way to develop vocabulary. We expect him to sit in church for a lot of the service, which is how he picked up the word “shepherd” a few weeks ago. We let him overhear a lot of adult conversation. We talk to him like he’s a human person, and we expect him to understand us. He sits in on my rehearsals sometimes, so he’s heard lots of Shakespeare. But, really, the extent of his vocabulary is beyond anything we’ve done on purpose. He comes up with words sometimes that make me do a double-take. I wish he had enough language to tell me where he learned them.

Narrative Skills (the ability to understand and tell stories)

We’re just barely hitting this. Silas finally has the amount of vocabulary and syntactical skill to tell us about something that happened. We model this in a number of ways. In addition to reading to him, which is a great way to teach how stories work, we talk him through his day. At breakfast, we talk about what we expect to happen that day. At bedtime, we talk about what we did that day.

Sometimes, Silas seems to want to tell us a story, and we encourage him by asking him questions. What happened next? Why did that happen? They are usually sort of weird and banal; one day, I managed to figure out that he was telling me that his babysitter’s son got in trouble because he kept opening the front door. This was, apparently, the highlight of his day.

Here is Silas’ first work of fiction, we’re pretty sure.

S: Shepherd and sheep walking. Shepherd walking with the sheep.

JC: The shepherd and the sheep were walking, and then what happened? Did they see something?

S: Shepherd and sheep fall down.

JC: They fell down? Why did they fall down?

S: Shepherd and sheep fall down the hole.

JC: Then what happened? Did they get out?

S: Shepherd and sheep bouncing. Boing! Boing! Boing!

It’s possible he was recounting a video he saw at his babysitter’s house, but it doesn’t sound familiar to me. It has protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe, so Aristotle would approve, and who am I to argue with that?

Phonological Awareness (what sounds make up a word?)

Because Silas’ pronunciation is still that of a toddler, he has some trouble figuring out what words start with a given sound. “That” and “Daddy” sound like they have the same first letter when he says them, after all. I’m pretty unconcerned about this. He’ll grow into it. We read him lots of rhyming poetry and play games with words. We also try to encourage this kind of awareness by riffing on words that start with a certain letter. If I happen to say, “Daddy is feeding the ducks,” I might remark that “Daddy” and “ducks” start with the same sound, and then ask Silas what other words start with that sound. He rarely answers, but I generally have his attention at that point, and I just start naming things. “Dancing! Dark! Donut!” until I get bored. Recently, he went on a tangent of words that start with s, so I think he’s starting to get the point.

One note, here–beware of clusters. “Truck” and “tapdance” don’t actually start with the same sound, and it can be confusing to state that they do.

Short-term memory

This is often overlooked as a preliteracy skill, but it is super important. A child has to have the short-term memory to hold all of the sounds in a word in his head until he gets to the end of that word. He has to also remember all of the other words in the sentence and parse them. He has to keep track of where the story has been and where it’s going. All of this is short-term memory. It’s not easy to do. Playing the Memory card game is a good place to start. Silas loves this game, and there are lots of ways to build variations on it. Another simple thing to do is to send your child into another room to get something. As they get better at it, increase the complexity of your request and the distance they have to go to get it (and therefore, the time between the instruction and its completion). I work really hard at not repeating myself, if I can help it, but really sitting on my hands and waiting for Silas to do whatever it is that I’ve asked of him. I act as if I have faith (which I don’t, always) in his ability to remember what I said and do it.

Letter Knowledge (What sounds does each letter make?)

Silas is really interested in letters. I’m not sure when this started–maybe around 15 months old. He has a pile of letter magnets, and he can successfully identify at least one sound for lots of them. He loves to bring me the m magnet and say, “Mmmmmmm mama!” One of my friends makes an “E” out of honey on the top of her daughter Elisabeth’s yogurt. Once, she gave Silas an “S” in his, and he now refuses to eat any yogurt not labeled in this fashion. “No sssss, Mama! Need ssssssss.”

He doesn’t know many of the letter names. That’s by design; it turns out that knowing the name of a letter doesn’t always help a child know what sound it makes. For example, the name of the letter g doesn’t help–and might confuse you–when you encounter it in “go.” So we use sounds instead of names. Sometimes, if he asks us about a letter, we state the sound it makes, and then a word with that initial sound–“That’s kuh, like in ‘cookie.'” In some cases, Silas has started to refer to a letter either by its sound or by a word that starts with that sound (so, c might be “kuh” or it might be “Carlos.”).

Despite his love of the letter magnets, I still confess, I was utterly stunned one day when I asked him what he was painting. “Ooooh,” he said, “and Carlos!” I usually have no idea how the squiggles on the page relate to anything (the other day, he told JC he was painting “water and a bagel,” and try as we might, we can’t figure out which part is which). When I looked at this painting, though, I was startled to see very deliberate and clear Os and Cs on the page. As I watched, he made another C. “Carlos!” he said, grinning.

So, I guess I’m raising a reader. I’m trying to, anyway. Not because I want to win some race of early literacy. I think there’s tons of stuff that is more important for a toddler to learn, like patience and manners and sharing. I find parents who brag on their three-year-old reader mildly irritating. I want to raise a reader because I know what an important skill literacy is, for life-long learning. I don’t care if he gets there super early, but I want him to get there, and feel good about it.

We don’t work too hard at literacy, but we can’t help it. We read all the time–to Silas, to each other, to ourselves. He thinks it looks like fun. We’re just giving him the tools to join us.


Aili Written by:


  1. Taleah
    September 3, 2012

    Thanks for showing what you do with Silas! Miss P loves her books but I may try some of your ideas to move towards being a reader 🙂 especially the one about us reading!

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