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Our Blog: March 15, 2012

Baby Steps Toward Literacy

I love babies. Babies do a lot of adorable things – cooing, smiling, laughing, and snuggling. But there’s something babies can’t do – read.

But you’d never know it. We’re surrounded by messages that make us think babies are supposed to be doing “academic” work younger and younger. And that worries us. Are our babies “keeping up” with their peers? Suddenly, we fear they’re already losing the race toward college – and life – success.

Let me take the pressure off. Your baby CAN’T read – and isn’t supposed to. A baby who can “read” is the result of tons of parental pressure and rote memorization, and is not actually reading with comprehension. That pressure comes with a huge price tag – the cost of your baby’s later love of school. Or rather, the lack thereof.

Developmentally, children learn to read best starting at about age six. Earlier attempts at formal reading instruction can backfire later. Sure, letter recognition, listening to stories, and practice writing can all help later reading. And there are some unusual cases of very young, “true” readers. But the most important first task for very young children is to make sure they enjoy learning and creativity. True reading follows, building on that foundation.

It all starts with listening and babbling. Listen to your baby babble – and babble right back. Copy the sounds she makes, and give them your own flair. Your natural gift for speaking in “parentese” will help make her babbling just a bit more complex and “correct” each time. This is a form of what we call “scaffolding” – building a structure upon which babies can learn to take the next step. Make it a conversation – your baby will quickly follow along with the rules of conversation she learns from you. All that listening and talking show your baby how the sounds she makes actually have meaning. Saying “mama” actually means “Mommy.” And it happens fast – by 18 months, she’s learning as many as 10 new words every day!

Then, she learns that play can also have meaning. Blocks become a castle. A paper hat becomes a crown. A tiny toy dinosaur becomes a fearsome foe. It’s all more proof that one thing can “stand for” another, which is the basis of abstract thinking. Using scaffolding, help your child tell increasingly complex stories that go along with her creative play, with vivid characters, story lines, and interaction.

Her fledgling abstract thinking will eventually kick in with all the books you’ve been looking at together – she’ll start to apply her abstract thinking skills to those little marks on a page. Once she understands that the marks are letters, that letters make up words, and that words have meaning, you’ll have a real reader on your hands!

So don’t forget these baby steps toward literacy:

  • Engage your baby in “conversation” from the very beginning.
  • Encourage creative, imaginative play by using “scaffolding.”
  • And most of all, HAVE FUN!
About the Author

Dr. Heather Wittenberg

Dr. Wittenberg is a psychologist specializing in the development of babies, toddlers, preschoolers — and parents. She offers no-hype, practical parenting advice on her blog BabyShrink — rooted in science, and road tested in her own home as the mother of four young children. She has helped thousands of parents over the years and knows that the most common problems with young children — sleep, feeding, potty training and behavior — can be the most difficult ones to solve.