Infants are born with the impulse to make sense out of language and find meaning in the world around them. In a way, they're already reading. Preparing your child for what comes later, such as decoding letters and words on a printed page, is largely a matter of fostering that innate ability. That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics now advises pediatricians to encourage parents to read aloud to their infant daily from birth.
Narrate the day. Talking to your baby may be the most important thing you can do to promote language development. There's always something to say: "Wow, look at all these great books. Why don't you pick one out, and then we'll read it together." It doesn't matter if she's too little to respond. Conversation helps your child become accustomed to hearing a stream of speech, and it stimulates the language pathways in her brain, says Judy Cheatham, Ph.D., vice president of literacy services for the nonprofit Reading Is Fundamental.
Touch the text. For infants and toddlers, moving your finger under the words as you read them serves as a clue that those funny little symbols have meaning and are the source of the story, according to Amanda J. Moreno, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development, in Chicago.
Be expressive. Create distinctive voices for the characters in a story, and use sound effects (Bonk!) and exclamations ("Oh no!") where appropriate. You don't have to be Steve Carell. Your child is probably the most receptive audience you'll ever have, points out Dr. Moreno.
Let your toddler be the teacher. Have him show a stuffed-animal friend how a book works. ("Teddy doesn't know it's upside-down. Can you fix it for him?") Then encourage your child to narrate the story from what he sees in the pictures.
Read with your child, not just to her. When you sit down with a magazine, give your toddler some board books to look at too. "You're showing her that reading is important to you, and she'll want to imitate you," says Dr. Moreno.
Book around the clock. Don't wait for bedtime! Ease into your morning routine with a wake-up story, or bring out some picture books after lunchtime.
Keep the focus on having fun with words and stories. A healthy vocabulary will help your child understand what he's reading once he starts sounding out letters.
Offer choices. Take out a few books and say, "Which one should we read first?" advises Dr. Cheatham. Letting him be the "book boss" helps him feel like he has a say in the activity.
Use bigger words (sometimes). If you think your child is unfamiliar with a term, offer a simple definition (" 'Manufacture' is a different way to say 'make'?"). "We often limit the kinds of words we use because we assume young children won't understand, but that's doing kids a disservice," points out Nicholas Husbye, Ph.D., assistant professor of elementary literacy education at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. Research shows having a larger vocabulary in first grade leads to greater reading achievement.
Go to the library. Teach your child how to find and check out books, and show her how to scan them. When she's ready for her own card, make a big deal of the event, perhaps by doing a family cheer to celebrate.
Check out street signs. Spotting them helps your child see how vital reading is in daily life. When you see one that says "Deer Crossing," point it out and explain what it means. Teach your child to tell jokes and riddles. What preschooler doesn't love telling the same silly knock-knock joke over and over? It's another way to practice word patterns.
Show words in action. The next time you go grocery shopping, point out words on your list ("milk") and on the item when you find it, suggests Dr. Husbye.
Make connections. When your preschooler is ready to learn the alphabet, help him make the link between letters and objects, suggests Dr. Moreno. You might pull out magnetic letters B, D, and F, along with a stuffed bear, a duck, and a frog, and see if your child can figure out which magnet goes with each animal.
Give him a role. When you read a book about animals, have your child mimic the sound of the characters. Every time you say "duck," pause and give him the nod to say "quack-quack!"
Create your own books. Ask your child to tell you a story, then write it down on several pieces of paper. Staple them together along one edge, and have her illustrate each page, says Terence A. Beck, Ph.D., professor of education at the University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma, Washington. When you're done, read it together.
Frame pages. Let your child know that books hold a place of honor in your home by making them part of the décor.
Label objects. Stick on drawers, doors, mirrors, clocks, and more. It's a great way to help young kids make the link between words and the things they refer to.
Tune in. Dancing and shaking to the beat of nursery rhymes, poems, and favorite songs (and using toy instruments if you have them) helps your child pick up on the rhythm of speech.
Make a to-do list. Write down tasks to complete, and encourage your child to scribble his own (even if he doesn't know all his letters yet).