Birth to 12 Months
Read to an infant, and at best you'll get gurgles of interest. But if you're tempted to skip books at this stage, don't. Reading aloud helps your baby find patterns in the sounds he hears. The goal? To boost his understanding of the structure and uses of language.
Easy Skill Boosters
Choose chubby books. Bring home cardboard books. The bold graphics will catch his attention and develop his eye muscles. And don't forget about textured books.
Arrange outings. Head to the grocery store or the playground, and talk about whatever is new-like the breeze on your baby's face. You're introducing the rhythm of language and nurturing his interest in the outside world.
Play pat-a-cake. Nursery rhymes are a playful way to model language. Those that include hand movements are especially good for catching your baby's attention.
Say it again. Repetition is how little ones learn. Watch passing cars from a window, and as each one goes by, ask, "Is this Daddy's [or Mommy's] car?"
Try word games. Introduce words in a fun, predictable way. For instance, ask, "Should we have spaghetti? Should we have zucchini? Should we have meatballs?"
12 to 24 Months
Though your child won't be talking by her first birthday, she already has a large listening vocabulary. By 18 months, she'll be speaking anywhere from 3 to 50 words. As her range increases, the meaning of each word will narrow. For example, "Mama"--which might have stood for "Pick me up," "I want a bottle," and "Give me that block"--will eventually just mean "Mama."
Easy Skill Boosters
Phase out baby talk. By 12 months, children are ready to hear the proper words for objects. Regular spoken language is the best model of adult conversation.
Read often. Weave stories into your everyday routine. For instance, read waterproof books before your child's bath, then let her play with them in the tub.
Guess the answer. Pause during a story, and pose a question: "I wonder what Goldilocks will do next?" Have your child guess, then read on for the answer. You'll be teaching him to think about what he hears, ask questions, predict events, and look for answers. Fluent readers do this quite naturally.
Don't stop at stories. Baking cookies with your child at your side? Read to her from the cookbook. Or bring in the mail together, and sort the envelopes out loud to show reading's limitless uses.
Get curious. Introduce the world as a source of interest and conversation by asking questions throughout the day: "Will it rain this afternoon?"
Serve up variety. Offer your child a rich, descriptive mix of language--eventually, she'll repeat whatever she hears.
2 to 3 Years
Your child's vocabulary is blossoming. He's learning several concepts a day, and as a 3-year-old, he'll master nearly 1,000 words. At first, he'll stick to telegram speech: "Go outside." Later, he'll utter sentences that are surprisingly complex.
Easy Skill Boosters
Keep reading his favorites. Familiar books let your child be the expert, which little kids love. Pause from time to time as you read to let your child fill in a word. He'll beam with pride when his guesses are right on target.
Build on themes. Whether your child's passion is Elmo or kittens, look for books on the subject. Or explore a favorite author's other selections. Eric Carle, anyone?
Make it real. Connect stories to what's happening in the real world. If you spot a baby bird in a tree, ask questions like "Doesn't that bird look like the one in Are You My Mother? I wonder if it's looking for its mommy too?" You'll promote information recall, build vocabulary and comprehension, and teach that books live beyond their pages.
Ask a riddle. Riddles help boost children's vocabulary and thinking skills. Give easy questions such as "I'm thinking of an animal that lives in a tree, flies at night, and says 'whoo . . . whoo.' What is it?" Have your child make up riddles for you too.
Create a hero. Put your child and his friends or family members into your tales by adapting the stories you read or making up your own. While you're at it, let your new heroes demonstrate values like honesty and courage.
4 to 5 Years
This age are on the verge of reading (a few can read already). Your child can likely identify letters, and she may be able to write her name. She's learning about seven words a day--2,700 words a year. No wonder this is a talkative stage; kids are trying out all those concepts.
Easy Skill Boosters
Talk it up. When your child starts to jabber, don't tune her out. Ask questions to clarify her ideas, and prompt her along. You'll be encouraging language and comprehension skills while modeling good listening skills.
Get her reasons. Children this age are famous for asking why. Turn the tables by responding, "Why do you think that happens?" You'll foster problem solving, comprehension, and information recall.
Follow the leader. Let your preschooler "read" to you. Most likely, this will mean talking you through a story based on its pictures and her memory and imagination.
Make a book together. Staple some paper together, then help your child write or dictate a plot and illustrate it with drawings. She'll see that anyone can create a book.
Play together. Try games such as I Spy, Go Fish, Uno, and Candy Land to build conversation skills naturally.
Switch on the computer. Programs such as Reader Rabbit Preschool (The Learning Company) and Elmo's Preschool (Creative Wonders) are fun--and great for promoting letter and number recognition.
Start a new chapter. If your child seems ready, try reading her chapter books. Paraphrase dialogue or wordy sections if her attention drifts. Chapter books boost recall and teach that not all stories end in a single reading.
Build a library. Add to your child's collection, and shelve it within easy reach. Then keep reading, exploring, and talking. You'll be setting the stage for a passion that's sure to develop as your child grows.