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).
In the struggle to make sense of longer sentences, the story—and the enjoyment—can often get lost. For back-to-school assignments, be sure your kid understands the material she's reading and continues to see books as a treat.
Be theatrical. Act out a book your child is reading together. "Make the story come alive by imagining what different characters might sound like and by mimicking movements, like slithering on the floor like a snake," says Lisa Safran, author of Reading and Writing Come Alive.
Cook up some fun. Create recipes with simple words and drawings for your little chef to follow. "Kids love making things, and the experience is exponentially more powerful if they read the directions on their own," says Jennifer Jones, Ph.D., founder of Green Ivy Schools, in New York City.
Don't get rid of well-loved baby books. A child's library should have three different reading levels, says Penny Silvers, Ed.D., associate professor of literacy at Dominican University, in River Forest, Illinois: old favorites that he's practically memorized (too easy); books that match his current level (just right); and titles that are a little beyond his ability (too hard), which you can read to him.
Look it up. Instead of dodging tricky questions you can't answer ("How many teeth does a shark have?" or "How far away is China?"), search for the answers together online or in a reference book. Your child will see that reading is a great way to access the information she wants.
Pass notes. Leave a "See you later!" sticky in his lunch box or a card on your kid's pillow thanking him for being kind to his sister. "A child loves reading a message that's just for him," says Dr. Jones.
Go on vocabulary-expanding excursions. Doing errands presents opportunities to introduce new words organically. Need something at the gardening center? Explain the difference between "perennial" and "annual." Stopping to get money at the bank? Introduce the idea of a "deposit" and a "withdrawal."
Never stop reading. Once your child is reading independently you might be tempted to back off, but keep reading to her. More advanced titles will keep her engaged, and you'll be able to model good technique, such as pausing at the end of each sentence.
Dress up! Playing make-believe brings stories to life. Try to have costumes and props easily accessible to your child.
Don't think of reading as a solo act. When your kid sits down with a good book, stay nearby. Help him sound out tough words. Ask him to explain the story to you. And give him a thumbs-up when he finishes a challenging title.
There are tons of e-books and games that promise to further a child's reading skills. But "we don't yet know whether technology is good or bad for kids' literacy, so you need to evaluate what's appropriate for your child," says Dr. Judy Cheatham. Think of reading apps first and foremost as conversation starters designed to build the skills that will lead to literacy—and, when possible, to play with together. Some of our favorites:
Your preschooler will have fun learning terms like famished and hilarious. Not all of the animated word puzzles are such a mouthful, though, and even little kids will enjoy dragging the colorful letters onto their matching outline. $9 for iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch; Free for Android; 4+
The bright, simple graphics and silly humor are pitch-perfect for little learners. Each letter of the alphabet is paired with an action verb (L is for launch, for example) and the interactive button helps kids figure out what it means. $3 for iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, Android, and Nook; 4+
Learn With Homer
This app has interactive activities that teach letter sounds, stories to enjoy together (or alone), and a feature that allows kids to exchange notes with trusted family members. Free; for iPad and iPhone; 4+
The Big Brag—Dr. Seuss
Young kids will love the terrific voice acting in this lesser-known Dr. Seuss tale, and you might learn how to become a better narrator. It has three modes: autoplay, a narrated story with highlighted words, and a DIY version for early readers. $1 for iPad, iPhone, and Android; 4+
Hideout: Early Reading
Developed by literacy experts, this app focuses on creating words out of common endings: Start with "ap" and add "t" for "tap" or "m" for "map." $3; for iPad and iPhone; 4+
My PlayHome Stores
Fans of the virtual dollhouse app My Play Home can now take their characters out for groceries, ice cream, and more. Used together or separately, both offer self-directed play that encourages kids to make up their own stories. $3 for iPad, iPhone, and Android; 4+