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Pre-reading skills in the third year

“When you read, you begin with ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’” The Sound of Music declares, but as trustworthy a source as that musical sounds, when it comes to the way your toddler starts to develop his written and printed language skills, it isn’t quite true. Long before “‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’” or at least before his ABCs are anything except for a fun song, Baby has been building what are called his pre-reading skills, and in the time between his second and third birthdays, those pre-reading skills grow bigger and stronger than they ever have before.

Pre-reading skills this year

Your toddler may already have some pre-reading skills, like the ability to connect a picture of something in a book with the idea of what it’s a picture of in real life – he might see a picture of a cat in a book and point to Fluffy as she runs across the room and under the couch, for example. He may point to pictures in books when you ask him where a certain object or character is on the page, and he may even be starting to make the connection between the words you’re saying to him out loud, and the shapes of the letters on the page you’re reading off of. If he isn’t doing these things, there’s a good chance that he’ll start to soon. And as the year goes on, you’ll probably also start to notice him:

  • Starting to understand story and narrative: This might come in the form of getting a little scared for a character in a book during a suspenseful part, giggling with you when something silly happens in the book, and being able to answer questions about the story.
  • Becoming more engaged with reading: This might look like having a favorite book, remembering what it looks like and picking it out to read again, finishing sentences along with your when you read a much-loved book to him, or noticing if you change a word or phrase.
  • Understanding the mechanics of reading: This might look like holding a book and pretending to read, turning or trying to turn the pages of a book, knowing to hold the book right-side-up or even turning the pages going from front to back, and scribbling on paper in a way that might start to imitate writing.

Encouraging pre-reading

One of the most basic ways to encourage toddlers’ early reading skills is just to make sure their language skills are as strong as possible. Spoken language is the base most children build their understanding of written language off of, and the stronger they are as communicators in general, the more easily they’ll be able to transition to written communication.

As always, the best way to build your toddler’s language skills is just to talk to him, as often and as engagingly as you can. Talking about his interests is a great way to get your little one involved in the conversation, but talking about your interests, or about the world around you and him, is a great way to introduce new vocabulary and concepts. Having a wide variety of conversations with Baby is the best way to engage with him, and to make sure his language abilities keep growing as fast as he is.

A note on dropping the “pre-”

While it’s possible for toddlers to start learning to read at very young ages, or at least to start memorizing in ways that can start to lead to reading, there is no proof that starting to read earlier than their peers is helpful for young children in the long run. Toddlers who read early may be ahead of their classmates in terms of academics for a few years – or they may not, or they may just be a little extra bored in class for a few years – but there is no evidence that this advantage, if it is an advantage, lasts longer than a few years.

In the end, it comes down to supporting your toddler’s interests. If he is interested not just in being read to, but in figuring out how to read for himself at an early age, he may look to you to help him, and that’s wonderful. If, on the other hand, he is still more interested in being the listener at storytime, there’s nothing wrong with letting him sit back and be read to for a few more years, before it’s time for him to start reading for himself. And even when it looks like he is just listening to a story, he is building stronger and stronger pre-reading skills every day.

  • Michelle Anthony. “Language and Literacy Development in 0-2 Year Olds.” Scholastic. Scholastic Inc. Retrieved June 28 2017.
  • Laura Scholes. “Should my young child already be reading?” Great! Schools. GreatSchools. Retrieved June 28 2017.
  • Carol A. Quick. “Reading Milestones.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation, May 2013. Retrieved June 28 2017. 
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