It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon—or even a parenting author—to figure out how to raise a reader. All it takes is a cozy lap, a pair of loving arms, an open book and a few common-sense tips.
Read early. True, newborns don’t know a cat from a hat. And toddlers are more wiggle worms than bookworms. But there’s no better way to get a child in the reading habit than getting off to an early start. Build storytime into your little one’s routine right from the beginning.
Read often. Bedtime is the obvious time for storytime—and a particularly good one, too, especially if it comes after a soothing bath (a wound-down little one is more open to sitting down—and more receptive to listening). Plus, bedtime stories, especially when combined with cuddles, can quickly become a treasured ritual on both sides of the armchair—the perfectly relaxing end to your child’s busy day . . . and yours. Another good time to get a child hooked on books: wakeup time. By catching your bookworm early, while she’s still sleepy, you’ll minimize squirming and maximize attention. And then—there’s any time. Tote a book with you wherever you go and whatever you’re doing and reading will become your little one’s favorite go-to distraction.
Issue an all-access book pass. Keep stacks of books of every variety everywhere in your home—by your bed, on the coffee table, next to the armchair, in the kitchen, in the car and definitely in your child’s room. Don’t make any book (except, perhaps, a very valuable one) off-limits to your little one. Even a toddler who tends to devour literature (as in, bite on edges and chew paper) should be allowed supervised page-turning stints. When shelving your child’s books, keep them accessible on low, open shelves or in easy-to-reach bins.
Be a borrower (and maybe a lender, too). The best way to keep a fresh stash of reading material at the ready? Make a weekly trip to the library with your budding book buddy. Don’t have a library in your neighborhood? Set up your own book co-op with fellow playgroup or preschool parents.
Get ready to repeat. Most toddlers and preschoolers can’t get enough of a good thing—they find it comforting to hear the same book over and over, night after night, day after day. But there’s another reason why little ones benefit from the read-and-repeat approach to storytime: When you’re new to the language game, repetition helps you pick up skills faster. Being able to fill in the last word in a line or anticipate the so-familiar plot is also super-satisfying.
Do some editing—and editorializing. While you can definitely read a book to your tot straight through, don’t feel obligated to stick to the script verbatim. If too many hard-to-understand words are making your captive audience restless, edit them down or out. Paraphrase. Summarize. Simplify.
Make reading interactive. Even a child who doesn’t yet know an A from a Z can point to the doggy, the boy on the bicycle, the sun in the sky, the monkey in the zoo. Or answer simple reading comprehension questions (“What is the girl eating?” “Where is the mommy going?” “Is the boy happy or sad?”). Not only does interaction enhance learning but it boosts enjoyment and attention span, too.
Read to yourself. Children are master mimics—especially when it comes to their parents—and they’re always more likely to do what you do than what you say. So to raise a reader, be a reader. Never had the reading bug? Try contracting it. Join a book club. Check out reading lists online. And make sure your little one catches you reading often.
Power off. Even books that come with dials, flaps and pop-ups can’t compete with the light-and-sound show of computer games and TV. Wired toddlers and preschoolers—or those who spend too much time zoning out in front of a TV screen—may have a harder time sitting still for words and pictures on a page. In fact, research has shown a 10 percent increase in the risk of attention problems later on for every hour per day of TV a tyke watches now. So limit TV time (the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for the two-and-under set) and computer time. Using the TV for background noise? Power that off, too.
Nurture that love of reading, but don’t push it. If you’ve been a parent for any amount of time you know this above all: Pushing will get you nowhere. Not when it comes to using the potty, not when it comes to eating—and definitely not when it comes to reading. Make reading a part of your family’s daily routine—but also don’t forget to make it fun.
Heidi Murkoff is the author of the What To Expect series of pregnancy and parenting guides that have sold more than 34 million copies. The latest book in the series is What to Expect the Second Year: From 12 to 24 Months. Murkoff lives in Southern California with her husband, Erik, and two children.