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Reading Starts With Books, not ABCs

As a pediatrician, I have always advised parents of newborn children to start reading to them on the first day they are home from the hospital. Yes, from day 1. Sit down with the baby, pick up a book and read them the story; they will listen.

Then, do the same thing, every day afterward, for the rest of their childhood.

Every day. Do not skip a day. It takes all of 10 minutes when they are little and the return on this investment of time is priceless for both child and family.

Over the next few months, they will start to reach for the pages (and rip a few) and try and eat the book (sometimes leaving teethmarks you will treasure later in life). A gentle give and take, guiding their hand to turn the page, or explaining we need to finish the page before turning it, along with a persistence to the story, will get you through those moments.

It doesn’t really matter what you read: but there is some developmental value and importance in repetition. You only need one book to start; over time you can find a few different books from your local bookstore or library and put them in rotation — in total no more than a handful is really required for the first three years. This will allows for some variation in voice, character and tone of the stories you tell. However, a child’s preference, or need for repeat readings (sometimes the same book many days in a row or even multiple times — “Again! Again!” — in one sitting) should always take priority.

Having some pictures helps with the child’s recognition that there is a connection between the words they are hearing and the nature of books as guides to the story being told.

Over time (somewhere between 12 and 36 months of age) the child will come to understand that the words that have been coming out of your mouth all this time are actually represented by those squiggly symbols (that we call letters) printed on the page Eventually they will recognize the word on the page as the one coming out of your mouth — especially if you start to point to the words as you say them. Then you can play “show me the word I just said”. If they point wrong, it doesn’t matter, just show them again; they’ll eventually recognize it.

Then, one day, they will declare: “I can read that myself”, in which case you should sit while they read to you. You can help them recognize or sound out words, but don’t worry about that as much as having them love their books and their stories. Sounding out words will come naturally because they have been reading for their whole life.

They will want to know the B makes the Buh sound because they will want to read stories about their interests, their communities, their lives and the lives of others, and explore ways that others have come to understand, and achieve in, the world. They will want to read and that will be the foundational key to their freedom and success in life.

More critically, with this gift, they will never have to feel the inequity of knowledge as power or have to rely on someone else’s interpretation of events; they will never be left with an unanswered question, they will never be limited in their capacity to acquire knowledge.

Sometimes the parents I have advised have admitted to me that their own reading skills were limited; the great news is that this doesn’t matter to their baby. Childrens’s books like Pat the Bunny, Goodnight Moon, Caps for Sale, the Snowy Day, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Corduroy, The Runaway Bunny, Green Eggs and Ham, and Knuffle Bunny are relatively easy to read, even for people for whom reading is hard. These parents often told me that reading these books daily made them more confident readers over time. In all cases, if they stuck with the daily routine, both the children and their parents developed a love of reading that had a dramatic effect on their subsequent achievement, both as individuals and as a family.

And it’s never too late to get started; while easier to introduce this routine with younger children, you can sit down with a child of any age and read something to them. Even reading a newspaper article out loud to a teen can be a way of jump-starting conversation.

Health professionals and others who advise families with young children can support this simple intervention, and ‘undo’ some inappropriate expectations regarding letters and letter sounds as the gateway skills to reading. Reciting ABC’s is less important that knowing what books look and sound like well before you can read one on your own.

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