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Ready to Read: Literacy Tips for Toddlers and Preschoolers

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The road to reading starts in infancy, when children acquire a love of words, an excitement about storytelling, and the wonder of sharing life's experience with loved ones using words. Family members can nurture the joy of reading through activities that build these skills and interests. Here are some tips for making reading a central part of your child's life:

* Become a news commentator. Narrate your day to your child, what you are doing with him, and even what you're reading in his presence. You're making connections between words and events; you're helping him learn the elements of a story.

* Look at picture books together. Beginning when your child is an infant, introduce books as fun and exciting things. Accept your child's short attention span; each brief interaction is fostering a love of books.

* Look, point, then name. Young children start out their literary lives by first learning to turn the pages, then looking at the pictures generally, then looking at pictures as the images are named, then pointing at the named pictures, and finally naming the pictures themselves. Where is your child on that road? Can you prompt her to do the next step? You can't push her if she isn't ready, but you will be able to support her to move ahead if she's reached readiness.

* Read everyday things to your child, including labels on groceries, signs along the road, and menus in restaurants. The utility of and interest in words is being absorbed by your pre-reader.

* Pack a book. Tuck a storybook or two in the diaper bag and in the car for the older infant, toddler, and preschooler. The habit of filling in life's spaces with books and always having books handy helps a child see them as a regular part of life.

* Go to the library together. Schedule these trips regularly. Allow your child to pick one or two books, and you pick a few, too. Don't forget to show up for story time. Even before he can sit through the whole event, your child is learning that it's special and fun.

* Get a library card for your child. Treat the card as the prize it is by giving it a special case and storage place.

* Learn rhymes and songs. Children experiment with the sounds of language with rhyme, which builds their interest in words and sounds. Rhymes with gestures help to link actions with the action words. Poetry for children also builds this awareness and love of language.

* Give books. Give every child you know a book for every occasion, and then look at it together. Keep that library in a special but accessible place.

* Ask questions. Children develop language more readily if they're asked to use it. After you pose a question, wait until your child gets her response ready; give her time. Respond to her meaning, filling in some words she may not know. Pay more attention to the meaning than the exact words.

* Set up a regular talk time. Schedule a time to talk that doesn't change. Talk about your day, and ask your child about his day. This is a special kind of storytelling.

* Make the car a talking place. Use the time you spend commuting with your child to talk about what you see out the window, where you are going, what happened before the car ride. This enclosed time together allows for building language skills. Later on it will be where secrets, fears, worries, and hopes get disclosed. You'll have to turn off the radio and the cell phone to keep this a special time.

* Look things up. When a question arises, such as what time a movie starts or what the weather will be like, go find and read that information to your child. This shows how we find out things and solve problems using reading.

* Teach letter links. Help your 3-year-old learn "his" letter: J for Jason, for example. Help him find his letter in printed things and find the sound in everyday things: J as in jelly, etc. Since he sees himself as central to everything, as is normal at this age, other letters can be built upon "his" letter.

* Tell bedtime stories. Make stories, both the ones you read aloud and those you tell, part of the bedtime ritual starting in infancy. Never take away the bedtime story as a punishment; it should be sacred.

* Tell your child's own story. Use picture albums of your child as prompts for having her describe and tell about the event depicted. Your summer vacation or the trip to Grandma's may become a work of fiction, but it nurtures a sense of storytelling.

* Become a transcriber. Write down the stories your child dictates to you, or help him compose a letter to a friend or relative. Have him scribble a signature or make as much of his name as possible. His writing skills will lag behind his imagination for many years, so don't let that hold him back. Help him get his thoughts down, knowing that they are valuable and that the written word is the way to let others know his ideas.

* Use audio books or CDs. For the older preschooler, books that have audio material to go along with the words can help him see the connection between the words in written and spoken form. He can go back again and again and read while listening. But don't let audio books substitute for reading in person together.

* Read by including your child. Ask her what will come next, why a character does something, or how a character feels. Don't expect a long narrative in response, but keep her engaged in the story or plot line. Ask her if she wants to change the story. Have her "read" the story to you if she is familiar with it. Don't correct her unless she asks for help.

* Use computers carefully. Many software packages of varying quality are designed to teach reading. Look for ones that are not directly instructional but support the learning of such prereading skills as looking for patterns, sorting shapes, and learning letters. Other worthwhile packages include those that allow a child to tell a story using pictures, those with letter stamps that will help him make his own book, and those with an audio portion that reads a story as the words are highlighted on the screen.

* Look for literacy in day care. Look for day care that places a high priority on talking directly to kids, asking them questions, reading regularly, and having books available. Spend time in a day care setting before you sign up your child to see if those qualities are present.

* Be a good role model. Read yourself, and pick up books for yourself on those library trips. The whole house should be a reading-rich environment, with books, magazines, and newspapers all around.

* Don't let the sun set on a book-free day. Make books part of every day with your child. Don't let a day go by without reading a book, a poem, or a story.


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