6 Ways to Encourage Your Toddler to Read That Don't Involve Singing the ABCs

As parents, we walk a tightrope every day. While we want our kids to learn important skills, it's difficult to establish a balance between doing too much and not enough. My mom, who taught a variety of grades, likes to tell me a story about taking me to the zoo when I was a kid. She kept trying to get me to describe the animals and colors, and I requested: "Can't you just stop being a teacher and let me just have fun?" When it feels like drills, it stops being engaging and children don't feel invested in the activity. Essentially, when it becomes a chore, they no longer want to participate.

Reading is one of those obviously necessary parts of early education, but it's hard to know how to best prepare kids. While, yes, drills and flash cards work, as does phonetics, for many children, this type of environment may not be conducive to learning.

Having taught literacy and literacy intervention strategies for many years, I'm confident that encouraging reading is about so much more than flash cards and word games. Here are some simple strategies to get your kid to not only read but love it, too.

  1. Read with them as often as possible. One of the literacy proficiency tests kids take in kindergarten is to see whether or not a child knows how to hold a book, turn the pages, and identify some words. This basic skill, including knowing which way is up and reading from left to right, can be picked up by frequent exposure to books.
  2. Begin to point out words in books and in life. Simple activities like grocery shopping are a great way to sneak in some low-key reading. As you grab ingredients off the shelf, point out some basic words. These sight words help children establish the relationship between words and objects and that those squiggly lines actually mean something.
  3. Use a children's dictionary. If your child is one of those who constantly asks "why?" or "what's that?," then they might get a kick out of an illustrated children's dictionary. If a kid asks what something is, this is a great way to begin teaching them to look something up. Talk your way through the actions, skimming past the other letters and reading the definition in the book for them.
  4. Think aloud when reading to them. I'll be honest, this is probably the most difficult task because it's not entirely natural. When we read something, many of us ask questions in our heads and make little exclamations. The trick with this strategy is to say those things aloud as you go, allowing children to think analytically and encourage their buy-in with the text. Even a simple book like Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar is perfect for this technique. "Huh, I wonder why he's so hungry?" and "That sure looks yummy, I like ice cream, too," are simple enough phrases that will help children enjoy reading.
  5. Letter identification is more important than knowing the alphabet. While it is adorable to hear a 3-year-old sing the alphabet, that's not a skill that's going to help kids read. It's more important that children know what sound each letter makes, be able to identify them, and maybe think of a couple words that start with that letter. This can be taught by encouraging children to play with letters as often as possible. Blocks, magnets, drawing, and other phonetic toys are great ways to encourage this skill.
  6. It's important that they see you read. It doesn't matter what you read, one of the biggest indicators that a child will be comfortable with reading is seeing their parents do it. Study after study supports this. So, making family reading time, even if the kids are just thumbing through picture books, is a vital part of their education.