Helping A Child Learn to Read—Up to Age 1

As a parent, you play many roles in your child’s life. The caretaker and protector roles are certainly important, but another role parents fulfill is teacher. You will teach your child all kinds of things and teaching your child to read is essential. It’s not that you will not get help with this task. Schools are going to contribute too. But parents are in the unique position of being with the child when the child’s brain starts working on language and it starts a lot earlier than you might think.

A child starts the journey of learning language while still in the womb! Scientists have learned more about language development in the past 15 years than ever before. New technology and methods of study have increased our understanding about how the human mind and body develop and learn. A study published in Science magazine in 1986 by A.J. DeCaspar and H.J. Spence revealed that newborns could recognize a story which had been read aloud by their mothers during the last 6 weeks of gestation. In fact, the connection of the auditory nerves to the brain happens around the sixth month of gestation. From then on the baby is very interested in hearing its mother speak. The fetus can recognize repeated phrases, rhymes, and stories. The child is already getting its first lessons in literacy. It is learning the rhyme and pattern of the language of its mother.

The human brain continues to develop for the first 24 years of life. At each stage of growth, the brain gains abilities to process new types of information and concepts. Interestingly, learning to communicate is a task which the mind begins very early in life and continues for an extended period. This is the first in a series of four articles giving insights into what is helpful to the child in its first six years.

1. Start reading to your child when you reach your third trimester of pregnancy. Choose books from the children’s section at your library. Short stories, rhyming stories, and nursery school rhymes are all good choices. Read with animation and complete the whole story or rhyme. Repeat the story often. Repetition is helpful to the child recognizing the story and pattern of speech. Obviously, the child will not understand the story. At this stage they are learning to discern repeated patterns of sound. Playing music is another exercise in pattern recognition.

2. Once your child is born, continue to read aloud to your baby at least once or twice a day for 10 minutes. It’s OK if the baby falls asleep while you read. Read more again later.

3. Talk to your child while you go about the daily care of your baby. Put your face close to his – about 12 inches away. Baby’s need talk directed at them in order to learn. Your baby’s optic nerve connections are still being completed and they can focus on you if you are this close. Your baby will be looking at your face intently, watching the movement of your facial muscles. Soon your baby will start to mimic your facial expressions. These observations by the baby are helping it learn how to shape its mouth for speech.

4. Talk in “Motherese” with elongated vowels and variations in pitch. This will probably come naturally. Scientists now know you are helping baby hear you (the sense of hearing still developing) and your baby is distinguishing the different sounds (called phonemes) that occur in your native language. When your baby first enters the world, it can discern the difference between any phoneme in any language. By age one this capability is significantly declining. Instead the baby focuses on the phonemes used in the language of the people surrounding him and starts to work on understanding these sounds more fully.

5. Vary your vocabulary but repeat words as well in a natural way. Repetition is allows pattern recognition; new words also for expansion of vocabulary. For example you might talk your baby through its bath each day with slightly different words. “OK, Michael, time for your bath! Time to get fresh and clean! Are you ready to get fresh and clean?” On another day… “Guess what Michael? It’s time for your bath! We get to play in the water now. And when we are finished, won’t you smell nice!”

6. Converse with your baby – allow for baby to respond at the natural pauses in speech. Recognize any grunt, coo, or body motion as the baby’s contribution to the conversation. This is important to the baby’s understanding of taking turns in a conversation. Although it may surprise you to know, babies actually do recognize this concept very early on and get frustrated when they aren’t allowed to participate in the conversation. It’s not that he is going to say “How do you do?” Nevertheless, he will try to respond to you in whatever signaling method he is currently capable of doing. The signaling method will change as his nervous system develops and enables him to control more muscles.

7. Babbling is practice talking. Let it flow.

8. How you talk to your child is also critical in determining how quickly and well your child will learn to speak and later on read. Studies show positive feedback is strongly correlated with faster mastery of language. Negative feedback is not helpful.

Examples of negative feedback: Don’t do that…Stop!...If you don’t eat your beans, then you won’t…That’s stupid…You are such a naughty girl.

Instead: What a good boy you are, you ate all your applesauce!... Look at you standing up all by yourself. Good for you!...You are so smart. Let’s tell Daddy how smart you are.

And if limitation for safety reasons is needed: Oh, sweetie, don’t pick that up. It might hurt you and we don’t want that, do we? Mommy will move it to a safe place so you won’t get hurt.

Babies need to hear lots of talk directed at them in order to learn language. Sheer quantity of words heard is an excellent predictor of how well a child will learn to talk, read, and write. So chat with your baby, read to your baby, and give your baby the “play by play” description of what is happening around them.

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