Updated: May 11
One of my passions is communication and everything that goes with it. Language, literature, language development, reading and writing skills- I am obsessed with learning about how our minds develop these skills. I love learning the history of language, and reading up on things like the “Great Vowel Change” (which explains why some words are spelled multiple ways, or don’t follow the normal rules of pronunciation). It’s one of the many reasons I became an English teacher. It’s also why these life skills were so important to me to teach my son when I became a mom.
Today, my three year old is already working on what sounds each letter makes, and he’s making his own connections between the sounds letters make and the words that start with those letters. His first connection was the cutest- he realized that “k” was for my friend, “Miss Kate”. How do you motivate a three year old to want to learn these things? Why is he interested learning to read already? If you ask me it all started the moment we brought him home from the hospital.
Building a Desire to Communicate From Infancy to Two Years Old
Talk to Your Child from the Beginning
It is never too early to talk to your child and start reading to your baby. Everything I read told me I needed to narrate everything I did to my baby. It was awkward at first, and hard to remember, but after moments of long silences I’d remember to tell my son what I was up to. It’s an easy thing to do when baby is awake and teaches them a lot through observation. Doing this easy task will later lead to a period of language explosion. You will realize that even though your child wasn’t talking, they were listening, and have understood what you’ve been telling them for a long time.
Baby Sign Language
There are YouTube videos that can show you how to sign to your baby. This is how I learned the basics of baby sign language. The reason you want to sign to your baby is because it gives your baby a way to communicate before they’re physically able to start articulating words through speech.
What happens when your baby has no way to communicate from a young age, is that they lose the desire to try to talk or communicate. The frustration causes them to give up and focus on other more interesting tasks such as physical development.
As the baby turns into a one year old, they will start incorporating actual words with their signs, and it prevents meltdowns in the long run. When children can’t communicate their needs they, rightfully, get upset. These breakdowns can be avoided by giving them a way to communicate.
Even if you don’t teach them much sign language, pointing is a great way to get your baby to communicate at an early age. They know what they want and they can show you. I encouraged my son to point and turned it into an important part of his learning experience.
Once he knew how to point. I taught him to show me things that were specific to the book or concept we were reading or learning about. I asked him to show me eyes, ears, hands, and other body parts when that was the focus. Then when we went to the zoo I would ask him to show me where certain animals where.
Everything and everywhere was a learning experience. Even trips to the grocery store. There are so many words out there to learn, including adjectives that describe the things we see. This is why pointing was such an important part of my son’s language development. He was able to show me he knew his colors before he could clearly say the names of colors.
Weaning off of Pointing
When your little one is able to start making sounds, the first thing babies love to do is mimic. I felt like the easiest starting place was animal noises instead of words. This helped my son practice a task where is was learning what it meant when I asked, “What does the cow say?” Understanding the word “say”, helps later on when you want your kiddo to say actual words.
While still incorporating pointing, also encourage sounds. Let them figure out how to move their mouth and play around. Once your baby can do one animal sound, keep on building on their knowledge and practice a new animal each time they master an animal sound. Go through and ask them about it every day. I used animal flashcards to pair with this activity. Then you can start asking them to say words, and you may find that they just start saying words without prompting.
From day one and for always it’s so good to have dedicated story time. It is also good for your kids to see you reading, it will strengthen their interest in the activity. Our story time is at night and the most important part is to allow your kid to read about things that interest them. Let them choose books from the library or store. Allow them to pick out what you read once they are at the age to let you know they have a preference.
When my son was just under one he would hit the books he wanted us to read again and again. He got a kick out of reading starting very early. Incorporate silly voice and add expression to your tone to make story time more interesting.
Between 8 months and a year old my little one loved the “Curious George Pat a Cake” book because it was interactive, fun, and came with a George puppet to play along with. Today he enjoys books about dinosaurs and even though he’s three he can handle lengthy text, we’ve even read the entirety of the first Harry Potter novel without pictures. If he hadn’t been used to doing story time from infancy I don’t believe he would have the stamina for chapter books otherwise.
Don’t Teach Bad Habits
A big rule I stand by is to not purposefully pronounce things incorrectly or repeat words in the incorrect pronunciation back to your child because it’s cute. I agree it’s cute, but it will not do anything to help your child in the long run. This will create bad habits and lead to speech delays as they grow older.
I don’t think it’s necessary, but I like to break down words into syllables for my little one to repeat back to me slowly, then he puts it all together faster as one word. For instance if I were teaching him how to say “Elephant”, I would have my son say “EL”… “AH”… “Phant”… then put it together, “ELEPHANT!” We say it loud and excitedly to make this activity fun and always a positive experience.
He is always complimented on how well he does, even if he isn’t doing “just right”, I’m happy he’s trying and having fun. This has made him very articulate and thoughtful when says his words, which has lead to more people understanding him he speaks, which reduces frustration when a new babysitter comes over they know what he wants or needs. At age two you have a phase of “word explosion”, this is a great age to reinforce how to properly make sounds. Don’t expect it to be perfect because it takes time to learn how to make certain sounds, and it will take a couple more years before they can make harder sounds like “th” and “ch” and “vvv” versus “Bbb” as the muscles in their mouths continue to develop. Never criticize the way your little says something, it will only cause a lowered self-esteem and a lack of desire to speak.
Always be ridiculously enthusiastic about actions and behaviors you want from your baby. From the beginning your little one is looking for positive reactions from their parents. They love making you happy, and they crave attention whether positive or negative.
If a negative reaction is all they get, they’ll do things to get those reactions because they want the attention. So, be aware of how you react to various behaviors, and do your best to stay positive and focus focus on the things you like that your little one is doing instead of focusing on the negative. It is best to ignore negative behaviors at a young age because no reaction is not as interesting as a reaction.
Does that mean to never shout out “no” when they’re doing something that could get them hurt? Absolutely not, but if you reserve that type of reaction for when it matters, it will matter, otherwise you’ll have a moving baby/toddler ignoring you when you’re trying to warn them away from danger. So, keep up with the encouragement and praise as much as you can. It’s okay if you have rough days that make this difficult, just do your best.
Make Learning Fun
When you can’t think of what to talk about, sing songs, dance around the house, and just have fun with you little one. When you’re playing with your baby and toddler, you’re modeling how to play, how to share, and how to have fun. When you are having fun, so is your little one.
Find out what your child likes best, what motivates them, what makes them laugh and incorporate those things into teaching them words and concepts as they grow. For instance, when talking about what the elephant says, I would trumpet and move to blow on my baby’s belly. He thought it was so funny, and enjoyed it so much it made him want to copy me that much more. The cooler something seems to your little one, the more likely they are to try to mimic you. It’s too fun to resist.
Building Skills for Learning to Read Ages 3 through 10
Games and Songs
Playing games and singing songs about everything should already be a part of the routine. Now that you have a three year old who has their own set of background knowledge and has been around long enough to know how things work in general, it’s a great time to start building other skills and knowledge.
It’s a great time to start playing games like the one pictured below where you ask your little one to find and circle a specific letter in the alphabet, or trace them. This continues to help them work on fine motor skills and start the building blocks for reading and writing.
Match this with the “Every Letter Makes A Sound” song, so they start to associate letters and sounds together. Regularly sing songs that can help them learn words, letters, numbers, and concepts to build their vocabulary. I’m sure you’ve started this already, but there’s no need to stop as they get older.
Sense of Self
Three year old's have a strong sense of self, they might argue with you that they “aren’t human, they’re (insert your child’s name here). It’s even a great time to teach them more about how to describe themselves, including what their full name is. In my opinion, the first word you want your little one to know how to spell, is their name.
Find a song melody that works with the length of letters in your toddler’s name. Sing it regularly until they start catching on. Three year old pick up on song lyrics quickly and whether it is a song or a cheer, your little one can and will be able to learn how to spell their name.
The reason I would argue this is an important place to start in the game of spelling, is that day one of kindergarten, children are expected to know how to write their name, not just spell it. So, you have two years to get your little to that point, knowing how to chant, cheer, or sing out the spelling of their name, whether they can recognize those letter or not, is a great place to start.
Soon after understanding the concept of what spelling is and that they know how to spell their name, they’ll want to know how to spell other words and will ask about it when they feel like learning more words to spell.
Fill in the Blank Story Time Activity
Your little one will surprise you with how much they’ve memorized in their favorite books. When they are ready, you can pause before finishing sentences and give your little on a chance to fill in what should be said next in the story.
I started this game at around two and a half and expect simple one word responses. By the time he was three he was able to do full sentences, and then built up to full pages. He mimicked me with how I would point to the words on the page. This mimicking of how to properly read was the first step that I planned to build on daily to get him to start learning how to read for real.
Ask Lots of Questions
Teach your little how to describe how they feel, what they think, and that what they have to say matters to you. Ask them about their day, what did they do, keep asking and you’ll be surprised to find out what they have to say. Teach them adjectives by asking them if things were big or small, soft or hard, and add on bigger words as they strengthen their abilities. The more you do this, over time the more details you will get.
My favorite thing that my son does now is embellishes on his day. Sometimes he had a dinosaur come to his daycare classroom, or he saved people from a fire. I’m sure this happened during a game of pretend, but he tells it like it really happened. It’s so cute, and I am enjoying this age for as long as it lasts.
Talking to your child about their day should never stop, no matter their age. Asking more details and just listening makes your little or big one feel important and cared for. This helps build self esteem over time. Also, the better they can express themselves, their thoughts, wants and needs, the better prepared they will be later in life when they enter a high school setting where they will be asked those types of questions on a regular basis.
Reinforce Interests and Understand the Way Your Child Learns
If your child loves trains, get them books about trains and increase the informational difficulty over time as they seem ready for the next thing. This way they’re reading about things that interest them and will be able to sit still longer as you get them longer and longer texts to read them. They’ll learn a lot and build up a tolerance for reading things with more and more words per page. Don’t force them to read things they dislike or don’t care about, it will only discourage them from wanting to read in the long run. It will become a choir instead a fun and rewarding activity that they get to do, not have to do.
You can use their interests to your advantage in other ways. Every day or week can be a featured letter like in “Sesame Street”. If you little love Disney Princesses, you have print out pictures of your featured letter to color with a picture of a different princess on it. This can be translated to dinosaurs, trains, animals, horses, whatever it is your kiddo loves.
You can do numbers as well but have the amount of their favorite thing on the page, so three flowers instead of just a flower and the number three on the coloring page. You may find your child is more of a 3D crafter instead of a 2D colorer like my kid is. He’ll color but doesn’t like to sit still for that.
Ways to get around it is to have them paint or mold three dimensional objections that relate to whatever you want to teach them about. My son would rather count out his dinosaur toys, and physically match things together that he pick up and move than draw it out and trace. Tracing is still important for developing writing skills, so he still gets time to trace things with his finger or a crayon, but I don’t force it when he loses interest.
High School and Middle School Ages
Never stop having your kid read and at this age they probably what to research their interests whether fictional or nonfiction. Let them choose what they want to learn about in their free time. Set that time aside and sense it’s been a part of their routine from the beginning they know it’s just what they do in their home.