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Helping Young Listeners Become Successful Readers: Babies & Toddlers
By Shelley Butler

"Tis a marvel of great renown!

 It blooms on the shore of the Lollipop Sea"

In the garden of Shut-Eye Town

Though various adults read to me before memory serves, these magical words of Eugene Field’s classic poem “The Sugar-Plum Tree” are among my earliest recollections of listening. Hearing or reading the words still evokes warm feelings reminiscent of sitting cozily on an adult’s lap, comfortable and content, waiting to be carried off to my favorite land where children collected as many marshmallows, gumdrops, and peppermint canes as their aprons could hold.

The adults in my life may not have known it then, but these positive early reading experiences set me on the path to reading success. In fact, according to The Partnership for Reading, a project administered by The National Institute for Literacy, “Reading aloud to children has been called the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for success in reading.”

Developmentally Ready

Literacy development begins in the first three years of life, and even babies as young as six weeks old are developmentally ready to begin early literacy activities such as being read to by a caring adult. Knowing when and how babies and toddlers develop literacy skills can help in fostering their development in appropriate ways. Consider that:


·        A baby may wave hands, bat at pages, or show excitement in other ways over pictures in a book – a sign that literacy development is under way.


·        Towards the end of the second year, toddlers will learn 10 or more words per day, however, they understand more than they can articulate. Toddlers pick up on the tone, expression, and body language of the person reading to them, in addition to the words.


·        By age three most children understand that pictures represent real items in the world, pick out one book from another by its cover, become aware that words are different from pictures, and may pretend to read.


·        By the end of the first three years of life, a child’s brain will grow to 90 percent of adult size. Reading, talking, singing, and playing helps the brain grow during this critical phase in development.


The ABC’s of Early Literacy: Three Simple Things You Can Do

Appropriate language and literacy activities help prepare young children to read and write without pushing children to learn these skills before they are ready. We now know that there are three simple things you can do for babies and toddlers to foster literacy development.


A. Read Aloud

Providing positive, enjoyable reading experiences give young children opportunities to gain the knowledge, awareness, skills, and love of learning that they need to later learn to read independently. Here’s how you can best provide those experiences:


·        Make books available to babies and toddlers every day. Babies don’t distinguish books from other toys and may pull, toss, or chew books. This tactile, physical exploration of books and how they work is important to literacy development.


·        Choose books that have large colorful pictures or photos; a few words on a page; rich language; and relate to concepts, people, or things in children’s lives. With this exposure, young children learn that books and reading explain the world they live in and ultimately help them better understand themselves. Sound like a tall order for a toddler? Consider how important books like Once Upon a Potty by Alona Frankel are in helping a child both understand the nature of learning a new skill and the knowledge that other children are struggling with the same challenge.


·        Read to children regularly and often. Pick a regular reading time, but also watch for opportunities to read books, signs, letters, or other print spontaneously. The experience of reading as a typical, everyday occurrence helps children gain confidence that they learn to read themselves.


·        Use a variety of expressions, tones, and voices to make a book even more fun.


·        Allow a child to listen at her own pace. If a baby fusses or a toddler wanders away, don’t worry. Set the book aside and try again later. A baby may only listen for a minute or two at a time. Toddlers may want to wander around while you read, or listen to a few pages, move on to something else, and then return for a few more pages.


·        Encourage a toddler to join in on repeating phrases or rhymes, and honor requests to read the same book over and over.


·        Show how books work. Point out the cover, show which is the top and bottom, front and back of the book, and talk about how words are read from left to right on the page. Use your finger to point to a word and the corresponding picture on the page.


B. Talk

According to the National Research Council in Starting Out Right: A Guide to Promoting Reading Success, “Talk is essential – the more meaningful and substantive the better.” Babies and toddlers learn about the sounds, meanings, and ideas in language when adults talk with them. Here’s what you can do to help young ones develop these needed skills:


·        Find time to talk to a baby one-on-one. Catch a baby’s eye and look directly at him when you talk. Babies love the sound of your voice and begin communicating early on. Just like you have planned reading time, plan regular times to talk.


·        Talk, sing, and play games. Pull out old favorites like “This Old Man” or “Where is Thumbkin?” and make up your own songs and games, too.


·        Point out the names of objects and feelings during the course of the day.


·        Begin to show toddlers how to rhyme: “Dig sounds like big.”


·        Start to point out the names and sounds of letters to toddlers: “Book starts with the letter B.” Then reading, stop and talk about the pictures and words on the page.


C. Listen

As much as babies and toddlers need to hear language, they need to practice and imitate sounds and words with interested listeners. Become an important listener with these suggestions:


·        Respond to babies’ cries and vocalizations, and demonstrate that you hear baby and take her communication seriously.


·        Acknowledge baby’s talk. Repeat talk back or supply words for what baby means to say. For example, if a young child points to a ball and says “ba-ba,” you could say, “Yes, that’s the ball. Let’s play ball.”


·        Ask questions to show you are listening and that encourage a child to talk. Listen carefully and acknowledge answers.


·        Listen to children’s questions and take time to answer.


·        Read, stopping once in awhile to ask questions about the story or picture on the page. For example, when reading the new board book by Leslie Patricelli, Big, Little (Candlewick, 2003), you could point to the baby on the cover and ask a toddler, “Is the baby big or little?” or “I’ve never seen a purple elephant before, have you?”



Simply reading, talking, and listening to a young child in a warm and positive environment at every opportunity are among the most important things you can do for that and every child. The few minutes you spend providing the ABC’s of literacy to a baby or toddler every day has the potential to make an important, positive impact on that child for the rest of his or her life.


Though you are charged with the important and sometimes sobering job of helping a child reach his or her greatest potential, remember to have fun! Play, laugh, be silly, make up stories or jokes, sing (off-key if nothing else), read with funny voices once in awhile, and find joy in being with the young children in your life. If you do, the sugarplums on the banks of the lollipop sea have the potential to grow into amazing riches that can last a lifetime.

Shelley Butler is co-author with Deb Kratz of The Field Guide to Parenting. To contact the author or learn more about her work, please visit: www.fieldguidetoparenting.com.

Bears, Hands, and Other Fun Things to Read, Listen, and Talk About

The rich variety of books for babies and toddlers helps assure that no child need be left behind when it comes to early reading. Wonderful new books for babies and toddlers hit the shelves every month.


Take a look at Little Polar Bear by Francesca Ferri (Barron’s, 2003). This padded, cloth book is designed to offer both a sweet, simple reading experience for ages birth to three, and a safe, tactile exploration of a book for babies. The story follows a typical evening of a lovable bear at home having dinner, taking a bath, and doing other things that young ones will relate to.


If a child hasn’t reached for Little Polar Bear already, invite him or her to feel the extremely soft, furry cover. Help youngest children name the textures and ask older toddlers, “What does this feel like?” Talk about what’s happening in the story and ask questions. For example, Little Polar Bear’s favorite toy is a bunny. You could ask older toddlers to name the other toys on Little Polar Bear’s shelf. For younger ones, point and name the toys for them, and then ask them to point to each one as you name the toys again. In this way, you provide experiences that include reading, talking, and listening—all the ABC’s of early literacy.

Hands Can by Cheryl Willis Hudson with photographs by John-Francis Bourke (Candlewick, 2003) is a delightful look at the wide variety of things babies and toddlers can do with their hands. Simple rhymes and great photographs make this an engaging book to read to children from birth on.

Once in awhile, stop reading and talk about the concepts. For example, show what high and low means, and help children use their hands to reach up and bend down to touch things. Invite children to try some of the activities in the book, like clapping, waving and playing peek-a-boo. Ask babies, “Where are your hands?” Then, point them out. Encourage toddlers to find their own hands and your hands. Ask, “What can you do with your hands?”

What Children Like in Books*

Infants 0-6 months

·        Books with simple, large pictures or designs with bright colors.

·        Stiff cardboard, “chunky” books, or fold out books that can be propped up in the crib. Cloth and soft vinyl books with simple pictures of people or familiar objects that can go in the bath or get washed.


Infants 6-12 months

·        Board books with photos of other babies.

·        Brightly colored “chunky” board books to touch and taste!

·        Books with photos of familiar objects like balls and bottles.

·        Books with sturdy pages that can be propped up or spread out in the crib or on a blanket.

·        Plastic/vinyl books for bath time.

·        Washable cloth books to cuddle and mouth.

·        Small plastic photo albums of family and friends.


Young Toddlers 12-24 months

·        Sturdy board books that they can carry.

·        Books with photos of children doing familiar things like sleeping or playing.

·        Goodnight books for bed time.

·        Books about saying good-bye and hello.

·        Books with only a few words on each page.

·        Books with simple rhymes or predictable text.

·        Animal books of all sizes and shapes.


Toddlers 2-3 years

·        Books that tell simple stories.

·        Simple rhyming books that they can memorize.

·        Bed time books.

·        Books about counting, the alphabet, shapes or sizes.

·        Animal books, vehicle books, books about playtime.

·        Books with their favorite TV characters inside.

·        Books about saying hello and goodbye.

*Copyright 2003. Reproduced from www.zerotothree.org with permission of Boston University School of Medicine, Erikson Institute, and ZERO TO THREE. No further reproduction is permitted without express permission of the copyright holder.