Lots of parents read aloud to their baby and toddler, but few take the next step: encouraging early writing. Did you know that babies can draw pictures (prewriting) and create narratives at between 2 and 3 years of age? A young child who is stimulated with targeted activities early and often can be writing and illustrating complex stories by age 4 or 5.
Why does this matter? Because studies show that when reading and writing is taught to children starting at birth, their neural pathways develop in different ways. They are more intelligent, have a 32-million-word advantage by kindergarten over children who did not get this exposure, and are less likely to develop learning problems such as dyslexia.
Over 30 years as an early childhood literacy, reading, and writing specialist, I have developed fun and simple activities parents can do with their babies and young children that help them develop writers’ brains. They can be summed up in four easy-to-remember words in the acronym READ.
Repetition. Joyful repeated readings of favorite books are a hallmark of early reading and writing success. Long after you are exhausted rereading these favorite books, your baby or toddler will thrill in reading them over and over again. Babies love repetition, which encourages him to mimic the words and babble sounds — early language responses. Over time, this mimicking behavior turns into higher-order concepts and understandings, and eventually memory "reading." Babies also mimic feelings during book sharing. If you read with feeling, it encourages your baby to have positive associations with reading.
Enthusiasm. Many experts agree that talking to your child and having frequent read-alouds, surrounded by talk about books during book sharing, are the most important brain-stimulation activities in parenting. You are activating her social, hearing, emotional, and linguistic systems all at once. The other E’s in this step are Enticement, Exploration, Engagement, and Explosion. By enticing your child with fun reading activities, exploring new books, and engaging her in the process, her vocabulary, knowledge, and love of learning will explode. From birth to age 6 is when your baby’s brain has the greatest ability to establish language proficiency.
Attention. When you read or write with your child, you are constantly making decisions about how to direct his attention. Since reading and writing are complex, at various times you must focus his attention to the many different aspects of language, reading, writing, or spelling. You are switching off between attention to sounds, meaning, rhythm or musicality of language, expression, feelings, letter naming, and letter formation, to name a few. The key is to do a variety of targeted reading and writing activities with your child that are appropriate and fun for his phase of development.
Drawing. Your child might be ready to scribble on paper long before you think she’s able. Early scribbling is the precursor to early writing. With early marking and scribbling, she is showing an internal desire to communicate, joy in expressing ideas, and the urge to make meaning. Experts agree that drawing almost always opens the gate to early literacy. There are lots of fun and easy activities you can do with your toddler or preschooler to help her be an early writer.
J. Richard Gentry PhD is the author of Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write — from Baby to Age 7 (Da Capo / Perseus, www.jrichardgentry.com), which is chock-full of reading and writing development tips and activities you can do with your baby and young child. Dr. Gentry is a nationally acclaimed expert on childhood literacy, reading, and spelling development, with more than 30 years of experience working with beginning readers. A former university professor and elementary school teacher, he is currently an educational consultant in Florida.