5 Reasons Why I’m Teaching My Toddler to Read

I can already hear the responses in my head, even as I type the title of this blog post. But I am typing it anyway. I want to talk openly about this topic because it’s important to me, and because it’s at the heart of what The Curiosity Project is all about: that babies can do awesome stuff. That babies want to do awesome stuff. That all important learning starts when they’re tiny. That curiosity and a love of learning in our kids and in ourselves isn’t something we leave to chance; it’s something we cultivate. And that parents and kids together can live a vibrant life of learning and curiosity and creativity, a not-boring life that looks different from what our culture tells us life with kids is like.

Early reading is a matter of extreme controversy right now, and it brings to the surface all sorts of complex issues and (mainly Internet-driven) hype and polarization: over-parenting, pushing your kids too hard, the dangers of “tiger” or “helicopter” parenting. Not only that, but the subject can quickly dredge up feelings of competition and inadequacy and all kinds of other lovely stuff. 

I still want to talk about it.

In my mind, it’s not that complicated. The idea of helping Sam learn to read when he’s tiny is 100% joyful and fun and exciting. Compulsion, competition, overachieving, and academic pressure do not even factor in here, only the pure joy of introducing Sam to words and the world of language, just as I offer him endless amounts of other free information without even blinking: the names of fruits in the produce aisle, the faces of family members, trucks we pass on the road. 

First of all, in our day-to-day life, here’s what “teaching Sam to read” looks like at 18 months: 1) intentionally showing him a few words on repeat throughout the day, mainly his favorite things, stuff in our house or neighborhood, fun adjectives or verbs (written with sharpie in large letters on heavy paper, or on index cards); 2) reading him tons of books, including homemade books with one or two large, clear words on each page; 3) labeling stuff in our house–the refrigerator or bathroom or wall clock, for instance–with large clear words on card stock; 4) pointing out words everywhere–signs, packaging, labels–and always always responding when he inquisitively points to a word or a letter. It’s basically a big game that is part of what we naturally do when we’re hanging out together. I am a spontaneous person, and I hate doing the same thing twice, so every day looks different; please don’t envision some sort of highly structured, disciplined, rigid program, because nothing could be further from the truth! I just work this stuff in as I can throughout the day, in 15 second chunks, like when Sam is in his highchair slowly chugging through lunch, so it hardly takes up any extra time. (The most time-intensive part is making the books, which I try to spend several hours on every few weeks.) My current methods are largely derived from this book (not a scam, like other similar books; I know the authors personally and have studied under them), and they are based on learning complete words by sight and inferring the rules, rather than by phonics (a whole different can of worms, of course, and one I’d be happy to open on another day).

So, below are five of the reasons why I am teaching Sam to read and to love to read, and why I’ve been doing so since he was a few months old. 

1. Because it is possible.
The background to this story is that I learned to read when I was two. My mom taught me. This is how I know it is possible, but also because I see Sam in action. Right now he is learning about everything, getting to know the world from scratch. He can differentiate between every type of construction vehicle and has figured out how to open all the child locks; why shouldn’t words be fair game? Everyone knows that you should talk to babies so they can learn to understand language, and even doctors will tell you you should read to them (here in California, at every single checkup they ask if I read with my infant 15 minutes per day). So why not introduce them to written words? Why do we have a societal taboo on this one particular thing? (Maybe because most grownups consider reading–and learning–to be a chore.) Whatever I show Sam, with enthusiasm and the smallest bit of intentionality, he learns. His brain is moving so fast. I don’t ever test him, but I’ll occasionally off-handedly ask him to find a word, or I’ll hear him babbling in his room while looking at books, and I can see that he definitively can identify more than half of the 100+ words I’ve introduced to him (which might sound like a small percentage, but, hey! That’s more than 50 words!). And he is absolutely gleeful about it (sometimes too enthusiastic: when he was about 10 months old, and hungry, he secretly got into the stack of 30 or so word cards, rooted around until he found his favorite food, “cheerios,” and ate half the card. I discovered him mid-bite, grinning). If there’s one thing I know to be true about babies, it is that they want to learn, and they can learn anything we teach them joyfully, consistently, and in a logical way. This truth respects them as people and empowers us as parents.

2. Because he wants to learn.
I can’t tell you which came first: my propensity to have books around and point out words to Sam, or his interest in words. (I’m beginning to think it’s both: kids are influenced by their environments, and they’re born with a deep innate curiosity in everything around them.) I’m not a child psychologist. I’m just Sam’s mom. But what I see is that this 18 month old is brilliant with words. Obsessed with books. Fascinated by letters and numbers. All I did was put them in front of him in organized ways, and say, “Hey, this is cool!” And then he started running with it. And I try to keep up, and pay attention when he’s pointing at stuff and tell him what it is, and give him more books or show him more words, and if he digs into them, great (he always does). The more he asks, the more I show him. The more I show him, the more interested he gets. The more interested he gets, the more I show him. Now, he will spend hours–hours–sitting on the floor surrounded with piles of books (see #5). His recent obsession is with letters of the alphabet, which I did not initiate–I was just busy showing him large, complete words. But about a month ago he started pointing to individual letters in words and asking me what they are. Certain letters–about 7 of the 26–have suddenly turned into his dear old friends. The letter O, for instance, makes him chuckle every time he spots one, for no apparent reason. The letter S, of course, makes him smile because I say “S is for Sam.” He’s also latched onto A, M (“mama!”), T, W, and F. He looks for them everywhere and squeals when he sees them. Yes, I try to keep my eyes open to spot his interest, and give him information with joy and a lot of silliness, but I did not teach him this, of letters and words being funny companions and inside jokes. This, he taught himself. 

3. Because early reading is a key to easy learning
I learned how to read before I was three, which means that I can’t remember not knowing how to read. To me, as a tiny kid, reading was like talking, or breathing. It was second-nature. This is part of why I don’t believe that I’m making Sam work hard, unduly taxing his brain, or “not letting him be a kid”: because to me reading is easy, essential, and fun, but I don’t think that most people have this experience. I think most people struggle with reading, and I am 100% convinced it doesn’t have to be that way. Barring real disability, which is certainly an issue for many, I don’t believe that a love for reading is something you either “get” or you don’t. I believe it is something we can cultivate from early childhood, provided it is done purely out of love for learning, with enthusiasm, joy, and a little intentionality. (If competitiveness is a motivating factor, however, all bets are off.)

I started showing Sam words when he was just a few months old–just a few big, huge words that I wrote on card stock. And once or twice a day, I’d show him a favorite object, let him touch and smell and even taste the object, tell him the name of it, show him a big picture of it, and then show him the word. I wanted Sam to understand, right from the beginning, that things have names and those names can be spoken or written: that a banana has a look, feel, smell, name, picture, and corresponding written word. This linked-up conceptualization is a fundamental step to reading (and to understanding the world): that a written word represents an object or an idea. This is just a precursor to reading, of course, but the point is that the earlier you help powerful little brains understand this sort of stuff, the faster they will grasp hold of the world around them and be at home in it. Brains learn and grow fastest before the age of 6: the younger, the faster, the easier. To Sam, at 18 months old, there’s absolutely nothing difficult about learning words; it’s just one huge game. So why not teach him during the time when his brain is learning fastest and when there’s no pressure? Then, later, when reading is second-nature to him, he’ll be free to read and learn to his heart’s content, without having to think twice about the mechanism. But what I want to show him, above all else, is that learning isn’t a chore, or just something you do in school when you turn six. It’s everyday life, it’s totally awesome, and it makes our days endlessly interesting. 

4. Because reading fuels curiosity (and vice-versa).
If you can read well, you can learn about anything you want. It doesn’t matter how much money you have or what kind of house you live in. You can follow your curiosity down any number of rabbit holes, discover endless worlds of information and imagination, travel anywhere you want to go. When you love to read, you can take adventures even when you’re sick in bed, or you only have ten minutes. When you love to read, the entire world is yours for the taking. The more time Sam spends with his books, the more I see him making connections between things: between like objects in the same book, between a picture of a thing in a book and the real thing in the world (he’ll recognize a truck on the road he’s only ever seen in a book), between things that have very subtle connections. The more connections he makes (do you see the pattern emerging here?), the more I see him engage the world, become more curious, and want to read and learn more. This upward spiral of joyful curiosity is why I am teaching him to read: put in a tiny bit of effort, and it multiplies beyond belief. 

5. Because books are free babysitters.
I’m only kidding–a little. The more Sam learns about words and books, the more he loves them. The more he loves them, the more time he spends with them. The more time he spends with them, the more he is able to entertain himself (the upward spiral again!). My mom notes that once I could read on my own, I could be entertained anywhere. I say all this jokingly, but in fact it is a significant part of how I am able to take adventures with Sam and also get things done at home, like writing this blog. 

He’s currently in the living room in an enormous pile of library books. I don’t hear a peep. 

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