How to Raise a Lifelong Reader

Long before your child is old enough to begin school, she is acquiring the skills and knowledge she will need for reading. These pre-literacy skills include language development, word-sound awareness and a familiarity with spoken syntax and grammar. Numerous published studies have confirmed that well-developed early literacy skills are important predictors of reading success and overall success in school. The best way to help your child develop these skills is to read aloud to her. This is an opportunity to spend special time together, encourage a positive association with books and a lifelong love of reading.
When should I start reading to my baby?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends reading to your baby starting as early as possible. Just don’t expect a well-behaved audience who will sit still for the entire story. It’s perfectly OK to read just a page or two, start from the end, or surrender the book to your baby to explore in a tactile way. Babies particularly enjoy books with textures – crinkly pages, flaps and other interactive elements. Treat a book like a toy. Play with it and have fun, and when your baby is bored, move on to something else.
How do I pick books that will interest my preschool child?
By age 2, your child will be ready to enjoy more reading time and may have developed specific interests like tractors, animals or fairies. Find books on those interests and then let your child choose which books to read at story time. Don’t be surprised if your child asks to read the same books over and over again. The repetition is comforting – these books have become friends – and also helps children understand how the narrative works. As you read, talk with your child about the pictures and ask simple questions. Don’t be afraid to be silly. Try making up voices for the characters in the stories or holding the book upside down to see if your child notices.
By age 4-5 , your child can sit still for longer, more complex stories and will enjoy books with fewer pictures. Continue looking for books about topics that interest your child and add some non-fiction into the mix. Ask more complex questions about what comes next, what could have happened and why a character made a certain decision.
How can I encourage reading at home?
Make sure books are part of the landscape in your home. Create dedicated bookshelves or baskets in your child’s room and the family room, keep some in the seatback pockets of the car or stroller, tuck a little basket near the potty or toilet.  
What are other ways to make reading a family activity?
Trips to the library are a big hit for all ages, as is family reading time where everyone sits with a book.  Encourage older kids to “read” to younger ones. Make a special trip to the bookstore for a birthday or special treat and take an audiobook along on family car trips. Try an audiobook of short stories or ethnic fairy tales to motivate elementary school kids to the breakfast table on time. Ten minutes of quiet listening can settle them down and give them a chance to eat a good meal before the school day begins.   
Can watching videos help build literacy skills?
A 2015 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that reading to young children activates an area of the brain involved in integrating sound and visual stimulation. This area lights up when a child listens to a story and imagines the scenes and action that go along with it. This ability helps children become better readers and learn to enjoy books without pictures. Because videos provide ready-made images, they can shortcut this important process.  
Moreover, a 2015 study in the journal Psychological Science found that the language in picture books is more diverse than the language used by parents and caregivers when speaking with their child. So reading aloud not only exposes children to more words, but gives their brains an opportunity to practice creating the visual images that go along with the words. 
How long should I continue reading aloud to my elementary school child?
As long as he or she will let you! Even proficient readers still love being read aloud to, and they benefit from learning new words, hearing correct pronunciation, spending time with you, relaxing and listening.
How can I motivate my older child to continue reading?
While digital media can be a tough competitor for your older child’s attention, the love of reading you inspired is still there. The key may be access. Take out books from the library that are likely to interest your child, leave them on his bed and see what happens. An e-reader can ease access and also add a technological cool-factor to reading. Another option is audiobooks – which older kids can enjoy while doing other things.
Remember that you are a role model for your child. He or she learns from seeing what you do. Let your child see your own love of literature by making reading a priority in your life, whether that means quiet reading time at night, bringing your favorite books on family vacations or visiting the library regularly. You can even start or join a parent/child book club so you can read and discuss books with other motivated readers. Make sure you take time time away from the computer, TV and phone to read and your child will, too.
Kathrin Sidell, M.D., Ph.D., is a board-certified pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Santa Cruz Center. She is also the medical director of Reach Out And Read, a nonprofit organization of medical providers who promote early literacy and school readiness in pediatric exam rooms nationwide by integrating children’s books and advice to parents about the importance of reading aloud into well-child visits. For more information, including suggestions on what to read at each stage, visit


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