“When you read, you begin with ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’” The Sound of Music declares, but as trustworthy a source as that musical sounds, when it comes to the way your toddler starts to develop her written and printed language skills, it isn’t quite true. Long before “‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’” or at least before her ABCs are anything except for a fun song, your baby has been building what are called her pre-reading skills, and in the time between her second and third birthdays, those pre-reading skills grow bigger and stronger than they ever have before.
Your toddler may already have some pre-reading skills, like the ability to connect a picture of something in a book with the idea of what it’s a picture of in real life - she might see a picture of a cat in a book and point to Fluffy as she runs across the room and under the couch, for example. She may point to pictures in books when you ask her where a certain object or character is on the page, and she may even be starting to make the connection between the words you’re saying to her out loud, and the shapes of the letters on the page you’re reading off of. If she isn’t doing these things, there’s a good chance that she’ll start to soon. And as the year goes on, you’ll probably also start to notice her:
One of the most basic ways to encourage toddlers’ early reading skills is just to make sure their language skills are as strong as possible. Spoken language is the base most children build their understanding of written language off of, and the stronger they are as communicators in general, the more easily they’ll be able to transition to written communication.
As always, the best way to build your toddler’s language skills is just to talk to her, as often and as engagingly as you can. Talking about her interests is a great way to get your little one involved in the conversation, but talking about your interests, or about the world around you and her, is a great way to introduce new vocabulary and concepts. Having a wide variety of conversations with your baby is the best way to engage with her, and to make sure her language abilities keep growing as fast as she is.
While it’s possible for toddlers to start learning to read at very young ages, or at least to start memorizing in ways that can start to lead to reading, there is no proof that starting to read earlier than their peers is helpful for young children in the long run. Toddlers who read early may be ahead of their classmates in terms of academics for a few years - or they may not, or they may just be a little extra bored in class for a few years - but there is no evidence that this advantage, if it is an advantage, lasts longer than a few years.
In the end, it comes down to supporting your toddler’s interests. If she is interested not just in being read to, but in figuring out how to read for herself at an early age, she may look to you to help her, and that’s wonderful. If, on the other hand, she is still more interested in being the listener at storytime, there’s nothing wrong with letting her sit back and be read to for a few more years, before it’s time for her to start reading for herself. And even when it looks like she is just listening to a story, she is building stronger and stronger pre-reading skills every day.