Toddlers and Reading: Describe but Don’t Drill

October 7th, 2014

by Katrina Brooke

Sam recently bought alphabet flash cards because he wants his 18-month-old daughter Abby to learn to read. But are flash cards and other learning toys that emphasize memorization a good way to prepare a toddler for reading?  

Memorization is NOT the key to reading

Parents see many advertisements promising that their child can become the next Einstein with the right combination of learning toys and DVDs. It’s easy for parents to get caught up in the hype that new, better products make smarter children. And because so many of these products emphasize memorization, it can sometimes cause families to think that a focus on memorization is what’s important.

Complex language is what’s important

In fact, using flash cards is not an effective way to help toddlers build language and literacy skills. Flash cards emphasize memorization rather than the communication and language skills that really foster early literacy. Memorizing is often mistaken for learning. But rote memorization is a lower level skill compared to skills developed through using complex language during meaningful conversations with young children about ideas and feelings. Rote memorization may make sense for older children—for example, when learning math facts—but young children’s brains simply are not ready for it.

Don’t underestimate talking and listening

Talking, listening to and telling stories, and hearing new vocabulary words are really the keys to early literacy. Abby needs to build these important skills before she is ready to recognize letters and words. And she works on them every day by telling stories, hearing her parents and teachers introduce new words and complex language, and listening to them read aloud from books and other materials. These daily interactions help her make the connection between words on a page and spoken language.

Meaningful interactions that use complex language can be very simple. Abby’s parents and teachers encourage early literacy when they pay attention to what she does and make comments that connect to her experience. For example, Sam can talk about what Abby eats at dinner:

Sam says, “Abby, I see you ate all your chicken. Chicken is good for you.” 

He then extends his arms, flexes his biceps, and says, “It will help you grow big and STRONG!”  

Throughout the day, he can describe a variety of emotions, like surprise, excitement, or sadness, as appropriate, and he can give Abby the context she needs to make sense of the new words she hears. For example, he can repeat the words Abby uses or use words in place of her gestures:

Abby points to the cracker box and says “cra.”

Sam asks, “Would you like some crackers? [handing her the crackers] Are these the crunchy crackers that Abby wants?”

By using a rich vocabulary to describe their everyday lives, Sam can say the words Abby will soon be ready to use herself.

Literacy learning: What infants and toddlers know and can do

When we understand that children learn at different ages and stages, we can set realistic goals for our youngest children. Such goals lead children to develop early literacy skills that will last a lifetime.

  • Children between the ages of 18 and 24 months begin to recognize and react to the sounds of language. That’s why toddlers start paying attention to rhymes in songs and identify sounds different animals make. Recognizing that a cow says “moo” and a dog says “ruff, ruff” is learning in context.   
  • Children 18 to 24 months old begin to develop “imitative reading.” For example, when Sam reads a favorite book to Abby, she often finishes the phrases. Sam says, “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you . . . “, then stops so Abby can finish the phrase, “see.” This behavior shows that Abby’s language capacities are developing as expected for a child her age. Such seemingly simple activities build connections in Abby’s brain and help her develop the skills she will need to communicate and learn to read.

For more on infant and toddler development see: Healthy Beginnings: Supporting Development and Learning from Birth through Three Years of Age.

Try this!

  • To help your child develop a rich vocabulary try using new and interesting words to talk about something familiar (for example, automobile instead of car, lovely instead of nice, humongous instead of big, dice instead of chop).
  • Read your child’s favorite books and let her fill in familiar sounds (like animal noises) or phrases (like familiar rhymes).


Source: Adapted from the Rocking and Rolling column by N. Darling-Kuria, 2012, “What Do We Mean by Reading Readiness?” Young Children 67 (1): 54–55.
© National Association for the Education of Young Children — Promoting excellence in early childhood education

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