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From Baby to Big Kid

An e-newsletter that showcases how children learn and grow each month from birth to 3 years. From Baby to Big Kid translates the science of early childhood and offers strategies parents can tailor to their unique family situation and to the needs of their child.
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School Readiness

0-12 Months12-2424-36


Early Literacy:  Books and Toddlers 24 to 36 months

So much is happening as your child begins her third year! She may be participating in a preschool or child care program and building a relationship with her teacher or caregiver. She is probably making new friends. She is also likely to be showing you her drive to be independent and do lots of things for herself.  Reading together is one important way you can help your toddler make the transition from baby to big kid. 

Reading stories helps toddlers make sense of the strong feelings they are experiencing. They can read about a child who has a nightmare, who has a new baby come home, or who has an argument with a friend.  Books can help them learn about and prepare for new events such as going to a new babysitter or visiting the dentist for the first time.  Books give children a chance to “re-play” and make sense of new experiences they’ve had.   

But one thing hasn’t changed:  The best part of reading together is being together.  The loving relationship you and your child experience as you share books makes her feel special and loved. It also builds her love of books and learning.

Click on the links below to learn how you can help your toddler develop more complex early reading skills in her third year:

    • Use playtime to grow your child’s literacy skills.
      Older toddlers, just as they are beginning to put words into sentences, also begin to enter the world of “pretend.”  Pretend play—acting out a trip to the supermarket, preparing a pretend cake, or guarding a “castle”—is not only great fun, it encourages language and literacy development.  Pretending also nurtures thinking skills and a child’s imagination. 

      Through pretend play, children develop language skills as they:

      • Use new words (such as words for fruits and vegetables on a pretend shopping trip)

      • Practice complex sentence structures (as when they explain how they are making a pretend cake)

      • Respond logically to others’ comments (as when they say, No, stir it! when their friend says, Cook it now.)

      Pretend play also develops children’s literacy skills, as children learn:

      • Story-telling skills—creating a story-line and characters

      • Sequencing—putting the events of the story in order (beginning, middle, end)

      • Logical thinking—thinking through what each character would do or say in a particular situation

      • Comprehension—understanding the flow of the story, and the responses, motives and actions of the characters.

      Joining in children’s pretend play, following their lead, and encouraging them to decide how the story unfolds are good ways to help children develop important language and literacy skills.

      What You Can Do:

      • “Play” with literacy.  Give your child toys that encourage her to act out stories—dress-up clothing, props like dishes, pocketbooks, hats, child-sized brooms, take-out menus, paper grocery bags, paper and crayons.  Creating their own stories helps children better understand stories on the page.

      • Build on your child’s interests.  If your child is crazy about dinosaurs, go to the library and check out a selection of fiction and non-fiction (mostly picture) books about dinosaurs.  Find some websites about dinosaurs.  Make a huge dinosaur out of a big cardboard box, or tape several pieces of paper together and paint a T. Rex.  Make loud dinosaur music—bang pot lids to make the sound of dinosaurs walking through the forest.  Let your child explore his interests in different ways—through reading, talking, art, and music.  And then follow him when he moves on to the next big thing!

      Tell your child stories.
      Telling children stories helps them understand other people’s motives, feelings, and actions.  This awareness and understanding of another person’s emotions builds empathy, a very important factor in building strong, healthy relationships. .  It also helps children develop literacy skills, as they begin to understand why certain characters act the way they do in stories. For example,  The mommy bear hugged baby bear because he was sad and crying.

      What You Can Do:

      • When telling your child a story—whether about a real experience you or he had, or a made-up tale-- try including the details below:

        • When did it happen?  (When I was a little girl…)

        • Who was involved?  (I was playing with my little brother, your Uncle Matt)

        • Where did it happen?  (in Grandma and Grandpa’s house.)

        • What physical items are part of the story?  (blocks)

        • What was the sequence of events?  (We tried to see who could build the biggest block tower.  Uncle Matt’s tower was bigger than mine.  I was really jealous of his tower!  So I knocked it down.  He started to cry.  I felt bad that I knocked his tower down and made him cry.  I started to cry too.  I said I was sorry and we built another tower together.)

      Make reading interactive
      Talk with your about what is happening in the story. This will increase his understanding of the story, expand his language skills, and help him feel confident with books. 

      The suggestions below offer some suggestions for ways to build on your child’s interests and observations as you read.  [These were adapted from Jalongo & Whitehurst; visit our resource list for more information.]  

      What You Can Do:

      • Prompt your child—As you read together, ask questions about what is happening in the story.  You can point to a picture and say, What’s this? or simply ask toddlers to tell you about the what they see on the page.

      • Offer feedback, based on your child’s response—Give your child feedback about his answer to your questions.  When reading about a caterpillar, your toddler might point to a picture and say, It’s a snake.  Your reply could be, It does look like a snake, but it is called a caterpillar.

      • Expand your child’s response—Give toddlers the information they need to fully understand the story or picture.  In this case, you might say, It’s called a caterpillar.  Caterpillars are fuzzy and have lots of legs.  He is sitting on the leaf because caterpillars like to eat leaves.  Even correct answers can be expanded on and can help children make longer and more complex statements.

      • Repeat—Give your child time to repeat new word(s) and/or ask you questions.

      • Relate the story to your child’s life experiences—Connect what you are reading about to experiences in your child’s daily life:  Remember when we saw a caterpillar yesterday in the park?

      • Ask questions that extend your child’s understanding of the book—Help your child learn to think through what he reads:  Why do you think that caterpillar felt sick?

      • Have fun—Don’t make it a quiz with right or wrong answers!  Reading should be fun for children, so keep the experience warm, loving, and light-hearted.

      Watch how your toddler explores books
      Toddlers are very thoughtful about how they play with, read, and handle books.  We’ve listed some common “book-handling behaviors” below that show how your toddler is developing early reading skills through book play.  [These were adapted from Schickedanz; visit our resource list for more information.]

      As you read, think about the ways that you’ve seen your child explore the wonders of books. 

      1. Book-handling—physically touching or handling books.  Your toddler can now tell the difference between a book that is upside down, and one in which a picture on a particular page shows something that is supposed to be upside down (such as a monkey hanging from a tree). 

      2. Looking and recognizing—paying attention to and interacting with pictures in books.  Your toddler may point to something on the page and ask What dat? or “ask” a question in another way, like using a questioning (rising) intonation. He might connect something he sees in the book to something in his life, such as pointing to a picture of an elephant and talking about the real elephant he saw at the zoo.

      3. Picture and story comprehension—
      understanding pictures and events in a book.  Your toddler may begin to talk about the characters and events in books in ways that show she understands what is happening.  For example, she may say “No, bad cat!” as you read together about the mischievous Cat in the Hat. 

      4. Story-reading behaviors—verbally interacting with books and showing an understanding of the use of print in books.  You may see your toddler moving his finger or hand across a line of print as he pretends to “read” the text.  He may even get to the point where he has memorized most of a book and can “read” these familiar books aloud, using words very similar, if not identical to, the text. 

      What You Can Do:

      • Let your child choose her own books to read.  Following her natural interests will make her more eager to explore books and eventually read.

      • Tell your child stories—stories about you as a child, about her when she was a baby, important family stories.  Children build literacy skills not just by reading, but also by listening to stories.

      • Encourage your child to use logic to think about a story.  You might say: The mama duck is taking her babies on a walk to the public garden.  Now they have come to a busy street.  What do you think will happen next? 

      • Ask your child to tell you the story of a favorite book using the pictures on each page:  What do you see happening here?


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