If you want to understand children, spend some time watching them. Through careful observation, we can see what they are “up to.” And when we respond to their initiatives, we engage with them in what they care about, which communicates to them “I care about you.” That message is always a winner.
If you watch children, you will notice their first impulse is to investigate everything. When they see something going on, they want to know more about it. Tiny children also will try to taste everything, or wave things around to explore their weight and sound. As language develops their questions begin. “Wha da?” becomes “What are you doing?” and then, “Why?” They may not fully understand your responses, but when adults are focused on something, children’s interest and motivation to watch carefully are sparked.
Consider grocery shopping. At first, kids want to push the cart and put stuff in it. They don’t care what. But when they realize that what goes in the cart ends up at home, they stop paying attention to the cart and start thinking about what they want to bring home.
Learning to read can be just like that.
First, kids need to see reading as something that older folks do. Then, by reading to and with children, adults show children reading is a fun, shared activity. Once kids understand that, they want to “push that cart.” They want to turn the pages and point and talk about the pictures. Then they engage in reading-like-behavior—toddlers begin fluently telling stories to their baby sibling, pet or stuffed toys as they turn the pages, even though the words they speak and the text on the page may not match.
Once they learn that reading is personal fun, they lock onto books for their solo enjoyment. That inclination must be maintained while they learn to navigate new texts. With sufficient experience in lap reading, they’ll have an innate sense of how text frames stories and presents information. They also will internalize the concept that book language above all should sound like the language they hear at home and surely must always make (sometimes silly) sense.
Once they learn to ask questions like, “Why does that word say ‘enough?'” or to take charge with “No! Wait!!” when they lose the meaning, they are on the independent reading launching pad. With each phonics concept they develop, these already fully engaged kids are more and more ready for reading self-selected books on their own.
That in turn begins their transition from thinking about how to read to what and when to read. If caring adults can ensure that kids maintain their personal autonomy in book selection, every day they are more ready to just start reading. Books themselves will fade slowly to invisible over the next few years, as these children’s immediate and forever-after focus turns from letters and words and becomes experiencing stories or acquiring information.
Each reading experience will further diminish remaining confusions about how letters and language work and illuminate the infinity of wonders available to them in books.
Over time, if we lead them to the world of books like this and let them pick which ones to enjoy, all children will read.