The Secret to Raising Readers

Readers read because they want to, so the secret to encouraging our children is the same for reading as it is for play, creativity, sports, hobbies, or any other intrinsically rewarding activity. We must put away our agendas. Or, as Maria Montessori might suggest, “follow the child.” Here’s how…

1. Be an observer

Following our infants and toddlers means offering plenty of opportunities to read together and then paying close attention to their responses – observing and gauging our child’s interests and pace.

In an article I highly recommend, “Eight Tips for Reading With a Toddler”, educator Deborah Stewart shares observations about her 12 month old grandson who she says truly loves the reading experience. “I try to pay attention to which books he enjoys and which ones he doesn’t seem to be all that interested in.  I also have noticed that different types of books invite different kinds of interaction.” Stewart then shares the specific observations that have helped her follow her grandson’s interests.

2. Let go of expectations

Trust your child’s interests and readiness. Fully accept that infants and young toddlers, especially, may have little or no interest in looking at a book together. It’s far more surprising to me that some babies are willing to engage in reading time rather than practicing their developing motor skills or exploring the tactile world around them.

3. Be flexible

Allow babies to explore books as they wish (with the exception of tearing or eating them).  Let them hold the book upside down and experiment with the mechanics of opening and closing it and turning pages. Welcome them to spend a long time on just one page and decide to be done with the book at any time. Patiently allow them to use books their way, in their time.

4. Don’t make reading into a chore

Babies, toddlers and preschoolers don’t need reading lessons (even if they’re disguised as “play”), tests, drills or flash cards. These grown-up agendas around reading might seem to produce results, but they are also practically guaranteed to sap some of the joy out of reading.

Brenda shared an enchanting video and story about her toddler son:

(The book he’s enjoying is My Little Animal Book by Roger Priddy)

“This is my 18 month old son “reading” to himself. Since he was little we have had story-time. It is directed by him – how long we read, what book, what page to read etc. This way I feel it’s not about entertaining him but facilitating and helping him find the joys of stories and books for himself by exploring and experimenting with them. For that reason he also has a corner in his playroom with a bookshelf and books that he can explore by himself when he chooses, too.

He is currently fascinated by animals and animal sounds. When we read together he points to the animal he is interested in, and I’ll tell him what it is and make the sound of the animal. In the video you can see he is practicing the sounds and interacting with the book. For example, in my first language ‘spider’ is a combination word where the end also means ‘head’, so when he sees a spider he touches his head. He isn’t using a lot of words yet, but when I observe him interacting like this it’s a joy to see the comprehension and recognition of the animals and their sounds.”

5. Trust and encourage children to choose books and approach reading their way

When we lose our agendas, everyone wins.


(For a list of my children’s favorite books when they were infants, toddlers and preschoolers, please read: I Can’t Part With These Books)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. “Babies, toddlers and preschoolers don’t need reading lessons…” Is it sensible that there is suddenly a change in this approach once a child is school-age? The public school system (at least where I live) is really pushing reading in Kindergarten, and my son (now a 1st grader) had little interest in practicing reading last year. Because there was required reading homework, etc. I did what I was told, imagining myself a good cooperative parent, and effectively pushed my son to ‘have’ to read faster than his interest level. I have seen the negative consequences of that pushing (even though I tried to keep it mild, it was pushing), and his distaste for reading and reading homework now. I have backed way off and changed my approach…when he’s ready he’ll want to, he’ll learn at school, and until then I’ll just read to him, which is what he wants from me. I guess I just have this general philosophical question…why does trusting the child’s pace end on entering kindergarten, and since it doesn’t/shouldn’t, is it possible to use a public school and still respect your own child’s pace? Is homeschooling always better for this reason? Is it right to be an annoyance to my child’s teacher and not comply with certain directives? Just thinking out loud since I’m new to this phase of life.

    1. Amy, I would continue to read to him, trust him to catch on when he’s ready and not push. An experienced teacher will certainly know that the age for reading readiness varies from child to child. And even though there’s been a push-down of academic curricula to the early grades, it should still be possible to accomodate readiness in public school… Your influence with your son will dominate, so I would keep backing off and trusting… This study reported in The Harvard Letter might interest you:

  2. I love watching my son read. He examines his books so seriously, sometimes too rough, but always intently.

    I remember maybe a little more than 6 months ago… He had just started walking and getting really interested in books… He wanted me to read to him and I couldn’t because I was making dinner or something.

    I told him, “I’m sorry sweety, I can’t. You’ll have to read it yourself for now.”

    My husband looked entirely scandalized, as though I were taunting him. “Meagan, he can’t READ.”

    “He can’t read the words, but he can read the book.” Our son was already doing that by then. 🙂

  3. Amen! I think it is very sad that reading has become a to do list item, rather than something parents look forward to doing. I recently wrote a blog post about just that, also inspired by Montessori’s follow-the-child idea:

    At the bottom of the post are several other links, including some to book lists for toddlers, preschoolers and lower elementary students.

    In my house, reading really is one of our daily pleasures, something my children, my husband and I look forward too each morning and night. I hope that this joyful experience will translate into a love of reading; I think the chances of that happening are greatly improved as my children attend a Montessori program where they do truly observe and follow the child!

  4. When my son was about 8m old, I discoverd you and your wonderful blog. Since then learning a lot about RIE and put much of it to play with great success.

    I can’t beleive one of my first concerns posed to you was that my son didn’t want to crawl or walk, he was just sitting around and flipping books, and what I should do to encourage him to walk and crawl. I really was worried, because everyone’s baby was already walking or crawling and mine was just angry when he tried. I just observed him flip books and acknowledge his frustration with moving.

    At 3.5, he’s fast runner, a climber, a little gymnast. But he’s also reading! 3-4 letter words mostly, as hes working on how to bridge sounds with vowels. But its amazing, how easy and naturally it all just came to him, with me, doing nothing but observing and supporting his curiousities. For instance, a 5 minute walk down our urban street, takes about 30 minutes because he’s reading all thesigns or asking me to read them. But curious about anything and everything and I make sure to have time for that. Its amazing what he knows and understands and how quickly he’s learning.

    Not just that, he understand addition and subtraction and tackling the concept of multiplication. I notice him stacking his cars in rows and columns and counting them, I was like woah! I think I wouldn’t even know if I didn’t make sure to spend some time on the floor with him watching him play. It gave me opportunity to use the word “multiplication” in a time that he was so tuned in and focues on it.

    Thank you so much Janet for sharing such sage advice.

  5. I know several of my son’s books off by heart because he wants me to read them to him again and again and again. It’s frustrating when I’m reading the same book for the fifth/seventh/tenth time in a row, but I LOVE that he loves books so much already 🙂 He already joins in with some of the words, it’s awesome! He’s 27 months 🙂

  6. Chris Edgar says:

    This is a really good article. However, as the mother of six children all now grown, I can assure you, that doing all these things will not gurantee you that your child will be a reader when they are older. Three of my children devouring all books in sight as I also do, and the other three read for information only. Yet, at the age of 16months, my daughter would sit turning the pages of books as I read to her. I read stories aloud..told stories, and generally had a house full of books, not to mention that I was always reading any chance I had a spare moment. I love reading, but three very active children, find it too boring to sit for that long. However, they have all gained the benefits of having been exposed to a large variety of books. They all have extensive vocabularies and good comprehension skills.

  7. The video of Brenda’s son paging through the book of ‘real’ animals was most enjoyable. One of the keys of parental success, in my opinion, is to totally step back and let the child be in his/her moment. This video depicts this most so well, as you don’t hear the parent interjecting (which takes true self-discipline on the part of the over anxious parent).

    Janet, you have always amazed me in your display of unwavering patience, in reverence to the natural unfolding of the child’s individuality.


  8. Important to remember that the sounds coming out are not an accurate expression of the knowledge going in.

  9. So glad you mentioned not to turn reading into a chore. We recently went to a library storytime and the librarian asked question on every page, quizzing the children, “how many firemen do you see, what color is the house,” etc. I found it hard to focus on the book and none of the kids paid attention. I would also add to pick books you as a parent enjoy reading, make the funny sounds, repeat pages, have fun with it! We cherish nightly reading time in our house!

    1. Oh, gosh, Rachel! It’s amazing to me that so many who work with young children do not have even a minimal understanding of child development or readiness.

  10. Oh My Gosh! I love the video of Brenda’s son reading. I would gladly give up watching an hour of my favorite TV show to watch the 2 minutes 39 seconds of him “reading”:). So cute! So inspiring.
    It shows that Brenda has contributed a great deal of time in sharing this book with him for him to identify as many animal sounds as he does.

  11. Hi,

    I just came across your website looking for articles about reading as I recently started to teach my baby. We are following Doman’s method and using flashcards to learn reading single words first and she is not yet one. I have read multiple reviews of this method and people having great results with it an it was recommended to me by parents whose babies are making great progress.

    I was wondering if you had any views on actively teaching such young babies to read? We are only using flashcards for few seconds at a time and my baby seems to really enjoy herself.

    Looking forward to your reply 🙂

  12. I have only recently found your site and methods. I am so intrigued, and have begun implementing some of your techniques with my toddler.

    This article is interesting but I seem to have the opposite problem. My toddler (almost 2.5) has always loved books. From before her first birthday, she would literally ask me to read book after book, for an hour or more at a time, exhausting her then-small stack and going through thrice more. She is still going strong. We make library trips every other week and by the end of the first week, she will have memorized 2-3 of the 6-7 books we brought home. And will remember them months later if I check out one again that she had particularly liked.

    Some days, she touches nary a toy. Books all day long. It *feels* like too much of a good thing. I worry. Sometimes she seems to zone out a little, and may not even be paying attention to the story. And so I don’t always know how to handle it.

    Do I read whenever she asks because reading is “good” and “educational”? Do I read often but not at every request, and instead encourage her to seek out more active play? (Activity does not come naturally to her; she is a calm sort of child.) How do I distinguish the times when a story would be good and the times she is perhaps using it as an escape? The obvious time is when she is tired — but could she actually be needing a snack or drink or something else during these times of intense book-devouring?!

    She IS becoming more independent in her “reading,” which is fascinating. She will recite a book from memory or make up a new story for the pictures or tell a story that is a fun mixture of a handful of other books. Maybe this is her imagination developing.

    Anyway, I just thought I would ask. I seem to have a “unique” problem with this one. I have contemplated putting all the books away for a day or two, but never have. It just feels wrong to even consider that!


    1. I have precisely the same behavior from my 3 year old son as Victoria. CK is a voracious reader. I appreciate this, theoretically speaking, as I also love to read more than any other activity. On the other hand, I’m the one doing all the reading to my kiddo. If he had his choice, I’d probably be reading to him 3 hours a day. He doesn’t page through books much himself. I support his booklust with biweekly trips to the library.

      As a child, I’d mostly sit out recess with a good book, from a young age.

      I’d like to see him cultivate other kinds of play that he can enjoy alone. I’d like to see him constructing or drawing or running and using his body, but the kid mostly just wants to be read to.

  13. Kerri Hirst says:

    I have currently been trying to engage a very reluctant 8 year old reader. He has zero interest in reading but likes Anh Do. While he tries everything to avoid reading his books, he was quite fascinated when we talked about his artwork. He then went on to Google and look at Anh’s paintings, we discussed the subjects he had painted, style of artwork, colours, etc… We then discussed the fact that he came to Australia in a boat – so he googled that too and asked a million questions. So at the end of the session, he hadn’t actually ‘read’ any of the book and thought he had escaped the task of reading. It’s all about engagement and following a child’s leads (I hope!)

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