Teaching babies to read

It is an established fact that children can hear before birth and long before their brains are fully developed. So much so, that they are able to recognise their father’s voice and will turn towards it at birth. Baby’s brain cells start multiplying and start making connections before birth and at this time they become a captive audience for stories, music, nursery rhymes and expressions of love before birth. These are all necessary for the beginning reading.

At birth the baby’s brain is a quarter the size of the adult brain. It is one of the only two organs in the human body that is not fully developed at birth but continues to develop after birth by building connections to the billion brain cells they are born with. Once the relationship between the adults and child is loving, caring and demonstrative and the child’s physical environment is interesting, child friendly and stimulating, the child’s brain will continue to develop after birth. Good nutrition is also an integral part of brain development and Mother’s breast milk is the best milk for the development of baby’s brain. After birth, the baby is able to put visuals to the things they heard in the womb.

Important also are the mother’s feelings of well-being during pregnancy. It has been found that when mothers are happy and contented during pregnancy, they have shorter labours and happier babies. In fact, the stress of a pregnant mother kills babies’ brain cells before they are born. Smoking during pregnancy is devastating for the unborn baby, who can be seen gasping for breath in the womb every time the mother inhales on the cigarette.

Mothers who are alcoholics and continue to drink during pregnancy, have babies who are born with Fetal Alcoholic Syndrome (FAS). These babies are smaller than normal babies with smaller brains. These babies usually have difficulty learning and have low IQs, they too lose brain cells before birth. Mothers who are cocaine addicts give birth to babies who are also addicts, causing mental and behavioural problems after birth.

After birth the baby is now able to put visuals to things he heard in the womb and by the first four months of life he can focus on things at almost any distance.

During the first two years of life the baby is a sensory motor learner which simply means that he learns through his senses: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling, and also through large and small movement of his body. As the child moves, he learns. This is the time for early stimulation. The time when the child moves, he learns. This is the time for early stimulation. The time when the child’s brain cells multiply at the fastest rate in his entire life and also the connections between the brain cells, the synapses, also multiply at a tremendous rate. This is a process that involves interaction between mother and baby and the stimulating things in his environment.

Through hearing language, the child learns to listen and then respond, gazing into his mother’s face and smiling. He then starts responding with “oos” and later by adding first consonants, like “bah” and “dah”. Interestingly enough these sounds are common to all babies despite their native language. Baby also enjoys looking and shadowing others in conversation and will smile and laugh when others do. Thus he learns the importance of communication. At this time it is also important that he has periods for listening to stories, songs and rhymes. These are two very important elements of language, speaking and listening along with reading and writing which both come later.

Rich descriptive language is very important for the child to hear if he is to build an equally rich vocabulary of his own, because we think in pictures and language. Young babies are particularly responsive to picture books with bright contrasting coloured pictures. The rule of thumb is, the younger the child, the bigger the book and the fewer the words and the larger the pictures. We can now get cloth books and bath books for babies who are still at the stage of tasting everything in sight as this is their method of exploring things in their environment, through his senses of taste and touch. This is the time for looking, touching, listening and tasting.

A flashing television screen is very attractive and holds the baby’s attention. Advertisements are highly interesting to a young child because the screen flashes quickly during an advert. This is the same strategy that Sesame Street segments use and which holds the young child’s attention and interest. It is important to sit with the child and explain some of the things he is viewing on screen and sing along with the Muppets. Remember the television is not a baby-sitter but a tool to help the child learn with your help and participation.

During the first six months, it is important that babies are exposed to words and pictures. Simple picture books about things and people at home can be made to the content relevant to the child’s own life experiences thus far.

Small drawing books are ideal for making personalised books. Using photographs of the important people in the child’s life and one word saying who that person is, (eg “Mummy” written in large, clear lower case common letters) using red letters about four inches tall. Books can also be made about topics such as “my family”, “my favourite toys” and “things in the home”.

Adults should point to the picture, and say the word while running their finger below it. Your child now has the real thing, a photograph of the person or thing and the written representation of the word. Read these books as often as possible for short periods of time about two to three minutes, or once the child shows interest.

However, if your child loses interest in the activity stop and move on to something else. Do not expect the child to say the words or spell the words.

The emphasis is on you reading the whole word and not the child learning the letters. Each word has a distinctive shape that the young child is not able to recognise as yet. Just the joy of being close to you with your undivided attention, for short periods of time, will be enough of a reward for him initially.

Another good strategy is to label things in the home. Using Bristol board from boxes or packaging make labels for doors, windows, television and other things in the home, always use lower case letters.

Once you have the child’s attention point to the word and again run your finger under it and say it clearly. When you feel your child knows the words, remove the flash cards, give them to the child and see if he can match it to the real thing.

These sessions should go on for just a few minutes. Remember you are not expecting the child to read the words as yet. This is a fun activity to be shared between you and your child and you are saying the words. Have fun and enjoy and remember repetition is very important and you are not testing the child in any way.

This method of teaching reading is commonly known as “The Look and Say Method” which helps the child build a sight vocabulary. The quicker you flash the words the easier it is for the child to remember the words.

Happy reading, and enjoy the relationship you build with your child while doing these activities.

NEXT: “Early Stimulation for the One Year Old”

(Sharon Marriott is an Early Childhood Specialist with 30 years experience teaching learning disabled and nursery age children.)

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