How to Support Emergent Readers

It’s never too early to begin reading to a baby
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Image courtesy of Lorelyn Medina/

Early language development begins with the first interactions between parents and infants. Exchanging facial expressions and nonverbal sounds are the first steps to building language and literacy skills. Parents naturally respond to their baby’s babbles, conveying that they are interested in what their baby has to say. 

Reading to your child is one of the best ways to develop his language skills. It’s never too early to begin reading to a baby — even newborns. Simple picture books can go a long way. Here are seven tips for how you can support your emerging reader.

1. Start early. Read to your infant. Look at the pictures together. Point at and mimic things you see in illustrations. Read with enthusiasm. This will teach your child that reading is more than just words — it’s an experience. Allow your baby to explore books, holding and handling them, and feeling the pages. In addition, let your child see you reading for yourself. Displaying a familiarity with and respect for books and text is a great way to encourage a lifelong passion for all that books have to offer.

2. Listen to what your child has to say. As children grow older, they become more interactive verbally. Take the time to listen carefully to what your toddler expresses and encourage her to tell you more. Inviting statements such as, “Tell me more about that,” can go a long way in opening up your child’s communication and shows that you value her ideas. Use descriptive words when talking with your young child and encourage her to do the same. 

3. Use repetition to support learning. Read books again with your toddler or preschooler. Don’t be concerned if your child always wants to hear the same story over and over. Reading favorite books that are already familiar to your child provides opportunities to notice patterns in the text or discover new ways of looking at things. If your child has memorized parts of the text, pause and allow him to fill in the blanks as you go along. For example, read “Humpty Dumpty sat on a …,” then ask, “Do you remember what happens next?”

4. Look at illustrations. When reading together, stop and ask your child to find objects or other details in the illustrations. For example, after reading a page, pause and look at the illustration and ask, “Can you find a tree?” Connect the text with the illustrations, making comments about what you’ve read and pointing out how the illustration correlates (or doesn’t) with the text. Good readers pause, ask questions and make connections.

5. Encourage your child to read books to you. Make reading time a shared, interactive experience. Take turns reading and turning the pages. Many children begin to “pretend read” from memory or make up words for stories long before they can actually read text. This is how they practice. Give your child opportunities for such practice and don’t worry about correcting missed words. Allowing this will build her confidence as an emerging reader.

6. Make meaningful connections. Ask your child to relate the events in the book to experiences he has had. You can use moments like this to allow your child to explore his own reactions to and feelings about similar experiences. Thinking empathically about the characters in the book can support your child in understanding his own feelings. For example, asking questions such as, “It seems like [the character] doesn’t like what is happening. How do you think she feels about that?” Encouraging your child to think and make predictions while reading will help make him a more active reader.

7. Plant the seeds of literacy. Finally, good readers are good storytellers, and good storytellers are good readers. Encourage your child to tell you about story-related experiences, or pictures she has drawn. Children’s first drawings — even a baby’s scribbles — are their first steps toward becoming writers and readers. Value your child’s attempts to communicate through babbles, words, scribbles and drawings, and your child will grow up feeling confident and capable as a writer and reader — one who shares and values the printed word as a versatile tool.


The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit to learn more.


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