Three Ways to Raise a Super Reader Right from the Beginning

Our young children are living in their own universe of growth, discovery, and wonder. While we are worrying about so many things right now, all that is happening with Covid and the world, they are doing their own “work,” and that work is joyful and serious, all at the same time, transcendent and full of possibility. We can be right there with them in this journey, and especially the journey of literacy, which begins right from the beginning in all the most wonderful ways (even in the hardest times). From the very moment your baby arrives in the world, they are literacy learners. The world of language is rushing in at them, pouring over them, and through them the sounds, gestures, and symbols of how we share our human stories. They are genuinely language learners right from the start.

How can we as parents, teachers, caregivers, and education leaders cultivate these early awakenings so that our children arrive at school and go to school as “super readers”? My colleague and co-author Dr. Ernest Morrell and I wrote a book entitled Every Child a Super Reader, and in this book, we discuss how important it is to create safe spaces for learning and growth to inspire the child to become a reader in the earliest days. We also talk about the best practices both teachers and parents can use to ensure that our children gain access to the most equitable and powerful tools for
strengthening their muscles as readers.

Here, I will share with you three ways we can make this happen for all our children:

1. Play is the work of childhood learning: make it count. You might not consider play an important part in raising a reader, but it truly is, and we can do things to make the connections even more powerful. First, set up an environment for play for your young learners. Create nooks and centers for your child, both at home and school, where they can pretend: where imaginative play is cherished and supported. You don’t have to have a lot of space for this:  even a cozy corner will do. Make sure this area has paper and writing materials (safe for your young ones), including markers and crayons. With these materials, your child will immediately gravitate to using them as part of their play. What does this have to do with super reading, you might ask? Reading is like breathing in, and writing is like breathing out. Children who write and scribble from the very earliest stages are more active with language: they are thinking about the look and feel of written language right from the start, and so when you share the opportunity for them to actively practice their language learning, they will engage with that in a way that will impact their growing sense that written language has meaning and that they are readers and writers in the world, already.

2. Value choice and discovery. The very young child needs agency as a reader, even before reading independently. Create space in their bedrooms and at school for choice-driven reading. Create bins that are color-coded to match their interests (red for sports! Blue for animals!), and so even before they can read on their own, they can help you recategorize their books at the end of a day of browsing through them. Make sure you have print books available, either from the library or books they own if possible. Digital reading is fine, but reading by print is still extremely important:  the child having the experience of turning pages and learning the habits of a super reader is much easier to see and understand together with the books as natural objects in front of you. Celebrate their preferences for authors, even when they are very small. They can begin identifying the characteristics of favorite authors even by sensory experience (the Spot books have texture, for example, or the Tana Hoban books are often done in black and white). They will start to recognize these; use the names of authors and illustrators when you select a book for reading before bedtime. Encourage your child to browse with you, at home with your own books or at the library or online, and share the names of titles too. Even if they can’t repeat them back to you, this too is all absorption:  you are raising a super reader. As your child grows and becomes school age, it is all the more important to give them choice and opportunity for discovery as readers. Invite them to explore their passions with you through books, whether it is ballet or soccer or dogs or dinosaurs. Categorize books on and offline with them around their passions. Ask questions that are open-ended when you are reading together to build an atmosphere of mutual discovery; you are modeling what it means to be a super reader. Super readers are always asking questions. Ask your little readers: “What are you wondering about?” “What is surprising you?” “What do you want to find out next?” These open-ended questions set the stage for lifelong learning and super reading.

3. Read aloud. Reading aloud to your child from many different kinds of books and texts is one of the most powerful ways to be sure you are raising and teaching super readers. It may seem somewhat confusing to you that doing something so purely joyous for your child in which they don’t seem to be doing any of the “real work” of reading. But trust me, the read-aloud is the secret sauce for raising a super reader. By reading aloud, you are giving your child the extraordinary opportunity to learn language from the greats: children’s book authors, whose mastery of language is often exhilaratingly simple and yet ingeniously clever. You are giving your child a chance to see you modeling what being a reader is all about. Reading is one of the few things we do in our learning that is totally invisible, except when we do it aloud. The way you return to a book, or the way you savor the words, or stop and marvel over a picture or a funny part, all of this will imprint upon your child forever, And if you are a struggling reader as an adult or never much loved reading, let your child guide you. Let their natural enthusiasm and openness be a comfort to you. You don’t have to read the words exactly, you can tell a story off the pictures, and you can interpret or shorten a story. Your young child is your most accepting audience! But beyond this, you are in this together:  once they know a book well, they can start reciting it to you or telling stories through the pictures too. And as they get older, they will have favorites and ask you to read these books again and again. This is entirely natural and extremely healthy, and important for the growing brain. They are making sense of the world through read-alouds, and so even if and especially if they know a book well, they are using that story or that sound of the text or simply the way it makes them feel through pictures or mood to learn about the world around them.

Finally, stay in the present with your young super reader. Let the moments guide you. Read aloud at different times of the day: not just at bedtime, the traditional time, because that may be when you are most tired. Read aloud on a weekend morning, or in transit on public transportation (other passengers may enjoy it too!) or in a quiet moment midday. Let your child see how you love the read-aloud, that you are a super reader too because you recognize that reading brings us closer together: it is our humanity.

This article was written by Pam Allyn, Guest Blogger. Pam Allyn is a renowned educator, author, and innovator. She is the author of many books for parents and teachers, including Every Child a Super Reader, co-authored by Dr. Ernest Morrell. She is the founder of LitWorld, a global literacy organization, and the creator of LitCamp, a summer literacy program founded on principles of social-emotional learning. Pam is also the creator of World Read Aloud Day, a day to mark the power of reading aloud that happens on the second February of every year and is celebrated around the world. She is most recently the founder of Dewey, a new community for parents and caregivers helping children learn for a lifetime.