How to Teach Toddler to Read: The Ultimate Guide

Great readers start at an early age, and toddler-hood is a great time to start emphasizing the importance of reading and how much fun books can be.

As far back as I can remember, I have LOVED to read. It has always been one of my favorite past times, and I have a large home library to prove it. As a result, cultivating a love for books and reading in my kids is something I consider very important.

Learn how to teach toddler to read using these six easy and effective steps to give your child a love of reading!

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How to Teach Toddler to Read: Why Start Now?

As you watch your toddler run circles around your home and observe his or her short attention span, you may be wondering if it is worth it to start teaching your toddler to read. The answer is yes, and these easy steps will guide you how to teach toddler to read.

Learning to read is a process that will take several years. To clarify, at these very early toddler stages the goal isn’t to have your toddler reading chapter books. Most children won’t be reading on their own until around ages 5-6.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t help your toddler begin to establish a foundation for reading on their own. It also doesn’t mean you are in for a grueling or arduous task. Teaching your toddler to read can be done in simple steps and can be easily incorporated into your day.

Step One: Teach By Example

How to teach toddler to read? You must first be a good reader yourself.

Kids learn by example. Do you enjoy reading? Why or why not? While I am someone who can read an entire series in a weekend (if I didn’t have those darn kids always distracting me!), LOVING to read isn’t a requirement to giving your child a good example.

Even if you don’t enjoy reading, your child will place the same importance on reading that they see from those around them.

You don’t have to regularly sit down with a large book to emphasis the importance of reading. Reading recipes, the newspaper, articles on your phone, etc. – these are ways that you likely already incorporate reading into your day.

Make sure your toddler sees you reading! A child who sees reading modeled in the home is likely to place more importance on reading themselves.

Step Two: Read to Your Toddler

This is a more obvious step, but it really can’t be stressed enough. One of the easiest ways how to teach toddler to read is to read to your toddler. Reading to your child from an early age is a huge element of developing good reading habits and a love for reading. It’s never too early to start!

The key is to read books that engage your child at his or her level: picture books when he or she is very young, moving up to smaller stories (even rhymes and songs count), and slowly graduating to longer and more complex stories as his or her attention span and abilities grow.

Parent Tip: If you are expecting, consider having everyone “bring a book instead of a card.” Your guests can write a small message to baby on the inside cover, and you can get a great start to your child’s library!

Make reading an integral part of your daily routine. We try to read a book in the morning when we first get our son up, and we always read at least one book at night before bed.

It doesn’t have to take a lot of time, but incorporating reading into your child’s daily routine is sure to create great reading habits for the future.

Tips for making the most of your reading time with your toddler:

  • Follow the words on the page with your finger as you read. This will help your little one see the correlation between your reading and the words on the page.
  • Don’t forget to have fun! Help your child develop his or her imagination while reading. This is a great way to instill a true love for reading, even at an early age. Sing the songs, do the voices, and get excited! The excitement will be contagious and you’ll both have more fun this way.
  • Invite your toddler to “read” with you. If there are repeated phrases in the book, you’ll be amazed how much they retain. For example: My son LOVES the Pout Pout Fish – it has adorable rhymes, and he loves to repeat the “blub blub blub” phrase at the end of each rhyme.
  • You can also incorporate reading in random ways throughout your day: reading signs while driving, recipes while cooking together, and reading labels in the grocery store.

It doesn’t have to be complicated.

Reading in this way will open your child’s eyes to a wide world of words while keeping them engaged. It is a great opportunity to teach that words are everywhere and that reading is an important part of interacting with the world around them.

Step Three: Ask Questions/Talk About Pictures

Take advantage of eye-catching images in books, and ask questions about them.

Pictures in books are a great opportunity to teach your toddler the importance and fun of reading. Ask questions about the pictures on each page:

“What animal is this?” “That’s right! A cow! MOOOOOO!”

This makes story time more interactive and fun and is a great way to make the best use of your story time. It also teaching comprehension which is extremely important when reading. Even the best reader won’t learn or find success in his or her reading without comprehension!

Experts also encourage parents to ask questions before and after reading (as well as during) as their child ages. This encourages the child to use his or her reasoning abilities to anticipate what the book may be about (“What do you think this story is about?”) and tests his or her comprehension and ability to recall details (“What did the pout pout fish do when he got a kiss?”).

Taking advantage of pictures and asking questions is a great way to maximize your story time and lay a great foundation when teaching your toddler to read!

Step Four: Teach Letters and Phonetics

An important part of how to teach toddler to read is to teach him or her how to recognize the look and sound of individual letters.

Teaching letter recognition is something many parents are already doing with their toddlers. If you do it with the goal of teaching your toddler to read, you can make the best use of that learning time.

When you teach the alphabet with reading in mind, you will not be solely focused on your child visually being able to recognize the letter, rather, you will be focused on how your child understands the letters. When teaching letters, you not only want your child to be able to recognize the letter but also identify the sound that letter makes.

Granted, this teaching method takes more time, but it is an important step of how to teach toddler to read!

Letter recognition and phonetics go hand in hand:

  • You can use craft time to learn the shapes of letters while also discussing and practicing the sounds they make. It keeps your little one entertained and learning without the frustration of flashcards and “drilling” alphabet learning.
  • You can also use daily situations to point out letters and increase your child’s retention. Ask: “What letter is this?” (point to a sign, box, menu, etc.) “Do you know the sound it makes? It sounds like ____.”

Take advantage of small opportunities throughout your day to make teaching letters more effective and less arduous for both you and your toddler!

Step Five: Sound It Out

Once your child understands the sounds letters make, he or she is ready to start “sounding out” words as he or she attempts to read. This is a skill that comes with time as a child develops his or her language skills.

For instance, learning the sounds “T” and “H” make individually, doesn’t mean your child knows the sound “TH” makes. The understanding of these phonetic rules comes with time and practice.

Sounding out words is a great way to help your little one gain confidence once he or she has the letter sounds down!

Step Six: Sight Words

While many words can be decoded using phonetic rules, there are a large handful of words that cannot. These commonly used words are often referred to as sight words and are better learned by memorizing the word and its sound.

For many of us who have 1) never taught someone to read before and 2) have been reading long enough we can’t remember which one are “sight words,” there are a plethora of lists and charts available (like these printable sight word charts) that can help us to recall and teach sight words.

How to Teach Toddler to Read: Bottom Line… It’s a Process

It won’t happen over night, and you aren’t going to walk in on your 3-year-old reading Webster’s Dictionary. However, there are many practical and easy steps you can take as a parent to instill a love of reading, develop good reading habits, and lay a learning foundation that prepares your toddler for the future.

These six steps aren’t a magic formula for a great reader, but they will help get the learning started and are easy to incorporate into even the busiest of schedules!

Which of these steps are you already implementing? Leave a comment below!

About Eric and Tiffany Matthews

We're Eric and Tiffany, the parents behind Cynical Parent. We're just normal parents who are navigating parenthood with both eyes wide open (probably because there's a kid yelling nearby). And of course, we're pretty cynical. Don't believe everything you read or hear, whether it's on the internet, or from a close family or friend (or even from us!). Every child is different, and what works for one may not work for another. Sometimes you just need to try and see for yourself. :)

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