sealPurdue News

July 1999

Purdue expert: It's never too early to give a child a book

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- "When will my child start to read?"

It's a common question for parents of first-graders, unless little Ashley or Justin happened to master the skill in kindergarten -- or even before.

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"It's a very individual process," says Beverly Cox, a professor of language and literacy at Purdue University. "Some children are reading before they even start school, others will learn in kindergarten, but most of them start to do what we would call 'conventional reading' in the latter half of the first grade."

Cox says the important things for parents to remember is that every child is different, and teaching her to read is not the exclusive domain of teachers.

"There's a whole lot of learning that goes on long before the child ever sees the inside of a classroom," Cox explains. "Reading is a complex skill that develops over time, and it starts with what the child sees and experiences at home."

Cox says sitting down and reading to your child is just one part of the early learning process.

"Let your youngster see you reading and writing in a variety of settings," Cox says. "This shows her that these skills are important in everyday life."

The first step in mastering almost any new skill is becoming familiar with the tools. Cox recommends that parents introduce books as early as possible.

"Picture books are now made from soft fabrics that can go right into the baby's crib along with the stuffed animals and favorite blankets," Cox says. "There are also a wealth of children's books constructed in sturdy materials that will stand up to a toddler's curiosity. These should be kept with the baby's other toys so she learns to recognize books as entertaining and fun."

When the child gets old enough to hold a crayon, provide not only coloring books but also plenty of plain paper to scribble on. Cox also suggests encouraging little ones to tell stories about their activities and having a parent or older sibling write them down as they are being told.

"Many of the skills a child needs to begin reading are developed informally through experiences at home, so it's very important that parents and caregivers provide those experiences," Cox explains.

Educators call this process "emergent literacy." It's based on the concept that literacy actually begins to emerge from birth and continues to develop over the course of a lifetime.

So how can parents know if their child is on track?

"Parents really don't need to worry unless they aren't seeing consistent progress," Cox says. "Watch your little one with story books. Does she choose them over other sources of entertainment? Does she have favorites? Does she 'pretend read' to dolls or other siblings? Encourage that."

Cox says verbal skills are another good indicator.

"My own research has shown that one of the precursors to reading is being able to talk like a book, which is very different from regular face-to-face conversation."

But for those who need a benchmark, Cox says keep an eye on the latter half of the first grade, and don't hesitate to talk to your child's teacher if you're concerned.

"By the middle of the first grade, you should see that your child is attending more to the print than the pictures in books," Cox says. "First-grade teachers regularly say they really notice a difference after Christmas."

Source: Beverly Cox, (765) 494-3936;

Writer: Sharon Bowker, (765) 494-2077;

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

Georgia Foster reads to 7-month-old Paige and 5-year-old Luke Murphy while their mother, Carol Murphy, looks on. Purdue literacy expert Beverly Cox says this type of experience is equally important to helping children of both ages develop future reading skills. (Purdue News Service Photo by Vince Walter)
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