What Babies and Toddlers Need to Become Good Readers

5 minute read
Smart serves as affiliated faculty in educational policy and leadership in the College of Education at Marquette University and is the author of Reading for Our Lives: A Literacy Action Plan from Birth to Six.

A growing number of states, cities, and districts are now requiring schools to teach phonics. In other words, to teach kids how to read. That’s welcome news for a country that’s suffered from dismal reading outcomes for decades and now also contends with persistent COVID-19-wrought learning losses.

For too long, showing young children the basic connections between the sounds in speech and the letters that represent them in print was not granted the primacy it deserved. A hodgepodge of word-guessing strategies and picture-book appreciation passed for reading instruction, hurting the literacy and life prospects of millions of kids. Without sufficiently direct and sustained instruction in how our written language works, most U.S. fourth graders had attained only basic or below basic reading skills, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress. Many of them are poised to one day join the ranks of the 36 million U.S. adults with low literacy skills.

Mass reading-curriculum reform and teacher retraining to implement it are critical to turn this disaster around, but more is required. The reality is ineffective instruction in schools isn’t our only literacy issue. The United States is also suffering from willful underinvestment in families during the first years of life, right when parenting can make (or break) kids’ reading prospects. The U.S. spends just .03% of its GDP on early childhood education and care, on par with Romania and Cyprus. That’s compared to the more than 1.5% spent by Iceland and Sweden.

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That’s tragic because the major brain circuits and networks have developed by age 2, according to evidence from anatomical, physiological, and gene-expression studies. From there on out, brain development is mostly about refining what’s already in place. With respect to preliteracy skills, in particular, we have striking evidence that educational trajectories are set early. Research shows, for example, that children who engage in more dynamic conversation with caregivers when they’re 18 to 24 months old tend to do much better as middle schoolers than adolescents who weren’t party to such exchanges. Specifically, they tend to have much higher IQs, better verbal skills, and larger vocabularies.

It’s crucial for schools to teach what students need to learn (in this case, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and a host of other reading skills). However, it’s just as imperative that parents and caregivers are well-equipped and supported to lay the groundwork kids need in order to learn those lessons well. This means providing babies and toddlers with specific kinds of attention that develop their brains and instill skills that are crucial for growing into fluent readers, from oral language and familiarity with print to letter knowledge and speech-sound awareness. It’s a both/and scenario. Strong foundations and quality instruction are required to fuel literacy for all.

Long before children can discern letters from other marks on paper or consciously distinguish among the sounds of English, they need a high level of love, care, and communication. Without it, they’re liable to struggle to learn to read (and, indeed, a majority of kids do). Yet millions of families across the socioeconomic spectrum are too stressed, stretched, and unsupported to provide the optimal language nutrition to bolster future reading. The tragedy of poor reading achievement dipping to new lows in pandemic times has been dubbed “the kindergarten crisis,” but kindergarten is merely a point in time when data is captured. The condition is preexisting.

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Scientific evidence fueled the push to systematically teach phonics. It’s time to let science dictate our approach to seeding early literacy as well. As pediatric surgeon Dana Suskind writes in Parent Nation, “What we now know of the brain demands urgency … There is neuroscientific heft about what children need, when they need it, and the essential role of parents and caregivers as children’s first, best teachers.”

Serious public investment in families could improve children’s reading prospects long before they get to school. Policies including paid parental leave after childbirth, tax credits for families with young children, and the provision of affordable, high-quality childcare all bolster the pivotal early years of children’s lives and learning.

The skirmishes over how to teach reading in schools have been known as the reading wars. But the combative metaphor has run its course. Thankfully, it’s now accepted that most kids need a healthy dose of phonics instruction to read well. We also have mounting evidence that early childhood language experiences have a significant impact on kids’ literacy trajectories. So let’s commit to a concerted national effort to nurture reading—from its roots in infancy and beyond. If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves 20 years from now, rehashing these same old instructional debates, wondering why a win for phonics didn’t spell victory for mass literacy.

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