How to Raise a Reader? Think Outside the Book.

By Annie Garrett (Estimated reading time: 5 minutes)

A mom playing a ukelele and smiling down at her toddler. Photo credit: Greta Hoffman via Pexels. 

Much has been said about the natural resources of the Pacific Northwest, and a recent encounter with literacy expert Jocelyn Manzanarez reminded me that our human resources are just as awe-inspiring. As the parent of a toddler who tends to waddle away as soon as I pull out a book, I knew I needed some guidance on the literacy front, and suspected that better books weren’t the answer. Enter Jocelyn, who recently presented at the Organization of Parenting Education Programs conference on the topic of building a foundation for literacy through music and movement. Three hours flew by as Manzanarez led us through feel-good pre-literacy activities that are fun for parents and kiddos alike.  

Does your little one just want to play when you want to talk or read? Good!  

Force and learning should never be used in the same sentence. Kids are naturally wired to learn,” says Manzanarez. Studies have shown that manipulation of simple toys and objects correlates with increased language development in infants and toddlers, in part because parents speak more and toddlers babble more when they are working with simple toys as opposed to electronic toys. So if your little one seems more interested in blocks than books in that moment, go with it, knowing you’re literally building language, the foundation of literacy, block by block.   

Does your little one prefer songs over books? Good!  

As Manzanarez puts it, “Music precedes literacy.” Babies can hum before they can talk. They clap before they speak. They dance before they rhyme. Studies show that newborns can perceive a beat, a uniquely human characteristic, and beat synchronization has been linked to literacy skills in first graders. So tap the beat on your baby. Bounce your baby to the beat. This is pre-literacy at its funnest.   

Does your little one hate diaper changes? Good!  

We’ve all been there. Suddenly the darling newborn who coos at us during diaper changes is hurling herself off the changing table. Talking them through it is about as effective as talking a squirrel out of climbing a tree. Singing, on the other hand, can mellow the mood. Make up a song or print some lyrics and tape them next to your changing table, and let the calm (and pre-literacy) flow! 

Do you feel awkward when you do this? Good!  

You should. Baby is building up their receptive language before expressive language. That solo wheels on the bus performance you give? Eventually they’ll be honking and swishing right along with you. The way it looks like you’re talking to yourself when you’re pushing the stroller down the street and narrating what you see? Eventually baby will be talking right back to you.  

Do you sound ridiculous when you talk to your baby? Good!  

Consistent across all cultures, humans naturally tend toward using parentese when talking to babies. Says Manzanarez, “We’re programmed to know that it works, and we do get that response. Why? We are slowing our words down and the higher pitch is more interesting to babies and it’s happier. It breaks apart words naturally. When we slow down language, we slow it to a pace where young babies are able to process it, and we kind of naturally go to their level.”  

Does your little one want to read the same book again and again and again? Good!  

Your child is a bonafide genius when it comes to learning strategies. I’m serious. All the annoying things: the repetition, the flitting about between toys, the desire to be close to your talking head at all times, especially when you’re standing over the stovetop. This is how they soak up language. “It should be about 80/20, 80% repeat and 20% new,” says Manzanarez. Kids really are their own best teachers. The more we can see their repetitive behaviors as brilliant learning strategies, the more we can keep our frustrations at bay as we give them the space and support they need to experiment, repeat, experiment, repeat repeat repeat and repeat again.  

Are you a terrible singer? Good!   

“You might feel self conscious about your singing voice,” notes Manzanarez. “Remember, your voice is one of your child’s favorite sounds in the world, comforting and helps them feel safe…Using songs to change their mood is effective, with a calming voice. There are lullabies in every culture, helping them self regulate by co-regulating with them. The song acts as the warm blanket, and it also calms the parent or the caregiver. When we sing it slows our breathing down, it slows the amount of oxygen and slows our heart rate down, and we’re able to be a bit more thoughtful.”  

Is your little one obsessed with screens? Good!  

Sure, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time (other than video chatting) before 18-24 months. And yet, lots of parents (perhaps secretly) can’t live without YouTube sensation Ms. Rachel right now. My personal take: Rachel’s language development techniques are solid, but very young children do not learn well from screens alone, even when the content is quality. How to reconcile this? Cowatching. Join your child, sing along, learn Rachel’s tricks, pause the video and grab the toys she describes, engage your baby’s full body through your touch and emotion. Then, reinforce the rich content afterwards, in baby-sized bites. 

Good, good, good. And for the record, books are good, too. All the music and the movement and the talking aren’t meant to replace daily reading. Rather, the idea is that “Learning to read isn’t from the neck up.” Although Manzanarez is full of zingers like this one, the phrase she used that stood out to me most was a simple one: “Go with it.” Follow your joy and follow your child’s joy to music and movement, and trust that literacy will come.  

Local Resource List 

  • Musically Minded offers music classes (and more) for intants/toddlers/preschoolers. 
  • Check out Seattle Public Library’s In person and virtual Story Time 
  • Find a huge collection of songs and rhymes with videos at 
  • Follow Jocelyn on Instagram @circle_time_success_kids 
  • Check out Jocelyn’s Infant/Toddler class, her CD, and her songbook

Annie Garrett, M.Ed.

About the Author

Annie Garrett, M.Ed. is a manager and adjunct faculty member in Early Childhood Education at North Seattle College. She has a background in parent education and currently volunteers as a PEPS Ambassador and Group Leader. A rather passionate fan of tiny humans and the not-so-tiny humans who support them, Annie is always looking to connect with those who are similarly impassioned @

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: