Baby's First Year · Parenting

Early literacy and reading to your child – How early is early?

Parent reading to toddler

One day I was watching TV and flipping through the channels. I saw a toddler reading while the talk show audience sat amazed! This 2.5 year olds reading skills were much better than what we expect. At the time I didn’t have any children, but thought the parents of that child worked very hard to teach her how to read before school age.  Later I found out they were both speech-language pathologists. Most of us parents try to read to our children regularly, but many of us don’t know what the predictors and milestones of literacy are.

The four predictors of literacy skills are pretty straightforward:

  1. Print awareness – understanding that text has meaning
  2. Alphabet knowledge – recognizing the letters of the alphabet
  3. Oral language – hearing and using new vocabulary / conversing
  4. Phonological Awareness – matching sounds with letters

When you make reading books a regular part of your daily routine with your child, researchers believe that your child is making a strong memory of the time they spend sitting in your lap and feeling your warm embrace while you entertain them with a story. What a beautiful idea!

Any positive association with reading books will have a strong benefit for our children as they go through school and become adults.

If you haven’t been reading books to your child, don’t panic. It’s never too early or too late to try and start a reading routine. Many parents try to make time for reading just before the kids go to bed, but if that doesn’t work with your schedule, pick a different time that is convenient. Just try to be regular at that time you choose.

Now let’s look at the literacy milestones that tell us when a child should begin reading and how much they are expected to know:

Development milestones of early literacy


Motor function

Cognitive/social ability

Interaction with parents

6 to 12 months Reaches for book.
Brings book to mouth.
Sits in lap.
Holds head up steadily.
Looks at pictures, vocalizes, pats picture.
Prefers photographs of faces.
Parents holds child comfortably, face-to-face gaze.
Parent follows baby’s cues for ‘more’ and ‘stop’.
12 to 18 months Holds book with help.
Turns pages, several at a time.
Sits without support.
Able to carry book.
No longer mouths right away.
Points at pictures with one finger.
May label a particular picture with a specific sound.
Child gets upset if parent won’t give up control of book.
Child may bring book to read.
If parent insists that the child listen, child may insistently refuse.
18 to 36 months Turns one page at a time.
Carries book around house.
Names familiar pictures.
Attention varies highly.
Asks for the same story over and over.
‘Reads’ books to dolls.
Parent asks “What’s that?” and gives the child time to answer.
Parent relates book to child’s experience.
Parent should be comfortable with fluctuating attention of toddler.
3 years and older Holds book without help.
Turns normal thickness pages one at time.
Describes simple actions.
Can retell familiar story.
Plays at reading, moving finger from left to right, top to bottom.
‘Writes’ name (linear scribble).
Parents asks questions like “What’s happening?”
Parent validates child’s response and elaborates on them.
Parent does not drill child, but shows pleasure when child supplies word.

This is a fascinating topic! Learn more about early literacy and I encourage you to contact your local library. We have plenty of great libraries in Toronto! Also, if your child is not meeting their expressive language or speech milestones, tell your child’s doctor and call Early Abilities to refer your child for a speech and language assessment at (416) 338-8255 or make an online referral.

Comment below and let us know what other child development topics you would like us to write about.

As of April 1, 2022 the Preschool Speech and Language, Blind-Low Vision and Infant Hearing programs have moved from Toronto Public Health (Early Abilities) to Surrey Place. To register for services or learn more about the programs, please visit Surrey Place or call 416-925-5141.

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