The Bible says in Proverbs 22:6 (Amplified):
Train up a child in the way he should go [and in keeping with his individual gift or bent], and when he is old he will not depart from it.
Reading is such an important part of a child's education. Children that read easily have an easier time learning other things as well. The ability to read early on will make parenting that much easier once your child starts on the path of formal education (whatever that looks like for your family).
In addition, I have heard from a few homeschooling moms that helping your child learn to read can be the most challenging thing, and so it's much better to get it done earlier rather than to wait until you think it's time to start officially homeschooling (or waiting til they reach kindergarten age- if you are taking the public or private school route).
I've compiled a list of things that we have done as a family that I believe have had an impact on our son's ability to read at a young age. (By the way, we discovered his reading ability one day when he was not quite 3 ½, when someone had given him a book as a gift that he had never seen before. He opened it and just started reading it, to our amazement. He had been "reading" books that we owned that had been read to him hundreds of times, but we figured it was just more from repetition than anything. But we knew that it was the real deal when he knew all the words- with one or two exceptions- from a brand new book!) This list is all things that we have personal experience with.
In addition, I feel like when people ask me "how did he learn to read?" I could easily point to any one of these things as giving him an advantage. Not all of these suggestions will work for every family, naturally, but I feel that each thing is helpful in and of itself.
- Be a family of readers- Keep books in your house (and not just for decoration!) Magazines are good too. If your children see you reading from an early age, they will be more likely to pick up on the behavior. Like so many other things, a love of reading is caught not taught!
- Read to baby in the womb (assuming you still have that option :D)- After around 20 weeks, baby's hearing begins to develop. Your speech patterns as you read will help get them used to the "sound of reading" (as well as normal speech patterns). I did this with both of my babies. I think, even if it doesn't do anything to help them to read more easily, it's still a great way to bond with your child before birth!
- Breastfeed- Did you know that a typical child who was breastfed has an IQ about eight points higher than average? I've read that this can be due to socio-economic status and other influences, but again, it's a good thing to do even if it doesn't increase your child's IQ (but, based on my experience, it really does help)!
- Sign with your baby using American Sign Language. Simple signs like like the ones related to events that happen repeatedly throughout the day (think meal times, diaper changes, etc) help your baby communicate. Studies have shown more rapid learning and speech development in babies who learn sign language. If you don't know how to sign, there are probably thousands of videos online that you can watch to learn various signs.
- Take them to the library! You will be exposing your child to great programs (like story time), as well as showing them so many different books that are available. Our library has no age restriction on getting a library card, so our son now has his own. (I still hang on to it, of course, but I think he enjoys having his own card and interacting with the librarian himself- plus it's teaching him responsibility).
- Last, but not least (this actually may be the most important!) Read to your child! Start young and stay consistent. Even if your child doesn't show much interest, keep offering. We started reading to our son regularly when he could sit supported. He was very interested in the various books we would read to him. We started our daughter out at about the same time. She was not quite as interested as he was, but she's starting to come around now (at 16 months). She'll bring a book and put it on my lap while I'm working on computer stuff or when I'm sitting in the living room.
A few more tips for reading to your children:
- Read what they're interested in. Don't get discouraged if it seems like they want to read Elmo's ABC's 16 jillion times per day. That's okay! The repetition is a good thing!
- Don't feel like you need to spend a lot of money for books. In fact, you don't have to spend any money! If you have a library card, you can get all kinds of cool children's books for free. Also, many libraries sell books that have been donated or discarded. You can get great books for a quarter or even less sometimes. Also, check out the dollar store, or Target's dollar section. They always have cute board books that your little one would love.
- On second thought, the less money you spend on books, the better! Little ones like to chew on books, tear them, or otherwise mistreat them, so keep the nice books up high so you can monitor their use!
- Most of all, have fun! Don't feel the need to become obsessive about their early reading habits. As I stated above, if they see that you enjoy reading, and that you have fun reading with them, they will grow to love it.