While the first written word (Milestone 1) is probably the single most difficult word for babies to learn, learning to read 50 words (Milestone 2) may take the longest to achieve.
It often takes babies about a year to understand 50 words (receptive language). It generally takes even longer for the child to say 50 words (spoken language). But once a child understands or says about 50 words, she will likely learn new words at a much faster rate. This was once referred to as “fast mapping,” indicating that the child could acquire new words very quickly. Theorists have since speculated as to why infants learn words at faster speeds once they know around 50 words, but the point is that your child may begin learning written words faster around this milestone. The next several milestones can happen in a matter of weeks—or even days—once your child can read 50 words consistently.
So please do what you can to help your child reach Milestone 2! Try as many of the tips below as you can.
- Make it multisensory.
Allow your child to see words at the same time she or he hears them. Add touch and other senses when appropriate. Think of movement as a sense and encourage your child to do movements related to the written words. For more on multisensory learning, please read this.
- Move your finger under the words from left to right as you say them. Next, demonstrate the meanings of the words.
- Start very early in life (as long as your child has visual tracking—the ability to follow moving objects with the eyes). If your child already has visual tracking, start as soon as you can. Research shows that children who are taught to read at age 3 or 4 years read better (even years later) than children of the same IQ who are taught at age 5 or 6 years (Durkin, 1966). Those taught at age 5 or 6 read better than children of the same IQ who are taught at age 7 or 8. The studies are consistent – learning to read well early in life provides long-term benefits (Ritchie & Bates, 2013; Duncan, Dowsett, Claessens, Magnuson, Huston, Klebanov, et al., 2007; Hanson & Farrell, 1995; Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2003).
- Use large font sizes for a few months only if you are starting around the time that your child acquires visual tracking. You do not need to worry about the sizes of the fonts in almost all other cases. As long as you can clearly see the words, they should be large enough for your child to see.
- Isolate the words. Removing background noise and distractions is very important. Initially, show and say one word at a time with minimal auditory or visual distractions in the background.
- Use parentese when saying the words to children who don’t understand at least 50 words. Parentese means using a higher pitched voice and slightly elongating vowel sounds. Initially, overenunciate to make sure that your young child can differentiate between similar-sounding words.
- Show very short and very long words instead of only showing words of the same lengths. This should help your child learn the important concept that written words are representing spoken words. If your child is allowed to see very short words and long words, such as hi and rhinoceros, respectively, then it should be much easier to figure out that very short words generally have short sounds while longer words generally have longer sounds. Another reason to vary the lengths of the words is to help your child learn the first word faster. Since hi and rhinoceros look and sound very different from one another, it is much easier to differentiate these words with our eyes and ears than words of the same length.
- Use lowercase letters the vast majority of the time, but follow capitalization rules. In English, almost every book (except for many baby books) is printed in lowercase letters (sentence case) and follows capitalization rules. Since you want your child to read at fast speeds in the future under these conditions, use lowercase letters most of the time.
- Add the meanings of the words most of the time. For very young children who don’t understand the meanings of the words, show the objects, body parts, or actions that demonstrate the meanings immediately after you show and say the words. Adding the meanings becomes less important over time, so you don’t want to demonstrate the meanings all of the time. The advantage of not demonstrating the meanings is that you can show and say more words in less time.
- Repeat some words many times more than other words. If your child is watching the Your Baby Can Learn! (YBCL) DVDs, consider showing the following words more frequently than other words: clap, wave, waving, mouth, and nose. These are some of the high frequency words that we repeat more often in the DVDs. This could speed up your child’s learning of the words especially if you are pointing them out frequently in our Lift-the-Flap Books, Sliding Word Cards, Teaching Cards, or Milestone Cards. If you don’t have our products, simply make a wide variety of word cards – some that show the meanings and some that don’t. For more on frequency effects, please click here.
Vary the fonts, colors, background colors, font sizes, the order in which you present the words, time of day, and the locations where you show the words. This should help teach your child that the consistent factor is the generalizable shapes of the words. The shapes of objects and also words, gives more information about their meanings than the other factors in most cases. To learn more about why learning the shape bias helps word learning, and why parents should understand it, please read this. My goal is for the child to learn this shape bias very early in life.
- Vary the print materials. Show words on whiteboards, on word cards, in books when there are only a few words per page, on tablets or other electronic screens, with individual magnetic letters on your refrigerator, with foam letters in the tub, on chalkboards, using sticks in the sand or dirt, and numerous other ways. Use very neat handwritten printing on whiteboards, chalkboards, paper, index cards, or in sand in addition to typing words on tablets or electronic devices.
- Vary how you show words. Studies indicate that very early learning generalizes more if the very young child has many different experiences instead the same experience repeated over and over. Most of the time, you will be teaching and saying the words as you point from left to right, then you will be acting out the meanings of the words. You can also begin playing fun word games – some of which are on pages 23–30 of my Guide to Early Learning. Those suggestions, along with the instructions, will give you ideas on many ways of showing your child words while hearing the words.
- Make learning interactive.
Ask your child to look at words, point to words, say words, move words, match words and corresponding objects, place objects next to the appropriate words, answer questions by doing actions, jump on words, run to words, find words, and more! Try asking your child to match a word card with its corresponding object. For example, if you lay out a word card and objects as in the image to the right, you could ask your child if he or she can put the ball on the word ball, or if he or she can choose the object that matches the word on the card.
- Have fun! If you are enjoying yourself, your child is probably going to have more fun too.
- Make it easy for you. Put stacks of words in different rooms of your home, in the car, in the stroller, and wherever it will be more convenient for you. Keep a whiteboard or notebook nearby and write down words while you are playing with your child. A notebook works well because you can review words that you have already printed. When you are tired, play a YBCL video and interact with the video by saying every word as soon as it comes on the screen and by answering the questions in the videos. This will provide a good demonstration for your child. If you are on the phone, on your laptop, attending to another child, or otherwise busy, play a YBCL video and let your child interact on her own. You will have more energy after taking this short break and can make the most of your precious time with your child.
- Allow family members and friends to show your child words. Your child will benefit by having different teachers along with different teaching styles. Even if your friends or family members don’t show the words exactly like you may want, it still allows your child with additional opportunities to learn.
- Print neatly and do not obstruct the print materials. I’ve observed many parents over the decades who accidentally place their hand over parts of the words while holding word cards. It is important for your child to see the entire word. While my printing is not generally neat, I try to write very legibly when making words for young children.
- Make it natural for your child to see words at the same time she or he hears words by writing down words related to what you and your child are doing. Get in a habit of writing down key words throughout the day and pointing to words as you say them. Do this even if it is only for a few seconds here and there. The main idea is for your child to acquire written language naturally in a way that is similar to how your child naturally acquires spoken language. To do this, simply add written language to what you are already doing. If you are not with your child for most of the day, then do what you can to select someone to care for your child who will want to help your child learn, if possible. In some cases, loaning the daycare provider a YBCL video could help.
- Consider allowing your child to see and hear other languages very early in life. For information on which language(s) to select and some tips for introducing other languages, please read this.
- Be creative. Play games with your child with written (and spoken) words. Make variations of your games and make the games more challenging as your child’s skills improve. Play matching games with words and objects, sorting games with written words, physical games with words, object naming games, Bingo with words, etc.
- Add written words to your routines. Include written words while doing activities that you do frequently. For example, put outdoor words in the stroller for objects that you will likely see. I remember putting these words in our stroller: road, tree, rock, and house. Please do the same inside your home as well. You could put words such as blocks and eating in convenient locations near where your child plays or eats.
- Be precise while you are saying the words, and compare and contrast similar words.
Write down the words clap, claps, clapping, and clapped, then say each word as you hold it up. Since all of the words start with clap, say that part the same way each time and emphasize the word endings. Please make sure that you enunciate the word endings carefully, so your child can begin to pay more attention to how the words are alike and how they are different. The image to the right shows one of our Milestone Cards that vary forms of words.
- Make sure your child understands the difference between the written word and what the word represents. In other words, sometimes you might say, “This is the word arm. This is your arm and this is my arm.” while you are pointing to or touching the word, your child’s arm, and your arm, respectively. Later, you could ask your child, “Where is the word arm? Where is my arm? Where is your arm?” In addition, you could also use a photo and say something such as, “This is the word elbow, this is your elbow, this is my elbow, and this is a picture of a child’s elbow.” while pointing to or touching each of these. Ask questions to see if your child can point to the photo of a child’s elbow, the word elbow, and each person’s actual elbow.
- Use recognition and recall activities to influence how you teach your child. It will be easier for your child to answer recognition questions than recall questions, so start with recognition activities. A multiple-choice question is an example of a recognition activity – one has to recognize the correct answer, but not recall it. An open-ended question where the child generates the answer would be a recall activity. Recognition questions give your child some options from which to select the answer(s). For example, say “Find the word clap!” while the words clap and waving are in your child’s view. Later, you can have three or more options. A recall activity would be asking your child “What does this say?” while holding up a word. Do recognition activities most of the time until your child consistently selects the correct responses, then gradually transition to some recall activities for those words. When you introduce new words, start with recognition questions again. These activities will allow you to determine your child’s progress and that should impact how you proceed. For example, if your child consistently recognizes the word clap, then you can reduce the frequency for that word and add more words.