In order to learn to read, children must learn how books work. They must develop what educators call "concepts about print." Some of these concepts will seem pretty simple to you, but children only learn them if they have been read to a great deal and have had many opportunities to handle books. Concepts about print include knowing where the front of a book is and where the back of a book is, knowing how a book opens, knowing right side up from upside down and the top of a page from the bottom.

Simply reading to a child on your lap will help him or her learn basic concepts about print. As your child sees you turn the page, or better, participates in page turning, he or she gains a sense of how books work. Your child will see where a book begins and where it ends. Your child will see how you read from front to back. It is important that your child be close to you while you read. Children lying in their beds across the room from a reading parent will observe far less than children who are snuggled in a parent's arms.

Some concepts about print require a bit more than just reading to a child in close proximity. For instance, children must eventually understand that it is the print—the words on the page—that is being read. The print, more than the pictures, carries the message. This is not readily apparent to children unless the adult who is reading occasionally points to the words while reading aloud. Pointing to words while reading also will support another concept about print: In English, we read from left to right and top to bottom. When you move your finger under a line you are reading and then lift your finger to move down to the next line of print, you are teaching your child directionality of text. There is no inherent reason why we read from left to right and top to bottom, so it must be learned. Did you know that the languages we asked you to decode at the beginning of this chapter are not read from left to right? They are read from right to left. Furthermore, although it is increasingly more common for Chinese characters to be recorded and read across the page, many Chinese newspapers, books, and greeting cards are read in columns. You start at the top of the right column, read down, then move left to the top of the next column and read down again. The Japanese example, too, reads top to bottom, beginning with the right column. The best way to teach directionality of print is through reading to your child and occasionally following the words with your finger.

These understandings about reading, these concepts about print, are very important in learning to read. Children who do not know how to handle a book when they begin kindergarten are at a serious disadvantage. In addition to lap reading, pointing to words as you read, and encouraging your child to participate in page turning, here are some other ideas for supporting your child's developing understanding of how books and print work. If you try these activities, not only will you build an understanding of the purpose and conventions of print, but also you will emphasize the personal relevance print has in our lives .

  • Have a family message board. Let your child watch adults leave messages for one another. Read those messages aloud in your child's presence. Write messages to your child. On the day that you are going to visit relatives, write "Today we are going to Grandmother's house!" and show your child the message when he or she awakens in the morning .
  • Develop "to do" lists with your child. Let your child see that you begin at the top of a piece of paper, write from left to right and then return to the left for the next line. Say the words slowly as you write them. You can revisit your list occasionally and let your child cross off what you have completed .
  • Give your child his or her own calendar. Record special events on the calendar. At the end of each day, talk about what your child did. Let him or her dictate what he or she wishes you to record for the day .
  • Have your child sit next to you at a table and dictate thank you notes for holiday and birthday gifts. Together, write letters to friends and relatives .
  • Make a book. Stack two or three pieces of paper, fold them in half, and staple the edge. Follow the model of a favorite story or create your own book. After a birthday party, you may wish to write about and illustrate the guests. "Joanna came to my party" could be on page one with a drawing of Joanna; "Oscar came to my party" could be on page two with an illustration, and so on .
  • Purchase some wordless picture books, such as Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins, The Great Cat Chase by Mercer Mayer, or Peter Spier's Rain by Peter Spier, and make up your own text to accompany the illustrations. Write your words or sentences on the book itself, or attach thin strips of paper to each page and write on these. Be sure to model good printing!