Reading is a gift that is passed on from one person to the next. Mem Fox, whose books for children are among my very favorites, says that it takes 1000 stories to make a reader. Elsewhere she predicts that if parents would take time to read three stories a day to their children then we could virtually eliminate illiteracy in a generation.
But her most significant insight may be that learning to read happens in a relationship between a child, and adult, and a good book. Books that are emotionally engaging and feature patterns of rhythm, rhyme, and predictability literally teach children to read. But they should be read aloud, read together, read with exuberance. And when to start? Now. At birth, just to remove any question.
Mem identifies three stages along the way to learning to read. First, children are read to. They listen. They enjoy the musicality of the language and the beauty of the story and the voice of someone dear to them. Next, they read with. This is the great adventure of literally sharing the book, exploring its pages together, seeking out words, phrases and illustrated figures together. Rejoicing in the patterns, the warm comfort of its predictability, the deliciousness of its words. This period culminates with fingers pressed to the page, tracing along the printed words as they are read aloud. Finally, the child takes over the task of reading aloud to the adult. The first books that the child reads aloud will typically be those that she has already heard the adult read several times. The eventual result will be a child who reads independently.
One of Mem's books is called Reading Magic. It's a keeper. I don't recommend it lightly. Mem is among the 20-or-so authors in education that I believe repay the time that one invests in reading them. Reading Magic should be read, repeatedly, by anyone who is raising or teaching children.