The ABCs of Active Reading

Settle a squirmy bookworm with active reading

Wrangling a toddler to sit down and read a book, no matter how short, can be like subduing an angry squid. When you look at your barely walking, talking little human, it can be hard to imagine he's getting ready to read, but the foundations for reading success are built in toddlerhood. Children start building the foundation of language and vocabulary when they’re still in diapers, and you’ve been developing your child’s language since the day they were born. 

Research shows that when children read well by third grade — when they can easily sound out words and understand what they read in chapter books like “Charlotte’s Web” — they are well on their way to becoming successful lifelong readers. From ages 2 to 5, your child is in a new developmental phase that includes lots of word and language learning, and active reading is the best way to turn toddlerhood into the start of a lifelong love of books. 


Talk About What You Read

Active reading is a way to read with kids that engages them in talking about picture books. Active reading is discussing what's happening in the book. For example, when you pick up “Corduroy” by Don Freeman, ask your child, “What did Corduroy step on?” or “What is he doing on the bed?” Point at pictures and name the farm animals in “Duck on a Bike” by David Shannon. And, ask your child if they have ever acted just like Max when he makes mischief in “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak. All these things are active reading.

Active Reading boils down the ABCs: 

* Ask open-ended questions, like: What’s happening on this page? What is the little boy doing? 

* Build vocabulary by pointing at and naming things you see in the pictures (“Here is a cow”) and talking about interesting words you find (“dreary means gray and sad”).

* Connect to the child’s world by building interest in books and talking about how your child can see their own experiences reflected in what they read, building knowledge about the world along the way. 


Making the Connection

A and B may seem easy enough. The connecting may seem tricky for your toddler, but it’s all about the books you choose and how you use the world right outside your doorstep. Here are seven ways to connect to your child’s world in Charlotte and a stack of books.

1. Stick with everyday experiences. Connecting with your child’s world doesn’t have to be fancy. Toddlers love reading books that are about everyday experiences. Read “Knuffle Bunny” by Mo Willems and visit High Spin Laundry or Spin Tastic laundromats to see the wash spin around for yourself. Read “Lola at the Library” by Anna McQuinn and visit a local library story time. ImaginOn on Seventh Street in uptown Charlotte has a family story time most days at 10:30 a.m. 

2. Visit a park. Watch geese and ducks waddle around Freedom Park’s pond and talk about Gossie and his friends in “Gossie” by Oliver Dunrea. 

3. Color connection. Walk through your neighborhood and see if you can find all the colors or flowers that are in the books “A Rainbow of my Own” by Lois Ehlert or “Flower Garden” by Eve Bunting.  

4. Read and eat. Read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle and visit one of the many farmers markets throughout neighborhoods in Charlotte. While you’re at the market, find foods that the caterpillar ate and some that he didn’t. 

5. Build knowledge about butterflies. Read “Waiting for Wings” by Lois Ehlert, and then visit the butterfly garden at Discovery Place Nature. Talk about the different stages of a butterfly’s life and where else you might find butterflies in your neighborhood. 

6. Construction site connection. With construction sites on what seems like every corner, connecting with books like “Little Excavator” by Anna Dewdney and “Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site” by Sherri Rinker is easy. Spend time watching what’s happening at the site and ask your child what they notice. 

7. Make your own connections. Read “What Daddies Like and What Mommies Like” by Judy Nevin, then create your own list of things that your child loves to do with a favorite family member.


Samantha Cleaver, Ph.D., is a local teacher, mom and author of “Read with Me: Engaging Your Young Child in Active Reading.” 

Currently, 39 percent of third graders in Mecklenburg County are reading on grade level. Read Charlotte, a local nonprofit, is set to change that.

Children age 5 and younger can sign up for Dolly Parton Imagination Library to receive free books every month. Sign up at

Learn more about active reading at a Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Active Reading workshop.

Get more ideas for activities to do with your child baby, toddler and preschooler with Ready4K text message app. Text ReadCLT to 70138. 


Find more ideas at