How to cultivate an obsession for reading and learning in your child

This is how memories are made … by going with the flow ~ Amanda Bynes

My two year old Allen often surprises many with his vocabulary and his passion for reading. He uttered his first word, “mama” when he was merely three months old. Then his next word, “no” when he was six months old. Which reminds me. Before you go on, you gotta watch this cute video where baby Charlotte has the perfect answer to every question.

Allen had started early – between his 6th to his 18th month – he displayed an unbelievable efficacy for memorizing maps, stories from his favorite books and lyrics to his favorite songs.

These were some of the material he was able to reproduce in that period:

Foundational vocabulary

At Home by Ladybird Learners. We started with this book and First Words when Allen was 3 months old. He engaged starting from when he was 6 months old.
First Words by Jane Foster. I love the explicit prints, the bold lines and the fact that it’s a board book. My son loved this book too. Jane is a designer, she knows!
Tap Tap Bang Bang by Emma Garcia
Tap Tap Bang Bang by Emma Garcia. This was one of Allen’s favorites! He loves the sounds and tools and that inspired us to use variety of sounds if we wanted to engage him.
Diggers and Dumpers by Tim Bugbird
Diggers and Dumpers by Tim Bugbird Allen really took to these heavy vehicles. You’ll be surprise how much little ones remember
Keywords with Peter and Jane by Ladybird
Keywords with Peter and Jane by Ladybird. Classic stuff. These were great for introducing simple sentence structures.

Shapes from circle to octagon

Colours from white to teal

The Alphabet

Numbers up to 100

Farm animals and animals in the wild

We used different mediums to constantly reaffirm these vocabulary and to make learning more practical: flash cards, books, toys, shapes around us, wall stickers, YouTube videos, elevator buttons, height charts, our age, street addresses, car license plates, timer, digital clock faces etc

I mean, check out this adorable song about colors. Wouldn’t you watch this over and over again?


(For each of these I had to go ahead and learn these fun facts in order to “teach” them to him)

Names and positions of 34 provinces on the map of China
Names and positions of 7 countries in Western Europe
Names and positions of the 7 continents


Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See by Bill Martin Jr.
Where’s Spot by Eric Hill
Illustrated Nursery Rhymes by Felicity Brooks
Baa, Baa, Black Sheep by Melissa Everett
Love You More by Susan Musgrave
Little You by Richard Van Camp
Once I Was A Pollywog by Douglas Florian
Super Submarines by Tony Mitton
Pardon? Said The Giraffe by Colin West
Pardon? Said The Giraffe by Colin West

A good listener

When he was six months old, I noticed he had a good ear for lyrics unlike his mom, who tended to let music wash over her head. He listened keenly when I sang to him, almost as if the words spoke to him. He surprised me by flapping his arms when he picked up “blue birds fly” from my renditions of Judy Garland’s Somewhere Over The Rainbow. However, not all rainbows were equal. I sang Kermit The Frog’s The Rainbow Connection roughly the same number of times to him but he didn’t display the same eagerness.

Building neural networks

I deduced that he loved imagery. More than that he loved building on top of what he already knew. When I sang “fly”, he connected to past observations too many times to count, of birds in the neighbourhood. In fact one of his favourite things to do was to draw connections of new vocabulary to contexts or books he had previously been exposed to. Once we found ourselves peering at the figurine of Iron Man in a shop’s window display. When we told him that it was Iron Man, he invariably replied, “Iron”, referring to the iron that nested on the ironing board at home.

Active parents play a central role

Now at 2 years and 4 months, Allen is able to reproduce complete, full-length stories according to how I tell them. He is fluent with his ABCs, shapes, colors, numbers, fruit and vegetables, but not with phonics as I didn’t know how to teach that. He is not able to read as well as 17 month old Elizabeth who is super famous, you can check out this video about her.

I admit that this video inspired me to purchase “At Home” when Allen was three months old, to try and take a very active role in his verbal development. But I’m no speech pathologist and I’m pretty content with where Allen is. You can see that Elizabeth’s parents take a very active role in helping her learn to read, and I fully support the notion that children are so ready to learn that we should fully connect with them to help them figure out the world just a little earlier than those clinical milestones.

Start early and figure out your strategy

Whenever I recall the shocked expression of the shopkeeper that the child who I purchased “At Home” for was only three months old, I’d chuckle. Even though I wasn’t able to replicate the same learning experiences in Allen, I discovered the exact ways Allen best learnt by intimately interacting, connecting and engaging with him. I was determined to lead Allen in my way and for Allen to learn at his pace only.

My goal

My goal is for him to be ahead of his peers constantly by two to three years. If he can keep pace with this learning velocity, school will be just a base for him to play and to make friends in. Because of this fun perspective of school he will most likely enjoy going to school and other formally structured institutions, and he will keep learning. My objective is for Allen to be a lifelong learner just like mom and dad.

Allen demands to be read to every evening, in fact, every chance he has! He enjoys picking out the books to read too.

Here’s how we did it.

Start early
Keep talking and more importantly keep listening
Set your learning goal early
Always connect the dots
Always specially elaborate the in between
Repeat, repeat, repeat
Always add a little more with each iteration… but bounce back if it’s too soon
Allow for slack
Practise expressing imagery in words, with picture books
Make time and give your fullest attention
Be the role model

Start early

Start at whichever point you are in right now. If you feel silly talking to your belly like I did, talk to your partner or loved one frequently, or sing. If your baby is before six months old, he or she may not be able to respond in the same way you were hoping. Adjust your expectations accordingly and you should find yourself able to build up the habit of talking and engaging with your child.

Keep talking and more importantly keep listening

The whole idea is to communicate with your child. Like communications with adults at work, there is the feedback loop and there is the skill to listen intently. Look out for signals from your baby, these may be a twinkle in their eyes, their fingers raised for a touch or a murmur of a sigh. We often listen better when our babies are in their infancy. When our children are talking past their milestones, we let exhaustion rule and we forget to listen. So listening and paying attention to your children actually get more important as they get older.

Set your learning goal early

The goal that I set for myself is to get Allen on a track that lets him know more than his peers so that he will enjoy school and other formal institutions for the students and teachers he will interact with, more so than rely on the teachings in school. Elon Musk built a school for his five boys to attend as he felt that the failings in the current education system were too compelling. I don’t know whether I will ever get a chance to do that, and even if I do, it will be home schooling versus something as dramatic as building my own school. The learning goal that Elon Musk set for his boys is to have practical learning instead of theoretical learning. His boys and other boys in his school will learn via context to pick up knowledge through applications, instead of learning theories first and applying them later. It is always a good idea to revisit these goals as they should change with your child’s abilities and interests.

Always connect the dots

Children remember dry facts far better when they remember the story behind it. Always tell a story and always connect something new with what your child previously learnt. The example I provided above was we first taught Allen about the things around him – in the house, in the park, in the neighborhood etc, and he built on new knowledge by connecting them back to what he had learnt.

Always specially elaborate the in between

I often dismiss my assumptions that Allen doesn’t need to know something or needs to know something, and go on to explain to him something new in greater detail. Usually he surprises me how receptive he is to new information and new context, as long as I put it in ways I know he will understand. When I talk about fish in the ocean, I will talk about the corals, the seabed, the jelly fish for example, even plankton. There is so much knowledge surrounding every single thing. I attempt to encompass these in my stories to Allen.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

Our brains physically encodes memories in order to remember them. We can help the brain better remember these memories not only be weaving stories around them for us to retrieve by context, we can place more of these memories in more places in the brain. The more prevalent these nodes are, the more registrations in our brain. This works with new knowledge but with advice we have to be careful once the kids turn 3 and start to think they are smarter than you.

Always add a little more with each iteration… but bounce back if it’s too soon

One important insight that I gained is that you should always introduce more, do not assume your child will be overburdened or you turn into a mean tiger mom right away. An analogy would be when you talk about the height of a tree, go further to talk about the bark on the tree and that is like skin for trees, or the trunk of the tree which is like your spine that keeps you straight and tall, or even scale your talk up to the tree tops, its branches, the leaves. Next time you talk about leaves in another instance, go into the color of the leaves and what the different colors mean. Take special notice of your child’s reactions and adjust accordingly. Don’t overload them. Try to introduce one or two new things at a time. Also, they will often repeat what they have grasped from you. Focus on this feedback and reinforce this knowledge. Let the rest go for another time.

Allow for slack

Children being children, will have certain capacity for paying attention, understanding something new or retaining new knowledge. Rather than be discouraged and believe that this topic is not for him I will attempt new explanations at another time. I find that these back and forth are essential for building up knowledge as well.

Practise expressing imagery in words, with picture books

Lots of tutorials, books, articles, expert opinion and childhood educators will tell you that pictures work and they do in actual fact. I will add that videos do too. Don’t dismiss videos rightaway for the negative impacts excessive screentime have on our children. As I mentioned in my article on How I built time management skills in my son, adults learn better from videos, so why shouldn’t children. When I read I sign a lot, use voices for different characters and I use a very dramatic voice to emphasize differences in what I am reading. Allen often links back something new to something he knows about, he will excitedly go and get it too. I always withhold my patience and smile encouragingly at him when he does so.

Make time and give your fullest attention

This should not even be here as a tip, but i wanted to include it to remind parents how important this is for your child’s learning. Your child feels appreciated, encouraged and confident that what he is actively learning is important, as important as he or she is to you, and has the tendency to embrace new knowledge. All children arguably needs more attention than adults, and if they don’t get enough attention it all tends to be a downward, vicious cycle. Recall the underperforming student in class and how teachers tend to neglect these outliers, since they only have the time and energy to focus on the mainstream student body.

Be the role model

Our children learn from what we do, not from what we say. From the perspective of this topic, we should ourselves do what we have set for our children to achieve. These days, I am guilty of not reading as frequently as I would like to and that is something I am actively trying to change. When we behave by the guidelines that we create for our children, the side benefit is that we inspire other caretakers to do as we do. Adults, like children, believe that actions speak louder than words.

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