Here's what happened.
As she so often does, my daughter requested "Just one more story!" before bed. We turned to the stack of board books on the little table next to our rocking chair, and she requested Sandra Boynton's Blue Hat, Green Hat. (I strategically leave short books like this one in plain view so that we can read one more story without having it take too long.) As I opened the book and began to read, I started to do what I always do with this story: point to each picture as I say it out loud. ("Blue hat, green hat, red hat, oops!") My daughter quickly said, "No, no, I will do it!" and proceeded to point to each picture herself, at which point I would read the accompanying text. Sounds simple enough, I know, but here is what I realized. She pointed to each picture in the proper sequential order -- top to bottom, left to right -- without any guidance from me. I waited to read aloud until she had pointed to the pictures, and we went through the whole story that way. We hadn't read this particular book in a few months (I had recently found it back behind a bookcase), so I doubt she simply had it memorized from the last time we had read it. I don't always point to the text as I read, but apparently, I do it often enough that my daughter knows to read from top to bottom and left to right. It's a little thing, of course, but it shows that children learn some of the fundamental concepts of literacy long before they learn to read.
Yesterday, I witnessed another awesome literacy moment. It was one of those rare occasions where I'm able to quietly listen in on what my children are doing without them knowing that I am there. (Don't you just love that?) My daughter was standing by her rocking chair "reading" one of her favorite books at the moment: Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons. She got the book out of the bin next to the chair, placed it on the seat, opened it up, and began reading it aloud to herself. As she went on, I was amazed by three things: 1) She knew the entire story, word for word, even the cute little things Pete says in the illustrations like, "It's all good!" 2) She knew exactly when to turn the page; and 3) She read with the same inflection and expression that I do when I read the story aloud to her. I know she wasn't really "reading," she was reciting the book from memory, but I was amazed, nevertheless. I wasn't surprised, but I was amazed.
When we read with our children, we're doing so much more than simply entertaining them with stories. We're teaching them about language, expression, grammar, diction, vocabulary and a whole host of other literacy skills in between. Although we might not realize it, we're laying the foundation for a love of learning and setting them up to be successful readers long before we'd ever expect them to learn to "read." Those amazing little minds are learning far more than we ever intended, and that is a pretty awesome thing.