Reading with an adult should be a fun and wonderful experience for a child, and time spent reading together is about more than just the written words and pictures. Reading with a child is a special time to bond and books provide a great opportunity for language development. Books allow children to travel to new places and provide exposure to new vocabulary, ideas and people.
The Children’s Reading Foundation suggests that parents read with their children for at least 20 minutes a day. But with little ones new to reading, or with those who are wiggly and often on the move, this can feel like a daunting task. As soon as sharing a book together becomes something you have to make a child do, the magic is lost.
The key to sharing a book with a child is creating an experience that is engaging, fun and comfortable for the child. And the most important ingredient in this is you. Here are some tips for reading aloud with little ones and ideas for keeping them engaged:
Choose the right reading time: Children, by nature, have short attention spans. Some research suggests that a child’s chronological age is a good starting point for how long they should be able to attend to a given task (approximately three minutes for a three-year-old, for example). Keep this in mind when selecting books. Take baby steps: If a child is unable to sit and play for more than one to two minutes, expecting them to do this with a book may be unrealistic. Start with one minute and build up. A child will develop patience the more you do it.
Modify books to keep the story moving: For wiggly little ones, paraphrase long sentences or focus on pointing to pictures and talking about what’s happening rather than sticking exactly to the script.
Make reading interactive: Make the child part of the experience by giving the child a job. Books with repetitive phrases, like “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?”, lend themselves to children helping with reading the book. The child can be the page turner or put in charge of pointing to all the animals in a book. Having a child imitate actions in the book, such as stomping through a forest, sneezing, slamming the door, tiptoeing around a sleeping bear, etc., provides movement breaks and can help a child stay engaged.
Use sound effects and strategic pauses: Sometimes silence is worth a thousand words. Pausing dramatically during book reading (“and then she saw a…..?!”) gives the child a chance to chime in and be part of the story. Sound effects like car noises, silly voices, stomping feet, animal sounds and more make a book come to life and children will love to play along.
Comment and ask questions: Don’t just stick to the text. This starts with the cover. Look at the front of the book with your child and ask “What do you see?”. Talk about what the story might be about. This is a great way to work on making predictions and inferences. Point out the author and the title. During the story, comment on what’s happening and what you think about it (“Oh no! He forgot to bring his teddy. I bet he feels sad.”). Relating the story back to the child (“Look, he’s going to preschool, just like you do!”) makes reading more personal.
Find a comfy spot: Sit close to your child or hold your child in your lap. Make sure your child can see the pictures and turn the pages if you choose. Many children love to cuddle, and making this part of your reading experience may help children to be more engaged.
Let children see you reading: We know kids want to do what you do. If they see you reading, they’ll want to, too!
Make reading part of the routine: Find a reading time that fits into your schedule. Read every night before bed, after lunch, before brushing teeth, etc. Children typically operate better on a routine, and if it’s part of your routine, you’ll be more likely to do it!
Visit the library: Help children discover the fun that surrounds books. Not only do libraries provide a free source of unlimited books, they also offer programs centered around reading and tailored for different age-groups. (The Richmond Public Library system, for example, has a calendar of programs for readers of all ages.)
Build language through book reading
Books offer rich opportunities for learning language concepts. Here are some important language skills and how to teach them:
– ”Wh” questions: Before or after turning the page, ask a child “What will happen next?”, “What did he find?”, etc.
– Action words: Verbs are important, especially for kids who are on the move! Talk about what characters are doing in the story (“She’s jumping high!”, “He’s running so fast!”, etc.).
– Depth of vocabulary: Work on this by simply talking about the things you see on the page: “Wow, I see a giant elephant. He’s eating lots of peanuts. And I see a clown with fuzzy hair. They are all under a big tent. It must be a circus!”
– Narrative skills (the language of telling a story): There is a beginning, middle and ending of stories both in books and in life. If kids learn the first, next and last pattern of a book, they can use that same pattern to talk about what happened first, next and last during their day. (“First, we bought our popcorn, then we found our seats and watched the show, and last we got our picture taken with an elephant.”) Familiarizing a child with the concepts of “beginning,” “middle” and “end” targets their ability to tell you “what happened” with a logical sequence. Likewise, the content of a story models how to effectively share what’s happening (or what has happened), which can help children learn to tell their own stories and communicate about past events more effectively.
Like with any new activity, developing a reading routine with your child may take practice. A child may seem resistant at first, but with time and an engaging reading partner (you!), reading together will become something they look forward to and something you both love doing together!
By Cary G. Hastings, speech-language pathologist at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU