Read Your Children a Story—and Boost Their Brainpower
Young Toddlers: I Get It!
The year of astonishing growth from age one to two brings a sense of mastery and joy with familiar books. This age also introduces a physicality that parents can incorporate into reading.
If “books are part of [children's] everyday experiences in their homes—they’re familiar, like toys—[kids] really just delight in being read to,” says Dr. Barbour. Young toddlers are much more interested in a book’s content than they were as babies and often treat reading as a “peek-a-boo game,” wanting to know what is on the next page, she adds.
As children begin speaking a few words, it is important to provide simple picture books that they can label and begin to repeat back to the parent, Wong says. Later in the second year, many toddlers also like rhyming books.
At this stage it is especially important to provide resilient board books for the child “so that she can ‘read’ and turn pages independently,” say Drs. Herb and Willoughby-Herb. These authors also suggest setting up an easily accessible bookshelf or other area so the child “can find her own books and put them away,” contributing to a sense of accomplishment in reading.
Given young toddlers’ fascination with moving around, what should parents do to keep them interested while reading? Most important, experts say, is to follow the child’s cues and not force the issue.
“Maybe the worst thing the parents can do is say, ‘It’s reading time,’” and march through the book page by page until they finish, says Wong. Instead, just keep reading while the child moves around. “They can be walking around the room, they can be crawling around the floor—you’re still telling a story,” Wong says. Reading at this age continues to be about associating books with pleasure and relationships, not about sitting absolutely quietly.
There are books out there for every child, “even the little people who hustle about and really don’t sit still,” says Dr. Herb, who is director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book at Penn State University. He also suggests taking advantage of natural “pin-down” times to read, such as high chair feeding or bedtime.
Two and Beyond: Interaction Is It
As they begin to talk, children transition from labeling pictures to having a dialogue with books. At this time, it is especially crucial to “follow their interests,” says Dr. Moustafa, such as the moon or trucks or even car exhaust pipes. As parents talk with their children about a passion, these conversations help create children’s “‘schemas,’ or knowledge of the world,” Dr. Moustafa says, allowing kids to make more sense of the subject.
Also key is to discuss stories with kids and make sure they understand the language and the meaning. “It is OK to focus on words,” such as, “Do you know what gigantic means?” and then talk about how that word appears in the story, says Dr. Stevens.
More generally, parents can read “in a way that enables the child to comprehend the story,” says Dr. Moustafa. “This could mean anticipating comprehension problems or responding to the child’s questions.” If a parent simply reads through a story in lockstep, without stopping for questions or checking to see if a child understands, the child might physically remove herself from the room in frustration, Dr. Moustafa says.
At Any Age: Follow Your Child’s Lead
During all stages of pre-reading development, parents can do the best for their children by noticing and responding to their cues, such as preferences for certain books and the desire to sit still or move around while reading. Parents will then “set the stage for children wanting to read,” Dr. Barbour says, and make reading part of everyday life.
By reading to their children frequently in this interactive and nurturing way, parents will also help kids develop skills that will help them in school, especially the ability to focus. “You can teach kids about phonemes, but if they can’t pay attention long enough to sound out a word, to see how print flows on the page,” Wong says, “then all the techniques in the world aren’t going to help.”
However, literacy experts strongly caution parents against trying to teach formal reading skills to young children—rather, parents should focus on building relationships.
“I’m always a little bit hesitant about talking about some of those fundamental literacy skills with young children, because it sometimes gives the impression that children should be doing these things,” Dr. Barbour says. “That really is not the case, and it tends to perhaps convey the impression to parents that they should be pushing things that are not appropriate for little ones.”
Above all, parents should have a light touch when reading aloud to infants and toddlers. “The key word in all of this is play,” Dr. Herb says. “If you treat prereading activities as playful, language as play . . . it’s much more likely you’ll have a highly literate and early literate child.”
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