Looking for the perfect gift for your baby or toddler? Here's one you can't buy through TV or a mail order catalog: the gift of literacy—reading, writing, listening, and communicating. This priceless gift to your children doesn't have to cost a penny, and you're giving little ones what they cherish most: your attention. This gift begins with sharing stories, telling tales, and spending time together talking. Sure it takes an investment in time, but the benefits are endless.
Why Should I Read with My Child?
We have growing evidence from researchers that reading actually influences the way young brains develop. Dr. Patricia Kuhl, one of the leading researchers at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences says, "We are finally understanding that children learn a great deal in the first year of life, before they can speak." Very relevant to this is the discovery that "the fundamental steps in language acquisition play a critical role in the ability to read."
How Do I Know What to Read?
Technically, it doesn't matter. You could be reading The Wall Street Journal, a corporate report, a cookbook, or Sports Illustrated. What does matter very early on is exposure to vocabulary and a connection to print. Include lots of stories from picture books with colorful illustrations and more than a sprinkle of repetition and rhyming. Reading to your children introduces them to the patterns of language. You also want to create an environment in which children see reading as a pleasurable experience.
As your child gets older and more exposed to books, let him choose the title he wants you to read. I can still quote most of The Huff N Puff Express, a book I know I've read hundreds of times. The repetition and familiarity of the story (including the child helping tell it or "read" it as he gets older) is part of the magic.
How Do I Know How to Read with My Baby?
Somehow we think we should magically know how to read with a child. If you were fortunate enough to have memories of similar experiences with your own parents, it will come naturally. Just tap into your fondest memories of that activity. If not, don't fret. Here's what you do:
- Find a place where you and your child are comfortable—a chair, the floor, a blanket in front of the fire.
- Snuggle close. Hold your baby in your lap and open the book in front of her. Let her pat the pictures but teach her respect for the written page; that means no tearing or chewing if it's anything other than a plastic board book.
- Talk with your baby about what you are reading. Here's an example of how you might choose to interact with your baby when reading Jan Brett's The Hat: Although this book might be a little long for "beginning baby readers," the lovely illustrations in this winter tale are exquisite. Don't be afraid to start the story and finish later. With lots of detail, you can talk with your baby about the snow, the different animals in the story, and familiar things like hats, mittens, and socks. Laugh at how funny Hedgie looks as he pretends he's wearing the found hat. Stop reading if your child starts to be distracted or fussy, and end on a positive note ("wasn't that fun?" or "I liked that story, did you?") when you close the book.
Won't That be Boring (for Me and the Baby)?
Not unless you make it boring! Don't read something you don't enjoy. Put yourself into the story by using funny voices, stopping to point out particular things in the illustrations. Remember, it's OK to deviate from the story. Here's a typical interaction over Eric Hill's Spot's First Christmas: "Oh, look, Megan. That puppy looks like the one next door. See his spots? Can you touch his spots? (Direct the child's finger to the picture of the dog.) Let's see what will happen next (as you turn the page)." Get the idea?
You may decide to choose the shortest books with only a few words on each page, but don't begin with the "controlled vocabulary" books you might use with beginning readers. The limited vocabulary doesn't make for rich text. Instead find engaging stories with great illustrator's drawings or paintings. When you flip through the pages, does it appeal to you?
Start your New Year's resolutions early with a commitment to reading with your children. Not only will you give them a bright future in their education but you'll create connections that will last a lifetime.
Great Books to Help Start Your Own Traditions
The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore, illustrated by Bruce Watley and Clement C. Moore, Harper Collins (Board Book), 2004
A Firefly in a Fir Tree by Hilary Knight, Harper Collins Children's Books, 2004
The Dream Snow by Eric Carle, Philomel Books, 2000
Frozen Noses by Jan Carr (illustrated by Dorothy Donohue, Holiday House, 1999
Max's Christmas by Rosemary Wells, Dial Books, 1998
Hanukkah! By Roni Schotter and Marilyn Hafner, Little, Brown and Company, 1990
The Snowman by Raymond Briggs, Random House, 1978 (a wordless book—tell the story in your own words!)