We hear it constantly from researchers and educators: “Read to your child every day, starting from birth.” Early reading has a monumental effect on a child’s brain development, and can even be used as an early predictor of future success in school and beyond. What the experts don’t tell us, however, is HOW to read to a baby or toddler.
How do we get a squirmy 1 year old to sit still for a book? How do we increase a child’s vocabulary when that child can’t even speak yet? How do we select books that will hold a child’s interest when their eyes can’t even track moving objects yet? How do we make sure our child is getting the most out of this important experience? One answer... You can ask a children’s librarian (like me) for help. I offer five simple tips you can use to help maximize the benefits of the early reading experience, while minimizing the confusion and stress.
Tip 1: Select Age-Appropriate Illustrations
"Board book" commonly describes any miniature cardboard, fabric or plastic-style book designed to fit in an infant’s hands and stand up to some rough handling. However, not all board books are designed with a consistent age in mind. Along with thousands of original stories, many popular picture books are now being published in board book size and format at the request of parents clamoring for a copy of that all-time-favorite that won’t be ripped down the middle on the first read. There is a perfect reader for each of these books, but each of these books are not perfect for every reader.
When selecting books for your newborn or 3 month old, look for books with large, colorful illustrations. You want images with a lot of contrast and simple lines because their eyes simply aren’t capable of focusing on a lot of detail yet. Books with images that babies may recognize like faces, bottles, objects around the house, common animals, etc. will help them start to make connections to their daily life, as well. Books like “Black Bird Yellow Sun” by Steve Light or “Hello, Bugs!” by Smriti Prasadam are perfect for infants.
As your little one ages, you can add favorites like “Where Is Baby's Belly Button?” by Karen Katz or “That's Not My Elephant” by Fiona Watt, which keep the simple lines and bright colors, but add interactive elements and sensory experiences. Eventually, you progress to popular titles I mentioned earlier that have been repackaged as board books, such as the classic “Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb” by Al Perkins or “Giraffes Can't Dance” by Giles Andreae. These illustrations are filled with detail and often add additional humor or emotion to the stories, making them exciting to the reader and to the child listening and looking.
Tip 2: Don’t Be Afraid to Stray From the Page
Many high-contrast, simple illustrations books do not have a lot of text. Some of them don’t have ANY text (cue head-scratching from new parent trying to use this for a bedtime story). The great thing about board books -- and reading to littles in general -- is that you don’t have to read exactly what is on the page. Describe what you are seeing. Point out details or colors. Label images. Make connections to your everyday life. Just remember to always add, never subtract.
Does your book include unusual vocabulary like “Hero Vs. Villain” by T. Nat Fuller? Add synonyms. Point out context clues in the illustrations. Make comparisons. Be careful not to substitute a more advanced word like “enemies” or “lair” for a more common or simple word. Always add, never subtract. This unusual vocabulary is one of the main reasons experts encourage reading with young kids. Nothing else can boost a child’s vocabulary like reading. Even before they can speak the words, children can understand them. Building background knowledge early makes things so much easier for kids in kindergarten and beyond. It is easier to sound out a word that we have heard before than one we are hearing or using for the first time.
Tip 3: Add Sound Effects
As I love to tell my storytime families, you will never look or sound more foolish than I do. Use sound effects! Authors include these words for a reason. They add excitement, build in interactivity, and also foster children’s phonological awareness (a fancy term that means the ability to recognize and manipulate sounds and various parts of words, another necessary skill when sounding out words). Try books about construction or transportation like “Planes Go” by Steve Light. “Little Master Conan Doyle” by Jennifer Adams and “On the Move” by Mojca Dolinar are other great examples.
Books filled with rhyme and repetition contain their own type of rhythm and sound effects. Having trouble with a kiddo who can’t sit still? Bounce your knees or tap their feet to the rhythm. Shake when the bee buzzes or the concrete mixer stirs. Sound effects can be physical as well as verbal.
Tip 4: Let Them Take the Lead
Board books are designed to be a little roughed up. Let your child open the flaps or turn the page when they are ready. It may not be after you have finished reading a page or asking a question. That’s okay. Maybe you just talk about what you see on the page instead of reading the story. Little ones learn by physical interaction. So, every tug, page turn, and even every bite and bit of drool is a learning experience. Are they smiling while they flip backwards to the silly monster page? Then get a little silly and revel in your monster skills. There is plenty of time later to focus on “properly” turning a page so it doesn’t rip and reading a story through to the end.
Tip 5: Make It Fun for the Grown-up, Too
Remember, positive experiences with books matter more than time spent with books. Don’t stress about getting your recommended 20 minutes of reading in every day. Five positive minutes, even spread out in multiple sittings, is more beneficial than forced reading time. Are you tired of reading that same book 20 times? Try asking your kiddo questions about what they see on the page and have them point out or describe things to you. Change up your reading style, rhythm or emphasis to keep it fresh for both of you. Revel in that reading cuddle time when they are too little to squirm away. If reading feels like a chore to you, it will feel like a chore to your kiddo too. If all else fails, throw out everything I have told you, and just have fun reading however you can.