The single most important thing you can do to help your child learn to read is something you probably already do: read to her every day. The younger a child is when you start her on the road to seeing, touching — even tasting! — books, the easier her transition to reading will likely be. And of course it’s never too early to start. Reading to babies helps forge connections in the brain that stimulate children’s developing language abilities, an important factor in learning to read. Children who have been read to since their earliest years will do better in reading than those who weren’t — an advantage that will help them throughout their school years and beyond.
You’ll find that your approach to reading to your child changes as she gets older, and as her experiences with different books vary. Reading to babies, for example, is a special art. Most babies enjoy simple board books that you can hold as you cuddle comfortably together. Some books have soft objects, like Pat the Bunny, that your child loves to touch. Other books are made of cardboard with clear and stark pictures. Still others have manipulatives like noises, or pop-ups that can engage her for hours. These types of books for babies help to support their growing vocabulary.
Advice for Reading with your Child
Pique your child’s interest by asking questions such as, “Look at the picture,” and “What’s that?” Respond to her words or babblings by giving her feedback, such as “Yes, you’re right. It’s a bunny.” More often than not, she’ll repeat — or try to repeat — your words. And the best follow-up is to extend her words by saying “That’s right, it’s a bunny, and look at his cute little cotton tail.” In these simple ways you are helping your child identify new words and understand their meanings. Reading these books again and again only reinforces what she is learning.
Of course, as children get a bit older, they’ll want to hear books of greater depth and variety. Toddlers just crave books with silly rhymes, rhythms, and patterns because they love to join in as you read. Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop is a natural choice for encouraging rhyme and rhythmic language. Especially on the first go-round, you might want to read the whole book without stopping to talk about the pictures so that your child hears the rhyme without interruption. The reading itself will help her learn how words relate to other words. Then after reading these books several times, you’ll find that your child will join in with the rhyme.
Predictable or pattern-based books encourage your child to predict what will come next in the story. These books are highly engaging and fun to read. Your child will want to actively participate and predict the story as you read books like Bill Martin and Eric Carle’s Brown Bear Brown Bear, What Do You See? Instead of reading straight through, try stopping each time before turning the page. Ask your child, “What do you think you will see?” Guessing is a wonderful way to encourage her to think about words and other animal names that might be in the story. Then turn the page, and have a good laugh together as you predict along with the story.
When you read storybooks, or nonfiction books to your toddler or preschooler, you might want to start by showing her the cover and pointing to some of the pictures. Encourage her to predict what the story might be about. You might even emphasize some interesting new words that she’s likely to encounter as you read the story. “This book is about Curious George. ‘Curious’ means being interested in something. What have you been curious about recently?” You’ll also want to talk about what it means to be an “author” of a book and an “illustrator,” so that if your child really loves this book she’ll just delight in others by the same author and illustrator.
It’s a good idea to read a couple of pages, and stop at various points to check your child’s understanding of the story. You might focus on the pictures and how they relate to the story, or bring some of your child’s previous experiences to the story events in a way that builds upon their meaning, such as, “What happened when you were curious the other day?” All along, you’ll want to ask, “What do you think will happen next?” By predicting the next events, your child will stay engaged with the story.
After finishing the story, think of saying, “What did you like most about the story? Tell me your favorite part.” Even though it might be close to bedtime, helping your child retell some of the story not only extends her language skills, but makes these stories her own. It also helps her practice the most basic techniques of literature, “the beginning, middle, and end.” This will encourage her to begin to distill the story down to its essence. And as many of you know, these stories and the important lessons they teach will often become a rich and valuable resource for her to draw upon for the rest of her life.