In our house, one of the highlights of my day is when I sink into the rocking chair in my son’s nursery, pull him up into my arms, and together we turn the pages of a bedtime book. At 1 year old, Liam is too little to make sense of the words printed on each page, but I hope that, eventually, he’ll share my love of the written word.
While many of us may associate the idea of learning to read with a 5- or 6-year-old sitting in a classroom, numerous studies have shown that children need exposure to language — both spoken and printed — from the earliest days of their lives. As parents, we’re in the best position to pour words into our little charges, arming them with the reading, writing and speaking skills that will serve them throughout their lives.
And what better day to make this commitment to fostering that love for reading in children than today, Read Across America Day. The event celebrates the 107th birthday of the late Dr. Seuss by encouraging children to read books.
We talked with local librarians who specialize in early literacy for their best ideas on how to introduce books to babies and small children. Their suggestions may surprise you: There’s plenty of singing, playing, cuddling and all-around-general-silliness and very little, if any, drudgery.
Our sources: Carol Mitchell trains librarians throughout the state about early literacy in her role as a task force member for the Ohio Ready to Read initiative. She is also head librarian at the Cedarville Community Library, part of the Greene County Public Library System. Kathleen Moore is the early literacy specialist for the Dayton Metro Library.
B is for baby
When should you start to read to your baby?
Before birth wouldn’t hurt, Moore said. “They say that a fetus can pick up on some aspects of a mother’s voice. If you read aloud while your child is in utero, that sound will be familiar to them after birth,” she said.
From birth to age 3 is a pivotal time in brain development, Mitchell said. The neural connections that help us to understand language develop during this time. “Reading, singing and talking are all activities that help to develop those synapses,” Mitchell said. But if the brain is not stimulated enough, some of those synapses may never form and a child’s lifelong learning ability is impeded.
In her work with Ohio Right to Read, Mitchell encourages parents to follow five simple practices to get those vital synapses firing: talking, singing, reading, writing and playing. “All of these activities are proven to help with the process when children first start to decode those squiggly symbols on a page,” she said.
T is for talk
Talk, talk, talk, talk and talk some more to your babies and children. From you, they’re learning the basics of sentence construction, vocabulary, grammar and an appreciation and knowledge of the wider world.
It doesn’t always have to be profound. “When you’re grocery shopping, tell them that you need to get apples and what kind of cheese you’re buying,” Mitchell said.
Listening to your child is also important, Moore said. “They have a lot to say, even when they’re still at the one-word stage,” she said. “One of the best learning strategies is to have adults engage with children and really listen to them. At this age, the imaginative world they live in is so rich for learning how stories work.”
S is for sing
Babies love it when you sing to them, no matter how tuneful you may or may not be. “Do it in a joyful way, and they’ll enjoy it,” Mitchell said.
When you sing, you typically are breaking the words down into smaller parts, which is the same thing you do when you read. “If you are in second grade and you are sounding out words, you’ve learned the rule of breaking them down into smaller sections,” Moore said.
R is for read
There’s no wrong way to read to a child, but there are ways to make it more fun for both you and him.
No one, especially not a baby, wants to listen to someone read in a monotone voice. Who hasn’t talked to a baby in a sing-songy voice? Do the same when you read. “Read with some enthusiasm, emotion and character. Do voices, if you can,” Mitchell said. Feeling shy? “Remember that no one else is listening.”
Reading experts encourage a style of reading called dialogic reading. That’s a fancy way of saying that it’s valuable to discuss a book while you are reading it with your child. Asking questions — even of the very small — can help your listener engage with the book. “You want to get them involved in the story. Don’t ask yes or no questions, but encourage them to elaborate,” Mitchell said. You might ask a baby to point at the duck on the page, and an older child what they think will happen next to the main character.
When your child wants to hear a book for the 450th time, oblige. Admittedly, it may not be that fun for you, but it’s great for your kid. “They end up memorizing it and as they get a little older, they will start putting together the words and letters,” Mitchell said. Also: “Repetition is important for their sense of safety.”
If your child won’t sit still for an entire book, that’s okay. It’s better to let her slide off your lap and go play with her blocks than try to force her to sit still. “You can continue to read while they play,” Moore suggested. “At certain points in the story, they may surprise you and come over to see the book.”
Don’t forget to also pick up a book or magazine for yourself. “Children mimic everything we do. If they don’t see you reading for pleasure, why would they do it?” Mitchell said. “They need to see you reading.”
W is for write
Although your baby probably prefers to eat his crayons rather than use them to write his name, you can start introducing him to letters. “Looking at and recognizing shapes is the first step toward recognizing letters,” Mitchell said.
Teach your child the first letter in her name and make a game of looking for that letter everywhere, from cereal boxes to billboards. Get a set of alphabet magnets for your fridge and let your little one have fun rearranging them.
When your child does start scribbling on paper, encourage them by using those magnets to display their masterpieces. Keep the house well stocked with child-accessible pencils, pens and washable markers and lots and lots of blank sheets of paper for creative coloring. “There’s always a story connected to their drawings. Have them tell it to you as they are drawing,” Mitchell said.
P is for play
Whether or not you think books are treasured objects, for children this age, they should be viewed as play things. Let your baby gnaw on her books, your toddler rip the peek-a-boo flaps off his books and your preschooler make teetering towers of them on your kitchen table.
Kids will not only pretend to be princesses or superheroes, they also will pretend to be readers. “Support and celebrate when a child sits down and starts pretend reading,” Moore said.
“We want them to see books, on some level, as toys, as something that makes them happy. Put books down on a low shelf with the toys, so they can enjoy them,” Mitchell said. “The worst thing to do is put them up high on a shelf.”
Moore likes the idea of keeping books handy, spread throughout the house. “Maybe do some reading during meal time or bath time. Keep books about painting and drawing with the art supplies,” she said. “Certainly keep them in your car. If you’re stuck waiting, instead of handing them your cell phone to play with, hand them a book.”
C is for cozy
Reading is a great chance to cuddle with your baby or toddler. “Babies love hearing your voice and being held,” Moore said. “They absorb that love and attention.” For your older child, create a cozy spot for them to read in, whether it’s a corner in their room or the living room. You could put pillows down and place a basket of books nearby.
Many parents, like myself, find bedtime to be the perfect time to enjoy reading, but any time can be a good time to connect. For some families, it might be when the parents first come home from work.
“Whenever it is, if it’s a predictable part of the routine, children are more likely to settle down and enjoy it,” Moore said.
As your child grows, reading is a way to keep them content, with or without your assistance. “Kids who are readers aren’t constantly pulling on Mom to say, ‘I’m bored.’” Mitchell said.
V is for visit
Not surprisingly, our librarians suggested parents take their babies and small children to the library, both for regular visits and for special events.
“We really want libraries and children’s areas to feel family-friendly. It’s OK for babies to cry and for toddlers to pull off books,” Moore said. “It should be a fun place for kids to visit, filled with free books they can take home with them.”
Libraries throughout the Miami Valley offer storytimes for infants and small children. Especially in the winter months, it can be a welcome break from the house for parents.
If you’re stuck on what songs to sing to your child, the sessions will help you brush up on classics like “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and introduce you to other simple rhymes for kids. My son sometimes crawls off to explore a corner, but he also has giggled happily while watching a young librarian make finger puppets dance.
“For us, when we have storytime, it’s about having fun with reading,” Mitchell said. “We do stories, songs, movement and all sorts of stimulating activities.”
While there, ask the children’s librarian for suggestions for books. “We are professionals and can guide you to books and CDs that are appropriate to your child’s age and interests,” Mitchell said. “We live for this stuff! You are never bothering us.”
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