The American Pediatric Association has said that reading aloud with young children is one of the most effective ways to expose them to enriched language and to encourage the specific early literacy skills needed to promote school readiness. So it’s never too early to start reading to your baby.
Just over a year ago this ‘conversation’ between comedian DJ Pryor and his 18-month-old son went viral on social media. The interaction, which simulated a real conversation between the father and his 18-month-old son, Kingston, was punctuated with turn taking, gestures, shared enjoyment, varying intonation, and a whole lot of babble. Apart from being cute and funny, the ‘conversation’ emphasises why you should read to your baby: babies learn language by listening to language. The thing about spoken language is that all humans are innately programmed to learn to speak – so the more you speak to a child, the more they’ll learn.
What about reading?
Reading is different to spoken language because it is not innate. Children don’t learn to read unless they are explicitly taught to. Although you may feel silly reading out loud to your baby, who likely seems to enjoy eating the book more than the actual story, here are some reasons why you should:
- Reading together when babies are young creates a book-sharing routine and increases the chances that it’s a habit you’ll continue as they get older.
- It means they’re hearing language and, the more words they hear – over and over again – the more they’ll learn.
- Reading allows your baby to explore books by touching (or mouthing), opening and closing, and recognising pictures – these are the beginning of pre-literacy skills.
- Reading aloud stimulates young children’s language development and develops listening comprehension, which is an important part of literacy development.
How to read with your baby
- Establish a reading routine. It doesn’t have to be at bedtime – any time of the day works, even bath time!
- Choose books with rhyme, rhythm and repetition to enhance your baby’s awareness of different sounds.
- Select a variety of books with different formats and genres. For example – plastic bath books, cardboard books, and pop-up books. You never know what will grab your child’s attention. If possible, try to find books in your home language, with your cultural, and ethnic background – stories that your child will have a personal connection with are often highly motivating. You can even create your own story books using family photos.
- Don’t expect your baby to sit still and listen to a whole story. Initially, 2 to 3 minutes of reading is more than enough. Signs that they’re interested in a book include smiling, gurgling, patting the page, pointing, imitating sounds and even grabbing the book. Stop when your baby is are no longer interested – don’t push beyond what they’re capable of.
- Don’t give up too easily. If your baby isn’t interested in the book that you’ve chosen, try a different one. Levels of engagement change across contexts, and times.
Here’s my inspiration for this post
This clip of Kitt (via @mrcraigharding), aged 14 months, was the inspiration for this post. As you’ll see, she’s well on the road to reading. She is clearly mimicking reading behaviour that she has learnt. She turns the page (albeit upside down), and ‘reads’ with varying intonation, gestures (pointing) and enjoyment.
The important takeaway here is that reading aloud to your babies and children is crucial, especially at a time in which competing entertainment such as screen time, electronic devices, and distractions, may limit family interactions. Regular reading sessions stimulate optimal patterns of brain development and strengthens parent-child relationships at a critical time in their development. This, in turn, builds language, literacy, and social-emotional skills that will last a lifetime.