Toddlers and preschoolers are masters of YouTube and iPads as they quickly finesse their favorite games and stories. And yet, while they love technology, they still love books. They love turning pages, pointing to pictures, following characters from page to page. Most importantly, just like grown-up readers, they love all the ways that books add meaning and understanding to their lives.
Book reading is a skill-building process that begins long before children learn the alphabet, phonics, decoding and sentence structure. Children first discover that pictures and words have meaning. Books are unique kinds of objects that are "about" something - people, places, animals, the world. Many children learn about things like trains and cows before they ever see one in real life. They read about feelings in books that they barely understand - frustration, anger, sadness, fear - from the safety of a parent's lap.
Books create connections. Books connect a child's inner world to a shared world. They connect family life to grand adventures, ordinary experiences to treasures. Books answer questions and solve problems. Books help children make sense of things that make no sense and they even bring nonsense and surprise to the boring and the serious. Books are friends.
Books as objects
Children don't start with a keen appreciation of books as extraordinary, special objects. Babies and toddlers go through stages of book handling and comprehension. That's why babies and toddlers need durable, washable, waterproof, child-friendly books. First books must be experienced as objects before your child learns what makes this object unique. Your child needs to teethe on it before she learns to turn the pages or point to the remarkable pictures within. One day, probably before her first birthday, she will even learn that the words and the pictures are always the same in her favorite books. The content of the pages is not random but deliberate and purposeful.
Reading books is an act of love
Children become readers because of the strong attachment associated with book reading - sitting in laps, intimate bedtime stories, and loving attention. Choose books with a deep appreciation for your child's interests and experiences. Some books are clearly about what they appear - bedtime, potty training, quite-and-loud, yummy-yucky. Others resonate with children in ways that adults sometimes overlook - trains are orderly; dinosaurs are powerful; lift-the-flap books are predictable.
Reading comprehension begins the first time your child is mesmerized by the characters or actions in a story. More powerful still is the moment your child recognizes himself in a character, like Llama Llama, No David, or Ladybug Girl. Children understand when their feelings, needs, wants and struggles are validated in a book. Since that's not always possible in the very busy, efficient, mature world of rules and grown-ups, books offer essential relief, guidance and reassurance to children learning the ways of the world.
Books build brain power
Reading is the cornerstone of learning because it requires very specific cognitive skills - recognizing letters, sounds, words and meaning. It also requires executive function - patience, perseverance and delayed gratification. Your child will learn to read - most probably between 5 and 8 years old. But picture and story comprehension begins much younger.
Your child's first reading experiences with you are creating reading habits for a lifetime. Make reading thoughtful and interactive from the start. Here are 10 suggestions for meaningful book experiences.
- Look for books that are genuinely exciting to you and your child.
- Let your child discover his favorite parts of the book: the pictures, the characters, the story, the song, the interaction. If your child doesn't sit for books, don't force the process. Simply look for books with actions and ways for your child to participate.
- Read a page or half a book if your child is more interested in something else. The book can still inspire connections to non-book activities and real life objects.
- Use book vocabulary in everyday situations. Repeat catchy phrases and silly words to build familiarity and new contexts.
- Ask factual and open-ended questions about the story and characters. E.G. "Look at the mommy's face in the book - what does she want?", "Where is the little boy going? ", "Do you want to do that too?"
- Let your child make inferences. "Uh oh, what's going to happen next?" Also, let your child fill in the next word or sentence as you read.
- Retell book stories in other contexts. E.G. while driving, walking to the store, or playing on the playground.
- Act out story actions in play settings. Live the action and feel the emotions. Role play different characters.
- Use book characters and events to highlights connections in your child's day. Books can be very helpful teaching new behaviors, understanding rules and preparing for new situations.
- Make your own books using your own stories. Use photos of your child and familiar people and objects to create personal stories for your child (e.g. Goodnight Room can be your child's personal Goodnight Moon story). Children are eager read their own words and their own story.
Young children's experiences with books is a unique opportunity to master abstract thinking, problem solving, empathy and perspective-taking. So don't get too caught up in formal reading skills and miss these other exciting components of books and reading. Grown-ups don't read because they can; they read because they want to!