Reading to infants and children is the single most effective means of supporting their language and literacy development. In addition, reading stories and poetry to infants and children fosters healthy bonding and attachment. Reading time should be quiet and unhurried, a respite from our busy schedules and demanding chores. For young infants, very simple, repetitive stories or poems are best. At this age level, the sounds and rhythms of the words are more important than the content, and your voice is the sound that they like best. Toward the middle of the first year, you can enhance story time by pointing to, and naming, some of the other features depicted on the pages. Toward the end of the first year, many children will be able to point to the characters or other objects that you have named and pointed out.
Because children like to hear the same story over and over again, it can sometimes become a little boring for us. But we have to remember that the world is so new for our children that each time we read the story they are discovering something fresh, whether facets of language or pictures or the connections between our words, the printed words and the pictures. We can enhance reading time both for our children and ourselves by introducing some variations. For example, sometimes we can read the story more slowly, or more rapidly. Sometimes this will elicit a giggle, and sometimes discomfort. “Okay, guess you don’t like high speed reading, I will take it easy next time.” When you begin to read stories that have characters talking it is fun to change your voice to match the character.
For example, when reading the three bears to little ones, I use a squeaky voice for the baby bear, a moderate voice for the Mama bear and as basso a voice as I can manage for the Papa bear. As children get used to the stories you can intentionally make mistakes like calling a character by the wrong name, or skipping part of the paragraph. Children will quickly catch you up on these errors and when you acknowledge this, “oops you are right, it is a duck not a chicken”.
This gives the little ones a sense of achievement and language proficiency. It also helps to lessen the idea that we adults are all knowing and all powerful; an experience that helps to break down some of the barriers to effective bonding and attachment. Reading to our children is a practice that need not stop even when they are able to read on their own. Even older children like us to read to them before going to sleep.
I cannot end this piece without recounting a personal story. I always read to my sons when they were young. My youngest son Rick was, however, refusing to engage in any reading activities in first grade. When the teacher told me about it, I asked him why he hid under the table when reading instruction was going on. He said, “If I learn to read you won’t read to me anymore.” I assured him I would continue to read to him. He was an English major in college and continues to be an avid reader.
If we make reading time a fun time for ourselves and for our children it has enormous benefits for us and for them.
By Professor David Elkind