Reading to our children is one of the most natural inclinations for most parents. Stories have been passed down throughout humanity first through oral tradition, and then written text. We share this history with our children each time we pull them into out laps and open a book. We share language, imagery, experience, and emotion. Children love to hear their adult’s voices engaged in a story. They may develop favorites, asking you to read “Goodnight Moon” again, and again, and again… We know it is important to read to our children, and the act of reading is fairly simple, but there are a few things you can do to help your children get the most out of your story time experience, and make it more fun for you too.
1. Model concepts about print.
This is a fancy way of saying, show your child how books work. Show your child how to hold a book. Show them that books have a front cover and a back, that there are pages in the middle. Show your child how to turn the pages, what direction you read in. Point out the words, the text, identifying sentences, words, and letters. Tell your child that the words contain a message, and that message is what you are conveying to them.
2. Take a picture walk.
The pictures in a story are often just as important as the words! A picture walk is a way to read the story, without reading any words. This can be done with new stories, as a way to familiarize, and make predictions about the story. Or it can be done with stories you have read many times, letting go of the words and just looking at the pictures is a way to make an old favorite new.
3. Build vocabulary.
It is well documented that the act of reading builds a child’s vocabulary. A conscious way to do this with young children is to point out as many objects, characters, and ideas as possible. Pause when you see something in an illustration, or read something in the text that you think may be unfamiliar to them. Talk about the word, describe it, spend a little time with just that piece of information.
4. Use intonations in your voice.
When you are reading a story, especially one that you have read for the ten thousandth time, make it fun by using an animated voice. Give characters special voices, illuminate sounds, change your volume to create wonder and surprise. This is what links reading to storytelling, and storytelling to theater. This is what creates joy in the experience. It may even help your child to remember information more easily.
5. Let your child choose.
Allow your child to guide your story time. Let them pick the books. (You may need to encourage them to move beyond their favorites at some point. Do this by letting them pick one and picking one yourself.) Let them choose the place to sit, the blanket to cuddle up with. Let your child hold the book, turn the pages (even if they go too fast sometimes! Improvise the in-between, or gently point out that you missed some of the story). Letting your child choose sends them the message that reading can be an enjoyable, independent activity.
6. Build background knowledge.
Reading is a way to help us understand the world around us. But when the world around us is new sometimes it can be difficult to understand concepts presented in a book. For instance, if you are reading a book about a big city but you live in a small town, your child may not have any experience to draw on to understand what a city is. This is when you can take your story time off your couch, and out into the world! Building background knowledge is as simple as going out and experiencing the world. You can make choices on what you read to your child based on what you are experiencing, or vice versa.
7. Create a dialogue.
Talk to your child about books. Make the characters, the events, the ideas you encounter during your story time, part of your everyday conversations and life. Also take time while reading to talk about life. Your child may make connections between your stories and their day at school, or their trip to the zoo, or even a dream they had last night. These connections build pathways in their brains, allowing them to link memories with ideas and words. This is how language grows.
8. Read every day.
Read to your child every day, yes. But also read for yourself every day. Read in front of your child. Read the newspaper. Read a book. Read the side of a cereal box. It doesn’t matter what you read (although some might argue that reading from a screen may not be excellent modeling), it simply matters that you show your child that reading is an important part of life. Show your child that you can read for information, and enjoyment, and they will likely learn and love to do the same!