Read Your Children a Story—and Boost Their Brainpower

Reading Time

As I read to my son over the first two years of his life, I often wondered how he interpreted the words, the pictures, and my tone of voice. When he lay on my lap at eight weeks, gazing at a bathrobe and a sandbox in Lucy Cousins’ Maisy’s Colors, how did he process these images? When he chose Richard Scarry’s Humperdink’s Busy Day over DK Publishing’s My First Body Board Book at 20 months, what attracted him to one and not the other?

Literacy experts do not understand everything about how very young children’s brains interact with books, but they do know that babies and toddlers respond to different elements of the reading experience. Here’s a guide into what might be going on in your little one’s brain as you read Jamberry one more time.

Young Babies: It’s About Attitude

For newborns, reading primarily fosters relationships with caregivers and creates positive attitudes toward books. In the first half of the first year, adults are laying a foundation for the baby to associate reading with happiness and connection.

“Newborns really are not so much interested in the books as they’re interested in the comfort and closeness of being held and the rhythm and the intonation of their adults’ voices,” says Dr. Ann Barbour, PhD, professor of early childhood education at California State University, Los Angeles. To promote this closeness, parents can read lullabies or nursery rhymes while holding babies in a comfortable position, Dr. Barbour says.

Newborns tend to enjoy looking at pictures of the human face, according to Drs. Stephen Herb and Sara Willoughby-Herb, PhDs, in their book Using Children’s Books in Preschool Settings. At this age, parents can “choose a few books that baby likes and reread them regularly.”

In addition, young infants “can really see vivid colors” and may like books that reflect that preference, says Sherry Wong, director of product strategy at the Talaris Research Institute in Seattle. The institute communicates research on early childhood development to parents.

Developmentally, hearing spoken language at an early age “promotes the development of speech centers in the brain,” allowing a baby to discriminate among and recognize different sounds, says Dr. Bob Stevens, PhD, associate professor of educational psychology at Penn State University. This “phonemic awareness” can help kids better understand a wide range of vocabulary words as they grow older.

However, children cannot really understand the content of books until they comprehend oral language, according to Dr. Margaret Moustafa, PhD, professor of education at California State University, Los Angeles. “Until children have enough spoken language to understand books read to them,” explains Dr. Moustafa, “all they can learn from being read to is activities associated with reading, such as how one turns pages.”

Older Babies: I Think This Might Mean Something

During the second half of the first year, children can focus more on books, partly because they are able to sit up. “It’s easier for me to read when I’m sitting or standing rather than lying down, too,” says Dr. Barbour, who is one of two content advisors for “A Place of Our Own,” a public television series on KCET in Los Angeles that promotes early literacy.

As they move toward age one, children start to understand that “pictures represent things in their environment,” that a picture of a ball symbolizes a real ball, Dr. Barbour says. Later, kids apply this connection to other symbols, such as numbers and letters.

Tapping into this new understanding of symbols, Drs. Herb and Willoughby-Herb suggest that a parent “point to and label something on each page” in a basic book. After a number of times reading the same book, the parent can “encourage baby to point to a particular item,” especially something she likes.

As children approach one year they “are starting to recognize that books really say something,” Dr. Barbour says—that words tell a story and convey meaning. Dr. Stevens calls this “print awareness” and sees it as a crucial basis for later formal reading instruction.

Young Toddlers: I Get It!

The year of astonishing growth from age one to two brings a sense of mastery and joy with familiar books. This age also introduces a physicality that parents can incorporate into reading.

If “books are part of [children’s] everyday experiences in their homes—they’re familiar, like toys—[kids] really just delight in being read to,” says Dr. Barbour. Young toddlers are much more interested in a book’s content than they were as babies and often treat reading as a “peek-a-boo game,” wanting to know what is on the next page, she adds.

As children begin speaking a few words, it is important to provide simple picture books that they can label and begin to repeat back to the parent, Wong says. Later in the second year, many toddlers also like rhyming books.

At this stage it is especially important to provide resilient board books for the child “so that she can ‘read’ and turn pages independently,” say Drs. Herb and Willoughby-Herb. These authors also suggest setting up an easily accessible bookshelf or other area so the child “can find her own books and put them away,” contributing to a sense of accomplishment in reading.

Given young toddlers’ fascination with moving around, what should parents do to keep them interested while reading? Most important, experts say, is to follow the child’s cues and not force the issue.

“Maybe the worst thing the parents can do is say, ‘It’s reading time,'” and march through the book page by page until they finish, says Wong. Instead, just keep reading while the child moves around. “They can be walking around the room, they can be crawling around the floor—you’re still telling a story,” Wong says. Reading at this age continues to be about associating books with pleasure and relationships, not about sitting absolutely quietly.

There are books out there for every child, “even the little people who hustle about and really don’t sit still,” says Dr. Herb, who is director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book at Penn State University. He also suggests taking advantage of natural “pin-down” times to read, such as high chair feeding or bedtime.

Two and Beyond: Interaction Is It

As they begin to talk, children transition from labeling pictures to having a dialogue with books. At this time, it is especially crucial to “follow their interests,” says Dr. Moustafa, such as the moon or trucks or even car exhaust pipes. As parents talk with their children about a passion, these conversations help create children’s “‘schemas,’ or knowledge of the world,” Dr. Moustafa says, allowing kids to make more sense of the subject.

Also key is to discuss stories with kids and make sure they understand the language and the meaning. “It is OK to focus on words,” such as, “Do you know what gigantic means?” and then talk about how that word appears in the story, says Dr. Stevens.

More generally, parents can read “in a way that enables the child to comprehend the story,” says Dr. Moustafa. “This could mean anticipating comprehension problems or responding to the child’s questions.” If a parent simply reads through a story in lockstep, without stopping for questions or checking to see if a child understands, the child might physically remove herself from the room in frustration, Dr. Moustafa says.

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