Reading is incredibly important to a child’s brain development. When you read to your little one, you are fostering language and literacy skills, promoting sturdy brain growth, and helping your child begin to make meaning of the world.
Purposeful reading means committing yourself to reading to your child every day, starting at birth. By doing so, you are making a tremendous difference in your child’s educational future. The more you read aloud, the larger your child’s vocabulary will grow.
Purposeful reading also creates a wonderful bonding experience. Early on, your infant will be comforted by the sound of your voice while picking up the rhythm and patterns of your speech. Starting at about 6 months of age, the words and phrases will begin to take on meaning.
Whenever you read, you are building your child’s book and print awareness. Your little one is observing that a book is read from front to back, that pages are read from left to right and from top to bottom, and that books have titles, authors, and illustrators.
Purposeful reading means selecting books that your child enjoys, that captivate and enthrall, that convey useful information, and that prompt learning. It means talking about images and visually interesting art.
And, purposeful reading means using serve-and-return interactions as you read to promote critical new brain connections.
Reading to an Infant
Research has shown that vocabulary use at age 3 is a strong predictor of language skills at age 10. During the first three years of life, brain development is influenced by the amount of central nervous system activity that results from experiences, such as free play, playing with toys, socializing with people, and exposure to books. If your child isn’t yet able to walk or talk, he or she must rely almost entirely on interactions with you and other caregivers for those experiences. The more stimulating and complex the experiences are, the better.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you read to your child beginning in early infancy. This practice helps boost a child’s vocabulary and reading skills four years later when they’re ready to begin kindergarten.
It might seem silly to read to an infant who doesn’t understand language yet, but it’s one of the most important things you can do. The word “infant” comes from the Latin infans, meaning “incapable of speech.” Still, an infant is very capable of detecting speech sounds. Physically, the part of your child’s brain responsible for speech production and language processing is highly active when you are reading to him or her. What’s more, your child will understand the meanings of words heard well before he or she begins producing words.
The Value of Rhyme
The Journal of Language and Literacy Education advises you to favor books with rhyming words for the first six months. Rhyming promotes an awareness of phonemes—the distinct speech sounds from which words are made, and that help distinguish one word from another, e.g., cat, cap, can—and helps a child develop an ear for language.
As your child matures and becomes more adept at rhymes, he or she will begin to notice that rhyming words often have shared letter sequences, e.g., “-at” in “cat,” “bat,” and “hat.” This gives your child a considerable head start in learning to read, as he or she will be able to make more correct guesses about what a particular word might be.
Making Reading Interactive
Whenever you read, make it an interactive experience. Even though your child may not yet be able to reply verbally (and even when he or she eventually can), pause after you ask or say something, giving your little one time to respond. That response could be subtle—perhaps something as simple as “ah,” “eh” and “ugh”—gibberish that you can respond to when it’s your turn. These back-and-forth interactions are examples of conversational “serves” and “returns” that build healthy brain development, according to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard.
By the time a child is 6 months old, he or she is beginning to understand the meanings of words heard. This is called receptive language. When a child is about a year old, he or she will begin producing words. So, even before your little one engages in a conversation with you, he or she may understand precisely what you’re saying. Choose your words carefully.
Reading to toddlers and twos
Keep things lively and engaging when sharing a book with a naturally curious, mobile child who finds fascination at every turn. Interactivity during reading is more important than ever, so invite your little one to choose which book to read, and to turn the pages as you read. Help your child connect illustrations in the book to the words on the page. Point out things in the pictures that are mentioned in the story. Even make a game of it by inviting your child to guess what a story is about based on the pictures. As the story unfolds, ask questions such as, “What do you think will happen next?” or “How do you think (he/she) feels?” Encourage and acknowledge responses along the way.
Ready, set, read!
We invite you to try one of these age-appropriate reading activities and cherish the time you spend reading to your child, knowing that your actions are having a lifelong impact on him or her. If you enjoy these sample activities, you’ll find hundreds more in the ParentPal app.
For 0-6 months
Choose any rhyming storybook, e.g., “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” by Bill Martin, Jr, “Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown, or “Hop on Pop” by Dr. Seuss.
- Create a relaxing atmosphere. Hold your baby comfortably in your lap, making sure he or she can see and reach the book pages easily.
- By 3 months of age, your child’s eyesight will have improved considerably. As you read, show baby each page, and point to and label characters or things mentioned in the text. At this age, expect your little one to want to touch or grasp the book—even put it in his or her mouth to explore. That’s okay; it’s how babies learn. You might give your child a toy or rattle to hold as you read.
- Read with enthusiasm, assigning voices to the characters in the story. And be sure to make it an interactive experience. Even though your little one may not yet be able to reply verbally (and even when your child eventually can), pause after you ask or say something, giving your little one time to “respond.” That response could be subtle—perhaps something as simple as “ah,” “eh,” or “ugh.” Talking with your child rather than talking at him or her are critical to language development.
- Emphasize the rhyming words as you read. When you’ve read the full page, repeat the rhyming words aloud and explain that they rhyme, or sound similar.
- Read as long as your little one shows interest, and stop reading if you see any sign that your child is becoming overstimulated or bored (looking away, fussing, closing his or her eyes).
- Even if you never get beyond the first page or two, no worries. Your goals in these early reading sessions are to interest your little one in the process of reading a book, to bond with your child as you read together, and to begin familiarizing him or her with the concept of “book.”
For 6-12 months
Consider choosing simple books with repetitive words and rhyming phrases. “Kitty,” “dog,” “duck,” and “baby,” are among the first 30 words children learn, so you might look for stories that feature these as characters. At 6 months of age, your child is beginning to understand the meanings of words you say. So, for example, even though your child may not yet say the word “kitty” or “dog,” he or she may understand the word when you say it. And, the more often your little one hears the same word, the more quickly he or she will learn its meaning.
- Create a relaxing atmosphere. Hold your child comfortably in your lap, making sure he or she can see and reach the book pages easily. Point to each word in the book’s title as you read it aloud. Then, open the book and begin reading. Speak slowly, and vary your voice to reflect different characters, an unfolding plot, or a rhyme scheme.
- If you’re reading a board book, promote interest and engagement by inviting your older child (10-12 months) to help turn the pages. (It’ll be another year or so before your little one’s fine-motor skills have developed such that he or she can turn individual paper pages.)
- As you read, point to and label things in the illustrations. Labeling objects helps your child learn more, and later apply what he or she learned to new situations. Ask general questions, always giving your little one time to “respond” even though he or she may not yet be talking. For example, you might ask, “Isn’t that a cute kitty?” After waiting five or so seconds, say, “Yes, that kitty is so cute! It looks just like a little ball of fur.”
- Read as long as your child shows interest, and stop reading if you see any sign that your child is becoming overstimulated or bored.
For 12-24 months
When choosing a book to read for this age range, remember that toddlers love repetition. Every time you reread a favorite story, your child makes more and more meaning of the words, and eventually will likely memorize them. So, don’t be afraid to read the same story many days in a row. The familiar words will seem like old friends. By 18 months of age, “baa baa,” “woof,” “moo,” and “quack” are among the nearly 75 words your little one understands and is beginning to produce. So, consider choosing stories about farm life, giving your child a chance to repeat the animals’ sounds when prompted.
- To get started, hold your child comfortably in your lap, making sure he or she can see and reach the book pages easily. Point to each word in the book’s title as you read it aloud. Then, give your child a brief overview of the story, e.g., “This is a story about a caterpillar that loves to eat fruit.” Then, open the book and begin reading with enthusiasm, varying your voice to reflect different characters, an unfolding plot, or a rhyme scheme.
- As you read, point to and label things in the illustrations to help connect the art to the story. This will become increasingly important as your child begins to realize that words are symbols that have meaning and that illustrations reflect what is conveyed through the words.
- At around this age, your little one is learning to point—a symbolic form of language. Pointing gives your child the opportunity to show you that he or she understands your words even when the ability to produce those words hasn’t yet developed. As you read, create interactivity by asking your little one to point to specific items on the page. For example, you might point to and label a butterfly and bee early on, and then later in the story ask, “Can you point to the butterfly? The bee?” Be sure to respond to any pointing your little one does by labeling what he or she is pointing to. “That’s right! There’s the butterfly! Now, it’s perched on a flower.”
- Read as long as your child is engaged, and stop reading if you see any signs of over-stimulation or boredom.
For 24-36 months
At this age, your child is beginning to notice repeating patterns in stories, e.g., the baby bird who asks every animal he meets, “Are you my mother?” or the back-and-forth dialogue between the bunny and his mother in “The Runaway Bunny.” Choosing such books to read can create fun, interactive experiences, giving your child the opportunity to identify and recite the repeating phrases as the story unfolds. Consider books that are lively and engaging to share with your naturally curious child who finds fascination at every turn, and involve your little one in deciding which book to read. Also, interactivity during reading is more important than ever, so continue to ask your child for help turning the pages.
- To begin, sit comfortably beside your child, making sure he or she can see and reach the book pages easily. Read the title, pointing to each word as you say it aloud. Point to and label characters and things on the cover. Then, give your child a brief preview of the story. For example, you might say, “This is a story about strange and funny animals that do strange and funny things.” Or, you might say, “This is a story with lots of rhyming words. Rhyming words are different words that sound almost the same. For example, ‘cold’ rhymes with ‘gold,’ and ‘fun’ rhymes with ‘one.’”
- Open the book and begin reading, pausing along the way to ask and answer questions. Point to and label things and characters in the illustrations. If you’re reading a rhyming story, point out the words that rhyme as you go along. In future reads, give your child the chance to fill in missing rhyming words.
- After reading a story, prompt higher-order thinking by asking your child a question such as, “Which is your favorite (animal)? Why?” or “Which (character) would you want as your friend?” Flip back through the pages to help your child recall the story and respond to your question.
- Read as long as your child is engaged, and stop reading if your little one’s interest wanes.