Getting Your Child Hooked on Books

Last Editorial Review: 4/1/2005

Hooked on Books

WebMD Feature

Want to raise a good reader? Then brush up on your storytelling skills. Storytelling and reading with children from an early age have a tremendous influence on your child's development, both mentally and emotionally. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), however, only 50 percent of toddlers and infants are routinely read to by their parents. In fact, the research showing reading is beneficial is so strong that First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has joined the AAP to encourage parents to read to their children every day, beginning at 6 months. Here are some important effects that an early introduction to books and stories have on a child.

Quality Is More Important Than Quantity

The way you read to your child is perhaps the most important factor of all -- even more important than how much you read. It's vital to encourage your child's participation. Your child will be less likely to receive the benefits of reading if he is simply a passive listener. In a study reported in the journal Developmental Psychology in 1988, researchers demonstrated the benefit of "active" reading in a program of storybook reading with 2-year-old children. Children whose parents engaged them in a dialogue about the story fared substantially better in several measures of language development. Prompting and encouraging your child's participation, elaborating on what your child says about the story, and praising your child for her efforts are key to successful language development. In fact, reading without engaging the child may result in your child losing interest.

Stories also help your child figure out the world. Storytelling and reading boost a child's imagination and help him feel in control of and learn about his environment. Take the following scenario:

Three-year-old Alex is playing in the bathtub when he notices a spider on the ceiling. Frightened, he turns to his father and says, "Daddy, there's a spider. I'm scared." His father responds by saying, "Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Alex who was taking a bath. One night a spider came to visit." "Does the spider bite?" asks Alex, still apprehensive, but also engrossed. "No, he's a very nice spider." "What's he going to do?" asks Alex. "He just wants to say hello. Then he returned to his own family to give his kids a bath, too. The End." Alex continues playing in his bath, occasionally having an imaginary conversation with the creature he was needlessly frightened of only moments earlier.

Reading together also offers one-on-one time. Storytelling and reading with a youngster can also help strengthen the bond between parent and child. These shared activities help kids associate stories and books with parental affection -- an association that pays great dividends in developing a lasting love for learning and reading.

The Academic Benefit

Numerous studies have found that the more "early literacy" experiences children have with books and stories before they begin elementary school, the better prepared they will be to learn to read and write. Unfortunately, a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics (April, 1999) found that nearly one in four low-income homes with children had less than 10 books of any kind. To combat the inadequacies, pediatricians across the country are beginning book-distribution programs in their practices for infants, toddlers and preschool children.

It's important to know what you can expect from your child -- and what you should be offering -- at each stage. Here are some guidelines:

  • Babies love to hear their parents' voices, even if they can't understand what you're saying. Fluctuating your tone and using facial expressions will help increase a baby's attention span. Once infants are capable of physically grasping a book -- around their first birthday -- they can explore the book as an object.
  • After the second birthday, children can be encouraged to point to pictures and name objects.
  • After the third birthday, children can be prompted to participate in the book's story by describing the events on the page.
  • After the age of 4, children can learn to tell a simple story. They can also incorporate reading, storytelling and writing in their play.
  • Kids age 5 and up who know their alphabet and sounds can begin to identify letters and words on a page. Having crayons and writing utensils nearby can help your child practice writing skills.

The following tips will help make reading a fun learning experience, no matter what your child's age.

  • Hold your child in your lap while you read and allow him or her to touch and turn the pages.
  • Engage your child's participation by using open-ended questions, e.g., "What is happening now?" "What do you think will happen next?"
  • Make storybook reading a special time that's shared every day. Create a special "reading nook" where you and your child can cuddle up together at the end of each day.
  • Encourage make-believe play that allows a child to "act out" stories that he or she is familiar with. Offer both realistic toys and other everyday materials (save those paper-towel cylinders) to encourage imaginative thinking.

Finally, as your child begins to make the connection between written language and stories, don't worry about him or her getting it right as much as encouraging ideas and effort. Behind every successful reader is a supportive parent or caregiver.

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