“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” – Dr. Seuss, “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!”
We all know that reading is good for you, but what role does reading have in language development? Why should I read to my child? What type of books should I get for my child? How often should we read together?
Research shows that reading a book with your child benefits a wide range of early language skills. Children who read regularly from an early age learn language faster, have larger vocabularies and become more successful readers in school. When we think of how language is acquired, think of all the different words your child hears throughout a typical day including dinnertime conversations, words from a television show, or a passerby’s small talk. Learning words from naturally being exposed to language is called incidental exposure and is critical for word learning. Gradually, by hearing words repeatedly and used in different contexts, a young child’s vocabulary will grow quickly.
Adults also play a large factor in influencing children’s language development. Adults who have conversations with the child and elaborate on the meaning of words can help the child learn the word more quickly, adding new vocabulary to their repertoire.
Ok, that’s great…but what does that have to do with me reading with my child?
The answer is: a lot! When learning language, it is important for children to have multiple ways to learn vocabulary. For young children this means, learning new words naturally through your everyday environments, talking to them, and …by being read to! Reading to your child allows them to hear words used in certain contexts and hear words that might not be used often in everyday conversation, such as “damp” or “frightened”. Reading helps make meaning of certain words because as the parent you can: point out what a word means, refer to a picture in the book and use different voices or gestures to explain the meaning (for example using a quiet voice to show ‘whispering’). Reading does not only expand vocabulary but teaches grammar as well. The more your child is exposed to grammatically correct sentences, the more likely they will pick up on the rules and use it in their everyday language.
What kind of books should I read to my child?
Children learn best when they are interested. There are many different types of picture books to explore. Board books that have colour and realistic pictures are a great choice for younger children. They are also durable and have thick pages so your child can help turn them (working on those fine and gross motor skills along with it!) Here is a list of some different types of books:
Picture books with realistic photos and images of other children such as Baby Faces by Margaret Miller are great for learning emotions and body parts.
Lift-the-flap books such as Where’s Spot? by Eric Hill lets your child take on an active role during story time.
Noisy books such as Noisy Farm by Usborne are fun for younger children, encouraging them to imitate sounds and actions.
Touch-and-Feel books such as Baby Touch and Feel: Fluffy Animals by DK really promotes the multi-sensory approach to learning as your child will not only hear and see words, but can touch and feel too.
Song books: why not pair your child’s favourite nursery rhyme with visuals and pictures? This helps put the words of the song in context.
Repetitive books: Books with lots of repetition help your child remember patterns and connect key concepts. Classic favourites include Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see by Bill Martin Jr.
Storybooks: encourage conversations about the characters, settings, and events. For older children they can start making predictions of what they think will happen next, or rationalize why a character did what they did.
Non-fiction books: allow you child to explore a topic they are interested in in more depth.
These are just some suggestions of where to start. There are no “right” books for your child. Some books might focus on pre-linguistic skills such as rhyming, letters and sounds, while others encourage more conversations about the story, characters and setting. What is important is that you capture your child’s interest. Just like following your child’s interest in play, let your child lead when reading. When reading with your child, keep it positive! This means acknowledging what they are interested in, expanding what they say and elaborating and adding new ideas to their thoughts.
Now that I know reading to my child helps their language development, how often should I read?
Acquiring language and building vocabulary is a gradual process. It becomes increasingly refined over time and with repeated exposure. There is no magic number of how many books you need to read, or how often you should read.
Reading with your child gives them the opportunity for language-rich interactions about the world they are living in. Books are not just found at your local or big retail bookstores. Here are some ideas of where you can find books:
Your local library
Borrow from family and friends.
Make your own! Start a scrapbook with family photos.
Dickinson, D., Griffith, J., Golinkoff, R. & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2012). How Reading Books Fosters Language Development Around the World. Child Development Research, 2012, 1-15 DOI: 10.1155/2012/602807
Justice, L., Meier, J. & Walpole, S. (2005). Learning New Words from Storybooks. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools. 36(1), 17-32. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/00220671.1994.9944821