The Right Way To Read to Your Toddler

A Little Extra Effort Goes a Long Way

Most parents know that reading books aloud to our toddlers is generally good idea. The benefits of reading to our toddlers, however, are much more tangible and specific than is conveyed by generalities such as  “it's good for brain development” or "it gives your child a leg up."

Reading to your child at home has been found to help significantly improve academic outcomes, which can translate into increased occupational success and even increased self-esteem as an adult.

Specifically, studies have show that reading books at home is an important way to impart foundational literary skills to a child and that children who enter school with these foundational literary skills tend to have significantly improved academic outcomes when compared with their peers who do not. And it doesn’t stop at academics, because high levels of literacy have been linked to increased occupational success and even increased self esteem.

So we’re all clear on the benefits of reading to our toddlers—time to get reading right? Well, while some reading is clearly better than no reading, there are certain strategies and techniques that parents can utilize to significantly amplify the benefits of reading to their children.  Thankfully, many of these techniques come naturally.

Put simply, you can amplify the benefits of reading to your child by taking a few simple steps and developing a systematic approach towards your reading sessions.

In this post, we set forth a holistic approach to reading with your toddler, covering everything from parental reading style to the selection of books to selection of locations and times for reading sessions.  A little extra effort in these areas can go a long way for your toddler.

Adopting the RightReading Style

One of the easiest ways parents can help impart the benefits of reading to their toddlers is by adopting the correct reading style. This involves three steps:  (1) employing "dialogic reading" techniques, (2) employing “shared reading” techniques and (3) "finger tracing.” 

"Dialogic Reading"

Dialogic reading (also known as "interactive reading") may sound like a complicated concept, but the truth is it’s very simple and you may already be inadvertently employing this reading technique. All it really entails is trying to create a dialogue or conversation with your child concerning the book at hand. Do this by asking your child questions about the book and characters as you move through pages.

It may sound too good to be true, but employing this reading technique has been found to help children score “substantially ahead” on language development tests as compared with their peers who have been read to in the more traditional "parent reads, child listens“ manner. In fact, this technique is so powerful that introducing it can significantly improve vocabulary and other linguistic skills for children who enter school behind their peers in terms of exposure to written materials.  

Answering "Why" Questions 

In line with the dialogic reading approach, make sure to take the time to answer any questions your child independently poses while you are reading together. Specifically, when being read to many children will interrupt to ask questions about the book or a character. If this happens, take the time to answer your child’s questions and do not rush back into the story.  Make sure to also take the time to answer any follow-on questions your child asks (e.g. “why, why, why”). While it was widely thought these “why” questions were a form of stalling or being obstinate, recent research shows such questions posed by toddlers are backed by legitimate curiosity and that taking the time to answer these questions can have profound long term benefits for your child as further detailed in our post “Great Toddler Teaching Techniques.”

"Shared Reading"

“Shared reading” with your toddler is very much what it sounds like. That is, you and your toddler attempt to “read” a book together. Do this by taking the lead and then encouraging your child to “read along” as you go through the story. Although the technique is often used in kindergarten and primary school, it can also be used at home with a few modifications.  Specifically, because most young children cannot actually read, it’s important to choose predictable or patterned books that your child is already familiar with when using this technique. And the benefits of shared reading? It’s been shown to “have a significant impact on vocabulary development, listening comprehension and understanding of print concepts.”

How "Shared Reading" and "Dialogic Reading" Mesh (or Don't)

It's important for parents to know that "shared reading" and "dialogic reading" need not both be practiced on the same book or even during the same reading session. The fact is that aspects of the two techniques don't always lend themselves particularly well to be practiced simultaneously, because with one technique the goal is to move fairly quickly through the book with your child "reading" along while with the other the goal is to stop often to ask and answer questions. For this reason, we alternate between the two techniques at One Proud Toddler, with a personal emphasis on dialogic reading occasionally interspersed with shared reading sessions. That being said, you can of course always begin, end or interrupt a shared reading session to interject aspects of dialogic reading such as by asking your child questions about what they think is to come in the book or for their thoughts on what you just read together.

”Finger Tracing“

It may seem strange that simply using your finger to trace the words you are reading to your toddler can have benefits, but it does. Specifically, "finger tracing" or "finger pointing" can help your child develop the ability to track print and assist with “alphabet knowledge, phonetic awareness and word recognition skills.”  Employing this technique is as easy as it sounds—simply trace your finger across the text as your read.  You can also hold your child's finger in your hand and help them to trace the words. We told you that some of these techniques only required minimal additional effort!

Choosing the Right Books

Toddler Choosing Book At Library

Choosing the right books (in the right way) for your reading sessions with your child is arguably as important as employing the right reading style. What's more, certain types of books actually lend themselves better to different reading techniques than others.

 Age and Topic Considerations

We all intuitively know that books for two year olds look very different from books for four year olds. In fact, books are often "age graded" for this important reason—books that are too complex for young children won’t be absorbed, while books that are too simple for older children will leave them unengaged and bored. And just as important as making sure the presentation of the book's content is digestible for your child, is choosing books that cover topics that are relevant to your child.  Specifically, it's a good idea to choose books that focus on your child's interests, the skills you are trying to teach them and the activities they are otherwise being exposed to as part of everyday life.

For children between 12 and 24 months, look for “board books” that are full of photos, textures and “lift the flap” pages. The physical structure and imagery of these books is what is designed to grab your child’s attention—there is typically little text. Common topics for books aimed at children in this age group cover life skills such as bedtime, potty training and eating.

For children between 24 and 36 months, look for books with “normal” page thicknesses (i.e. not “board books”). These books can still be full of pictures and will still have little text, but will have a bit more of a story line. Books for children in this age range also tend to be repetitive for easy memorization—this repetitiveness also makes it easy for your child to “read” along with you (i.e. they are great for "shared reading").

In terms of topic, books for children in this age group should continue to cover life skills.  Topics of general interest to your toddler, such as animals, cars or princesses, can also be introduced.  Importantly, make sure to also begin introducing “alphabet books” around the age of two. Alphabet books as well as those with repetitive story lines mentioned above, not only help with shared reading, but also tend to engage children and promote the development of word identification as well as an understanding of how letters map with sounds.  

For children between 36 months and 48 months, you can move to books that have as much as 70% of the page in text. This includes more complex story lines that aren’t necessarily repetitive or easy to remember. Although higher level books are now appropriate, make sure to also continue to include alphabet books as well as those with repetitive story lines so you can practice "shared reading" together—this is an important skill set that you'll want to continue to promote as your child gets ready to enter a formal schooling environment. 

Good topics for children in this age range can continue to cover the same life skills and topics of interest as those for younger children, albeit at a higher level. You can also begin to include more complex and imaginative stories, such as fables with a “moral of the story.” 

Don't Sweat Age Ratings (Too Much)

While it's important to choose books that are geared towards your child's level of development in order to help keep them engaged, don't put too much stock in age ratings. By this we mean feel free to occasionally introduce books that are a step up from your child's current level of development to gauge their reaction—you may be surprised at how well they respond to more "grown-up" titles.  At the same time, make sure to occasionally "down grade" and reintroduce earlier favorites (especially repetitive books and alphabet books) for "shared reading" exercises.

The Act of Choosing

Although you as the parent are actually selecting the books your child has access to, it’s a good idea to allow your child to actually “choose” the books you will read during any given reading session. Doing so will heighten your child’s interest in the books they are being read because your child did the "choosing."

Even though this whole section is about how you, the parent, should choose books to read to your child, when it comes to your actual reading sessions, it's a good idea to frequently let your child "choose" the books you will read on any given day.

Don’t, however, leave this process entirely up to your child. Instead, subtly point your child in the desired direction by selectively introducing new titles to their bookshelf or “book box” (discussed below) while removing others. To expose your child to new ideas and more complex topics, make sure to introduce a variety of different book types into the equation (i.e. those suitable for children that are slightly older or younger).

For example, even if you think your child wants lots of pictures, don’t be afraid to try introducing a more “grown-up” titles with a more complex story line and less pictures. After overcoming some initial resistance, you may be surprised at how quickly they take to these more complex reads. At the same time, don’t be afraid to “go down a level” and occasionally revert to more repetitive titles so that you can practice shared reading with your child.

Setting the Stage

Toddler Girl Reading on Sofa

Aside from adopting the right reading style and choosing the right books, you can help your child get the most out of your reading sessions by correctly "setting the stage."  This involves everything from adopting the right parental tone during reading sessions to setting aside an area for your child to "read" by themselves.  As you'll see below, this is another area where a little extra parental effort can pay significant dividends. 

Parental Tone

As is the case with almost everything "toddler," children in this age range tend respond very well to enthusiasm and fun. For this reason, make sure to infuse the reading experience with these elements so that your child will have positive associations with the act of reading.  

Furthermore, your reading sessions are really all about your child—make sure your child knows that they have your undivided attention during these times.  This means that even if things are getting repetitive or it feels like your child is asking countless questions, make sure to accommodate these reading related requests with a good attitude.  

If the process is made to be "un-fun" or is couched as a "favor" to your child, they'll become aware of this and it will lessen their eagerness for your reading sessions.

Get Repetitive

As you can likely tell, we’re fond of predictable and repetitive books for younger children. This is because children are able to internalize such books by going through them again and again and again, which is exactly what your are looking for when you practice "shared reading" together.  The important yet at times frustrating process of going through repetitive books helps children develop a sense of word identification as well as an understanding of how letters map with sounds. 

Make sure to get comfortable with being repetitive and re-reading books again and again and again, with enthusiasm.  

Get On A Reading Schedule

At One Proud Toddler we recommend setting a reading schedule and sticking to it. As a general matter, this will help to ensure that you incorporate reading into your child’s daily schedule. What’s more, children tend to like predictability so setting a schedule can help them to become enthusiastic about the act of reading together. In fact, if you try to skip a reading session, you may just find your toddler tugging at your leg with a favorite book in hand.

So that your child has your complete focus, it’s a good idea to schedule reading sessions for those times of the day when the TV and other distractions are at minimum. A reading schedule that takes place just before naps and bedtime can also help your child associate reading with relaxation—a good thing if you ask us!

Use a Bookshelf of "Book Box"

Make sure to have a selection of your child’s favorite books located in a convenient place that is accessible to your child and close by the location where you do most of your reading together. This can be banker’s box with no top (i.e. an open-top cardboard box with hand holes) that you convert into your child's special "book box." 

This simple step will allow your child to know where his or her books are located should they want to have a solo "reading" session. It also allows you to curate the books they have to chose from so that you can selectively introduce new titles or exclude tired ones. 

Create a Reading Area

If you have the space in your home, then make sure to set-up a reading area for your child. This doesn't have to be a standalone room or anything like that—a chair, "book box" and reading light in your child’s general play area will do. Although this particular recommendation isn’t so much about the way you (i.e. the parent) read to your child, it will help create an environment that is conducive to your child exploring books on his or her own.

Happy Reading!

We hope you found these reading tips and tricks to be helpful. We find they only take a little extra effort and the benefits to your child can be quite significant. Happy reading!

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