Gabrielle takes a break from playing at her kitchen set and reaches into her basket of books. She roots around until she finds her current favorite by Richard Scarry, then delivers the book to her mother, who knows just what page to skip to. Gabrielle sits in her mom's lap as the two of them examine the page — her mom names the orange juice, milk, and waffles and Gabrielle points to the pictures.
Soon, Gabrielle slides off her mother's lap and moves over to her stuffed animals. Her mom knows better than to try to finish the book. For Gabrielle and lots of other toddlers, these little bits of reading are just right.
Reasons to Read to Toddlers
Studies show that kids with active exposure to language have social and educational advantages over their peers — and reading is one of the best exposures to language.
Reading to toddlers sets the foundation for later independent reading. Reading problems can be challenging to fix when discovered in elementary school, but most reading problems can be prevented if exposure to reading starts in the toddler and preschool years. Before children can read independently, they need emergent literacy skills. These include:
- having a large vocabulary of words and knowing how to use them
- understanding that words are made up of smaller sounds (called phonemic awareness)
- understanding that marks on a page represent letters and words
- knowing the letters of the alphabet
You don't need games, flashcards, or special instruction for a toddler gain these skills. Just reading to your child as often as possible is the best way to help him or her learn to read independently.
Helping the Transition to Toddlerhood
Reading aloud is also an important way to help kids make the transition from babyhood to toddlerhood. Between the ages of 1 and 3, toddlers have triumphs and challenges, so it can help for them to hear stories about other kids and how they managed fears about what's under the bed and tackled the challenge of using the potty.
Kids make big leaps in vocabulary during this time, and learn about letters, shapes, colors, weather, animals, seasons — all of which can be reinforced through books. Choose books with many pictures your child can point to and name.
But while eager to learn about the world and experience it, your toddler also needs a strong connection with you. Reading together regularly can strengthen that connection, helping your toddler feel safe and comfortable.
When and How to Read to Toddlers
Experts recommend reading to toddlers as often as possible, striving for at least one scheduled reading time each day. Choosing regular times to read (especially before naps and bedtime) helps kids learn to sit with a book and relax. But you can read anytime your child seems in the mood.
If your toddler will let you, hold him or her in your lap when you read. It's a great spot for:
- helping kids feel safe, happy, and relaxed
- giving undivided attention
- showing new things
- inviting participation
You'll find that your toddler wants to be independent and successful. Encourage this by offering three or four books to choose from, praising the selection, letting your toddler help you turn pages, and asking for help as you find things on a page. Your child will love to finish sentences in books with repetitive phrasing or rhymes. When you come to a repetitive phrase or rhyme in a book, pause and let your child finish.
Here are some additional reading tips:
- Read whatever books your toddler asks for, even if it's the same book every night for weeks and weeks (and weeks and weeks).
- Read slowly enough for your toddler to understand.
- Read expressively, using different voices for different characters and raising or lowering your voice as appropriate.
- Choose board books or cloth books that are durable. You can let your child use these books independently without having to worry about pages getting ripped.
- Use puppets, finger plays (like the "Itsy Bitsy Spider"), or props while you read.
- Encourage your toddler to clap or sing when you read rhythmic, sing-song books.
- Talk about the illustrations. Point to items and name them. Then ask your child to name them with you and offer enthusiastic praise.
- Ask open-ended questions — "Why do you think the lion is going into the woods? What do you think will happen next?" This encourages your child to think about the story and to ask questions.
- Substitute your child's name for the name of a character in the book.
- Have fun! Show your child that reading is enjoyable.
Sitting Still Not Required
Trying to read to a toddler who just won't sit still can be frustrating. It's important to be patient and keep trying. Find a book or a few pages that are of interest. If you can't do that, don't force the reading but be sure to try again later. Remember that toddlers love repetition — if your child seems uninterested in books, you may need to find a favorite and read it over and over again.
Some busy toddlers like to stand up while you read to them. Others like to look at a page or two before moving on to something else. Keep the book out — kids might want to return to it later, which you should encourage.
Don't worry if your child can't sit still for an entire book — toddlers' attention spans will get longer soon. You might want to keep reading even if your child moves around. Before bedtime, allow your child to touch and play with favorite toys while you read aloud. The sound of your voice will be a soothing reminder of your bedtime routine and that books are a part of it.
You may find that your child sits still better while coloring or playing with a favorite toy while you read. Don't assume that because your child isn't looking at you or the book that he or she isn't interested or listening.
You want your child to have positive associations with reading, so if you are feeling tense or your child is resisting, consider setting the book aside and returning to it later.
Remember that reading to your child is just one way to encourage emergent literacy. You also can talk to your child throughout the day, sing songs together, play rhyming games, and make up your own stories together. Don't forget to provide paper and crayons so your child can practice writing.
You may also limit TV and video game time. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids under 2 years old not watch any TV and that those older than 2 watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of quality programming.
Choosing Books for Toddlers
Toddlers want to feel included and competent; choose books they can follow along with, especially those with repetitive text so they can fill in words. Maintain your toddler's interest by choosing books with small amounts of text on the page and books about topics that you know are of interest.
For younger toddlers (12 to 24 months) you'll want sturdy board books with pictures (especially photos) of kids doing the things they do every day. Books about bedtime, baths, or mealtime are all good choices; so are books about saying hello or good-bye. Keep active hands busy with lift-the-flap pages and textures to feel.
Toddlers from 24 to 36 months are beginning to be able to turn paper pages, so this is a good time to expand beyond board books. They're also beginning to understand the mechanics of reading and like books that are repetitive and easy to memorize so that they can "read" along.
By now you will start to know what your child's interests are — whether trains, trucks, or stuffed bears, find books about these things of interest. Kids this age also like books about children, families, and animals.
Toddlers love to look at homemade books, scrapbooks, or photo albums full of people they know (try adding simple captions). Poetry and songbooks are good choices for this age group too. You may find that story time turns into sing-along time.
Keeping Books Available
Read-aloud time isn't the only opportunity kids should have to spend time with books — toddlers love to choose and look at books on their own. Keep books in a basket on the floor or on a low shelf where your child can reach them easily and look at them independently. Keep some books in the car and always have a few handy in your bag for long waits at the doctor or lines at the post office.
Visit the library or the bookstore and let your child select books to read at home. Many libraries and bookstores have toddler story times that kids enjoy. And let your child see you reading — he or she is sure to imitate you.
Reviewed by: Carol A. Quick, EdD
Date reviewed: May 2013