Encouraging Childhood Literacy Through Reading Aloud to Your Child

It comes as no surprise to anyone who has visited this blog for even a second that I love reading. But what I don't write about or mention often is how much I love promoting reading with children. As a pediatric nurse practitioner, from as early as four-month well-visit appointments, I start mentioning the cognitive, language, and motor skills that can be promoted and improved through early literacy. For example, a nine-month old is obviously not going to sit still enough for a chapter book, but handing them a small board book helps them develop the motor skill of grasping and holding an item,  which is developmentally appropriate at that age. They may even throw the book, and hey, that's good motor skill development too (and maybe hints towards a future pitcher)! Patting pictures in books to show interest and making cooing  sounds help parents know they like the book, which promotes communication and cognition, especially when coupled with snuggling, talking, singing, and playing alongside the reading time. Including reading time in an infant and young child's routine helps their brain develop in abundant ways and helps them become social by connecting with you (or whoever else is reading to them). Check out THIS awesome visual for more developmental milestones of early literacy development. Allowing children to skim through books on their own is great but the research surrounding childhood literacy focus on parents actually reading aloud to their children, which, granted, takes time out of your busy schedule, but the benefits are too great to ignore.

Here are a few more benefits to early literacy development (aka reading to your kids as early as tiny infants):
  • Research that used brain scans showed that hearing stories can strengthen parts of the brain focused on visual imagery, story comprehension, and word recognition and meaning (source)
  • Children are better able to process and control challenging emotions when parents read to them, leading to decreased levels of aggression and attention difficulties because of social, emotional, and character development linked with reading with an adult. This is in part because they are hearing stories of kids like them and they can think about the character's emotions and behaviors, which helps them learn how to express their own emotions (source).
  • Reading to babies and toddlers helps develop language and communication and increases vocabulary for older children (source).

Not am I only interested in promoting childhood literacy from a professional standpoint. I absolutely love recommending books to children in my life, whether my niece or nephews, friend's kids, or sometimes even strangers at the library or Barnes & Noble. I don't typically start random conversations with people (the introvert in me typically avoids this) but if I see a book in someone's hand that I recognize, whether young or old, I will often excitedly gush about it and offer some books suggestions that are similar to that book.  And now that Greg and I are expecting our own future reader in early September, I am even more thrilled the topic of reading with children.

Here are some resources and tips that can help you as a parent, family member, or friend of someone with children to promote reading in the children in your life, no matter their age.

It doesn't have to be a big production; make it easy and natural to your routine
Reading aloud may not seem natural. Where to begin? Start with a few minutes on two nights of the week. For infants, choose a very short board books with bright pictures to point at. Have a few board books in their toy box that they can grab in between playing with other toys. For older toddlers and children, have a basket with books near the spot in the house you want to use as a reading corner, whether your child's bed or a comfy couch in the living room, so that you don't have to go out of your way to where all the books are stashed.

Let your kids pick most of the books
Having a wide mixture of books that kids can choose from is a great way to instill autonomy through reading. For older children, let them choose the books, many of which may have been read at school and enjoyed enough to want to be re-read at home. If you are an avid reader, you may have tons of books you want your kids to read (I can hardly wait to read Anne of Green Gables with my kids) but sometimes our overzealous excitement can come off as being pushy to some children so you may want to consider holding off until they hear about the book from someone else or when they seem open to a book suggestion from you. You can try sneaking a few books in with some books you know they already love and let them know you think they might like them just as much.  You don't want read-aloud time to seem like a chore or a task, but rather a fun time to connect, so letting them be part of the planning can really help. If they don't have ideas of what to read, look online or at your library for books on topics they enjoy. Speaking of libraries...

Utilize your local public library
There are thousands of free books at your fingertips, most likely within a few miles of your home. Most libraries have an extensive children's section. Need ideas for books? Ask a librarian or use Google or Pinterest for ideas for books that are great for your child's age or interests, then either search at the library or better yet, search from the comfort of your own home using your library's search option and place holds on the books so that you can easily find them on your next library trip. Here are a few lists to get you started:
  • If you're child loves humor, HERE  and HERE are some books that will make you both laugh. Also, anything by Dr. Seuss will be silly and entertaining for young readers.
  • HERE are 20 books that are great for young boys 
  • HERE are historical fiction novels for middle-graders
  • HERE are books about emotions and mental health 
  • HERE are wordless picture books, great for letting your child guess the story
  • HERE are books on staying healthy
  • HERE are books for math lovers
  • HERE are books about instilling kindness into your children through stories
  • HERE for Scholastic's top 100 read-aloud book 

Try out audiobooks 
Life can hectic with all of our busy schedules. Try using time in the car driving to sports practice or school as a time to listen to fun audiobooks together. Even if your kids are different ages, choosing a book with a higher reading level to match your older kids can actually motivate the younger siblings to follow along if the older children are enjoying the story. Another opportunity is during quiet time where you're all gathered together but you want to take a break from being the one reading aloud, audiobooks can be wonderful. Or put play on an audiobook while you are busy cooking a meal and your toddler is scribbling nearby either out loud or while they are wearing headphones so you can concentrate on what you're doing.   If you choose the right book, even you will have a great time listening to the story!  HERE and HERE are is a list of kids audiobooks to get you started. My top two audiobooks for middle-graders are Redwall and Echo. They are incredibly done with music effects and multiple actors reading the stories.  Don't know where to find audiobooks? Your library will have the CD sets but you can also connect to your library through the app Overdrive and get access to audiobooks right off your phone. Easy peasy!

Let your kids be quietly active while listening
For squirmy children, let them quietly play with legos or draw while you read a short picture book to them instead of expecting complete stillness. Kids can totally listen and be able to comprehend the story while being busy with their hands. For kinetic learners, they actually may pay attention more! For infants, find books with tactile stimulation, like animal books with fur to touch.

Have a few go-to books for bedtime
Humans seek routines; babies and children thrive on it. Save a few books that are slow-paced for bedtime so when they see you grabbing that book, they know it's time to start settling down for bed. HERE is a great list for young children. My favorites for toddlers are Goodnight Gorilla, The Going to Bed Book, and Harold and the Purple Crayon.  Older kids may like reading a chapter at bedtime from a novel, but try to not choose novels that will over-excite them where they either cannot fall asleep because they are scared or because the chapter just ended on a cliff-hanger. Wonder by R.J. Palacio would be a great one for school-age kids. 

Be inspired by other parents who read-aloud
I absolutely love listening to The Read Aloud Revival podcast, hosted by Sarah Mackenzie, homeschool mama of five children. Each episode inspires parents to build meaningful connections through reading. I haven't read her book yet (The Read Aloud Family) but that is another great resource for parents to instill reading aloud as a family tradition. Her blog is also a great place for helpful articles. If you know someone in your life who has children who love to read, pick their brain and ask them for tips or book recommendations. 

Model a reading life to your children
Even if you aren't a voracious reader, you can encourage your kids to be lifelong readers by reading around them. Are they playing peacefully enough that you can squeeze in a chapter of your novel? Or have quiet time together where your older child can read or a younger child can "read" a wordless picture book while you read a few pages. This helps them see that reading is not something their parents and teachers make kids do; its something enjoyable for adults too. 

Engage in the stories by asking questions
... But don't make it a reading assignment! The last thing older children need at home is more homework. For example, rather than asking heavy questions like "what was the author thinking when he wrote this?" Or "What are the themes in this book?" ask about their experience reading the book.  "What parts could you relate?" and "What did you find really hard to get through?", "Is this a book you think your friends would like? Why?" For younger children, engage through silly voices, acting surprised when a mystery is solved, patting or stomping or any other active movements that the characters are doing in the book (Barnyard Dance is a perfect one for this!), playing I Spy on a certain page ("I spy a dog with yellow fur. Where is he?"), and asking "what do you think will happen next?" Asking a child to draw their favorite part of the story, use play-doh to create their favorite character, or creating a silly song to go along with the story can be a great way to process what they have read.  Reading aloud is a fantastic time for parent-child bonding, so it shouldn't be stale and prim. Get goofy, strike up conversation if a topic arises, and just enjoy the chance to interact with your child on such a personal level. HERE are a few more ideas for younger readers. And HERE are tips on engaging communication with wordless picture books. HERE is a great podcast episode from The Read-Aloud Revival guest-star author Kate Dicamillo on reading for connection

Build your children's library one book at a time
Building your child's library does not have to be expensive. Most libraries have bi-annual book sales where you can score books (for yourself and your littles) at a dollar or less. Ask about it the next time you visit your local library. Yard sales are also great places to find children's books for cheap. If there's a library book your child loved and has wanted to check out over and over again, consider buying it as a gift or giving the idea to relatives who are asking what to buy for Christmas or a birthday. You can start a public Amazon wishlist with the aid of your children's suggestions of books they'd like as gifts that year, then share that link with people who ask for ideas of gifts for your child. Or gift your child with a Barnes & Noble or local bookstore gift card and take them on a bookstore date to read a few books together before they pick their favorite to buy and bring home. Most kids will enjoy having their own copies of their favorite books to return to time after time. I still have copies of some of my favorite books from elementary and middle school.

Do you read aloud with your children? What are your tips? I don't have children yet so I am sure I am leaving things out and I would LOVE your perspectives! Share in the comments below.

(Linking up with Mary-andering Creatively on the #LMMLinkup)