Babies and young children are sponges that soak in practically everything in their environments. It’s true! Even during story time, their minds are at work, taking in all the language they hear and lessons the characters learn.
Reading to your child — at any age — will boost their brain development, your bond, and so much more. And all it takes is a few books, motivation, and a little time.
Here’s how to get started.
First, set the scene in your head. You choose a book. You sit down in your favorite armchair, with your child in your lap, and open to the first of many smooth, colorful pages.
You begin to read, and your child is utterly captivated by the story. It’s magic. What’s even better is that your child isn’t just having fun, they’re learning!
Reality may look a little different: Just know you’re not alone if your baby tries to eat the book or your toddler wanders around the room instead of sitting patiently. But the benefits of reading remain the same.
Reading provides a wonderful opportunity for you and your child to connect. It’s a nice way to spend time together and slow down during an otherwise hectic day.
Research from 2008 pointed out how reading can support a solid parent-child relationship. Kids feel secure when they’re read to. Plus, caregivers who have a positive attitude toward books and reading in turn help their children view literacy in a positive way.
Hearing a story read aloud involves some level of comprehension on your child’s part. And comprehension is dependent on paying attention — in other words, listening skills.
The experts at Scholastic explain that listening is a skill kids must acquire before they can read themselves.
They suggest that books on tape are a great addition to reading one-on-one with your child. These often provide entertainment value, too, like silly voices, music, and other embellishments.
Cognitive and language development
Even the youngest children benefit from hearing their caregivers read to them. A 2013 study showed that babies who are read to and talked to score higher in language skills and cognitive development, like problem solving.
Research from 2018 suggests that this link extends throughout childhood into the teen years. In fact, researchers say that verbal interactions (reading, talking, etc.) between parents and young kids may promote higher language and IQ scores all the way up to age 14.
Experts from the National Center on Early Childhood Development, Teaching and Learning also explain that reading books to kids helps expand the number and variety of words they use. Think about it: The books you read often contain words you might not otherwise use in your everyday communications.
While reading a book, you might end up using more specific names for different plants or animals or use more adjectives (descriptive words) altogether. And this adds up.
Dinah Castro, a bilingual family well-being educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension, shares that reading to children helps them develop key concentration and self-discipline skills.
You’ve probably dealt with a squirming, distracted toddler at story hour. But what you may also notice is that — over time — regular reading gets kids listening in order to comprehend.
And when they’re listening, they’re more likely to sit still, develop a longer attention span, and even work on their budding memory-retention skills.
Books and stories open up a whole new world to your child. Yes, there are plenty of nonfiction books on dinosaurs, bugs, and airplanes. Fiction stories, though, go beyond the real world and employ fantasy elements that get kids thinking outside the box.
Children have vivid imaginations as is, so reading serves to further feed their creativity. And experts at PBS note that creativity is important for developing interests and ideas, as well as for fostering emotional health.
Books provide an opportunity to talk about real-world situations in age-appropriate ways. Kids especially enjoy books that feature children their own ages doing things they do in everyday life.
Along with modeling what happens in various situations, reading books on targeted subjects may help children not feel alone when they deal with something new, like moving across the country, or something potentially uncomfortable, like going to the dentist.
Social and emotional development
Castro also says that reading to young children teaches them how to cope with “difficult or stressful experiences.” She further explains that reading stories about potentially emotional situations, like starting at a new school, can help get a conversation going and show children that their feelings are normal.
Start today! Babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and even older children all benefit from having a caregiver read to them. You don’t even need a large personal library of books to get started.
Think beyond the store — you can find a wide variety of books at your local library, secondhand shop, or Little Free Library. You can even encourage your child to borrow books from and lend them to their friends.
The youngest babies (under 6 months old) benefit from books that have simple but bold or bright images with lots of contrast. Talk to your baby as you look at the books, but words on the page aren’t necessary.
As they get a bit older (7 to 12 months), you may want to expand your collection to books with simple phrases or just a line of text that relates to the picture on the page.
Babies ages 12 to 18 months may find books with pictures of other children doing everyday things interesting. Same goes for books that have animals, television characters, or other familiar scenes in them. For this age group, you may look for books that have more detailed pictures and a simple story or progression of events.
As your baby starts to babble and eventually talk, try involving them in what they see on the page.
For example, point to a picture and ask “What’s that?” or declare “That’s a banana!” to get your child engaging with the book. Keep it positive and try to repeat your child’s words back to them (“Yes — that looks like a cat, but it’s actually a squirrel!”).
There are lots of books, so try not to get too overwhelmed. Nursery rhymes, especially ones you might have memorized, are a good choice for babies.
And as far as construction, look for sturdy books that are made from cardboard (board books), fabric, or vinyl. Books with handles are also fun and let your baby transition from reading time to play time.
Kids between the ages of 19 and 30 months also enjoy books that feature familiar characters.
At this age, they tend to favor books with lots of action, pictures, and details versus lots of words on the page. Look for books that contain short stories, particularly those with cause-and-effect relationships or a problem that the characters must work to overcome.
Repetition is important at this age, so try to find books that allow you to rhyme, sing, or otherwise repeat the text in some way. While you’re at it, take some time to pause as you read books with repetition to see if your little one fills in the blank.
You may also want to take time to draw connections between a main character and your child. For example, you might point out, “He’s sleeping in a big boy bed, just like you!”
By the way, you can start introducing books made with paper pages versus board books at this age. Just be sure to supervise to guard against your child ripping the pages.
Preschoolers and elementary school-aged kids have a wide range of reading abilities. It’s a good idea to take their lead when it comes to simple versus complex books.
Younger kids (and even some older ones) may still appreciate pictures with little text. That said, you can start introducing stories that have more complex plots in them and books with more words than pictures — even chapter books.
As your child begins reading on their own, you might involve them in the process of reading together by asking them to read words or sentences out loud along the way. This is great practice.
Ask questions as you move through the text, too — you don’t have to wait until the end of the book or chapter to check your child’s comprehension. Try open-ended questions like “What do you think might happen next?” These will help your child delve deeper, rather than surface questions like “What color is the house?”
Experts recommend engaging in literacy activities (like reading) for around 30 minutes per day. But you can also think outside the book here.
Try reading traffic signs or cereal boxes, singing songs, listening to audiobooks together, or having your child read to you to the best of their ability. It’s all good.
Librarian Donna Jeansonne says that you shouldn’t stop reading to your child once they learn to read themselves. While independent reading is certainly important, reading out loud to kids as old as age 14 still holds benefits, both academically and emotionally.
At this age, it’s about your older child’s reading fluency and comprehension. It may be helpful for them to follow along in the book as you read. And consider asking questions about the text to gauge their comprehension.
Again, all you really need to do is take the time to read to your child. It’s truly as simple as that. However, you might be wondering how to make the experience more enjoyable for everyone.
Here are some tips:
- Be consistent. Whether it’s one book per day or 15, try to make reading a part of your regular routine. And while you’re at it, you don’t have to read different books each time you sit down. Kids love hearing the same stories over and over again — and they learn through this type of repetition.
- Take your time. Be sure to leave enough time to read versus sneaking it in or — worse — making it a chore. Of course, you won’t have loads of time each day to read, so some quickies are just fine. However, your child should see reading as a dedicated activity and one that you give your full attention to.
- Make it fun. Use different voices for characters, pauses, songs, or other dramatics to make the story come to life. Reading with flair will help your child better understand the story. It also provides a good model of expressive and fluent reading for kids who have begun reading by themselves.
- Point out connections. Children love applying stories to their own lives. It not only makes the text more meaningful, but it also may help your child cope with different situations they encounter in their everyday experience. Point out those connections to your child. Note where the character was brave about that monster beneath their bed. Applaud the character who used the potty for the first time.
- Don’t stop with books. Any exchange of words is beneficial to kids. So, if you’re uninspired by books one night, turn to telling stories. You can also look at pictures and talk about what you see or ask your child to be the storyteller. Anything that gets language flowing between you and your child is golden.
When it comes to early literacy and language skills, both the quality and quantity of the words you speak to your child matter. Books provide an excellent opportunity to get talking, telling stories, and connecting with your little one.
If you still don’t know exactly how to start, consider hitting up your local library and chatting with a librarian in the children’s department. You can get book suggestions, take out books and other media for free, and sign up for events (like in-person or virtual story hours) that’ll get your whole family inspired to read.