As a parent or carer, you play a very important part in helping your child to read. Encouraging children to develop a love of books and an interest in written language helps to provide a firm foundation for learning to read. Children stand a better chance of doing well at school when they already enjoy listening to rhymes and stories, when they enjoy reading and being read to and are used to talking about books. These are valuable experiences to build on when children go to school.
At Books for Keeps we believe that children should have the opportunity to enjoy sharing books from a very young age – even before their first birthday! But of course, it is never too late to start sharing books with your child. This leaflet written by early reading experts Myra Barrs and Sue Ellis of The Centre for Language in Primary Education suggests lots of practical ways for parents and carers to enjoy sharing books with young children.
Here are some ways you can help:
* Small babies love being sung to and read to and they like it when you tell them nursery rhymes and stories.
* Settling down to look at a book together can be a relaxing and rewarding experience for both parent and child in an often hectic day. Try to share books together every day: at bedtime, in the afternoon, while waiting at the doctor’s surgery or sitting on the bus!
* Children are surrounded by words in the home (on cereal packets, for example) and written signs in the street, on buses, in supermarkets, etc. They will soon want to know what these ‘say’. You can point out these words and make it into a game.
Children pick up all sorts of information about reading from television. They may recognise the titles of their favourite programmes, or the brand names of products they know in advertisements.
Encourage your child to choose books for you to read aloud or to share together. He or she might have a favourite that has to be read over and over again!
What’s So Important About Reading Aloud?
Reading aloud is one of the best ways you can help your child to learn to read and write – and it is never too early to start! As they share books with parents, children learn to turn the pages, to talk about the story and the pictures, to join in with parts they know well, and, gradually, to recognise words on the page. All this helps to build their confidence and interest and plays an important part in their development as successful readers.
Reading aloud to children also helps them to understand how books work. They learn that stories have a meaning and they learn to predict what will happen next. Children begin to make connections between what happens in books and their own lives.
Through reading aloud, children become familiar with the individual rhythms and ‘tunes’ of each story. They enjoy hearing the predictable rhythm of a nursery rhyme or the different voices in a story. Sometimes they will join in by humming along, by finishing a rhyme or by echoing what you have said. They also learn to tell stories in their own way. These experiences are a great help when children come to read the words themselves.
By reading aloud you can introduce your child to all sorts of different books and to the different worlds each book opens up. Children like variety and will enjoy traditional tales and modern stories, nursery rhymes and poetry, songs and information books.
How Do I Get My Child to Join In?
As children get to know a book they will begin to remember the story and join in as you read, especially with repeated phrases. They may enjoy the satisfaction of guessing the rhyme in a poem or finishing a well-known phrase in a story, so it is helpful to pause a moment for them to do so. Some books actually encourage children to join in, making it easy for them to play a big part in reading with you. Talking about the story and pictures adds to children’s enjoyment and understanding. If your child asks questions or interrupts the reading by pointing to words they know or talking about the pictures, this is a good sign that they are interested and want to find out more.
You can also help children to talk about a book by saying things like, ‘I wonder why that happened?’ or, ‘Can you guess what’s going to happen next?’ Children will often be reminded of their own experience by the books you read together and one story can spark many others! Talking about books together is one of the best ways for children to get involved in stories and to feel like readers.
Of course the pictures also help to tell the story and, in some books, tell more of the story than the words alone. Young children often talk their way through a favourite book using the pictures to guide them. They might remember the story by heart or use their own words. This is not ‘cheating’ but part of beginning to read. As children get older the pictures continue to help them make good guesses about words they do not know.
Another way young children like to join in is by using knowledge of words they already know, like their name, to spot familiar letters and words in the books they share with you. You can respond to this interest by helping them to see the connections between, and patterns, in words, eg.
Parent: ‘What does “Spotty” sound like?’
It is important to keep re-reading old favourites – children get a lot of confidence and pleasure from books they know well. When children begin learning to read, their knowledge of a familiar book will help them as they start to notice more about the words on the page. You can encourage them to look more carefully at the words and letters in books they know well.
Even when children begin to read for themselves, they may still want to re-read a familiar book quite frequently or have it read to them. This does not mean they are standing still in their reading: progress is not always a matter of going on to the next book. Even experienced readers enjoy re-reading. Tapes of favourite stories provide another way for children to hear stories again and can help them with matching the words they hear to the words on the page.
By hearing a book again and again, young children often get to know a story so well that they can retell it in their own words. Re-reading makes retelling possible and this is a valuable way for children to learn how the story goes. You can encourage your child to retell a story to you using the book cover or the pictures.
Acting Out Stories
Children may enjoy acting a story, sometimes using the language of the book. This gives them a chance to try out what they have learned and make it their own. They are also learning how to be a storyteller and how to make up dialogue. You can encourage this kind of play by providing them with a few dressing-up clothes and home-made props.
Some stores are fun to perform together. You can act them out at home, or even when you are walking along! The Wheels on the Bus (Walker ‘Reading Together’ series) is a good example of a popular rhyme that can be acted. Children also like to act stories using toy animals or small figures. They may draw a picture of a story and talk their way through it, or they might change stories by making up their own versions. All these kinds of play acting will be a useful basis for their later story writing.
Beginning to Read and Write
Between the ages of four and seven, many children will begin trying to read for themselves. They do this in very different ways. At first, some may ‘read’ the book by remembering the story and making up their own words. Others may want to get every word right, and be unwilling to guess at all. It is important to respond to children as individuals. Gradually let them take over as much of the reading as they can and want to. They may need to be helped to look more carefully at the actual words, or they may have to be encouraged to move the story along and worry less about mistakes. A good rule is to back off if a child seems to be getting anxious, or reluctant to read. Rather than jumping in each time your child stumbles over a word, it can be more helpful to give occasional prompts or a word to keep a story flowing.
Children learn a lot about reading from their own attempts at writing. When they write, they have to think carefully about how words sound and how they look. You can encourage your child to write from very early on by asking him or her to put their name in birthday cards or by sending signed drawings and messages to relatives and friends. They may also enjoy making labels or notices or dictating stories to you.
Small children learn by imitation. If your child sees you enjoying reading and especially enjoying reading with him/her, the chances are s/he will enjoy it too!
If you would like to help your child but have difficulty with reading and writing, your local library will be able to advise about literacy classes in your area.
Where to Go for Books
Libraries are free. They have no age limits and they welcome babies and small children as members. Most libraries have a children’s section full of wonderful books that your child can borrow. And if you or your child want advice about what to choose, you can ask the librarian. Some libraries have story telling sessions or Parent and Toddler mornings so you can find out about the books other children have enjoyed.
Of course library books have to be returned and your child may want to have their own copy of a favourite book. Children’s departments in bookshops usually have staff who can help you choose. Books also make wonderful presents for birthdays. Like toys, books can become much loved friends and your child will enjoy having their own collection.
The text for this article is an amended extract from Reading Together: The Parents’ Handbook* (Walker, £2.99) by Myra Barrs and Sue Ellis. It is reproduced, together with photographs from the book, by kind permission of the authors and of Walker Books.
* Reading Together is published on 23 April 1998.