An age-by-age guide to reading to your kids

There’s more to story time than just reading the words on the page. Help your kids learn new vocabulary and develop empathy and self-control with these expert tips.

Carla Hudson Kam’s son was three and a half when he realized text in books had meaning. “He was trying to tell me what to say while I was reading to him,” explains Hudson Kam. “When I told him that wasn’t what the book said, he exclaimed ‘Those are WORDS? And they tell you what to SAY?’ He hadn’t realized that I didn’t just have the story memorized.”

Hudson Kam’s kid had an advantage—as a professor and Canada research chair in language acquisition at the University of British Columbia, his mom is basically a professional story reader. And thanks to that, she points to the text on the page as she speaks, to encourage kids to have just that kind of revelation.

While any reading you do to your kid is beneficial, adding in a few simple techniques can help kids learn vocabulary faster and even encourage skills like empathy and self-control. Here’s an age-by-age guide to making story time even more enriching:

Reading to a baby under a year

Try big kid books

You might not think to read a complex storybook to a newborn, but babies under six months old actually benefit from hearing the kind of books you would read to older kids. “It helps them hear the rhythm of the language,” says Hudson Kam. “It trains their ear and makes it a little easier for them to pay attention to longer sentences later.”

Grab their attention

By about six to twelve months, babies start to get interested in books as toys to examine and manipulate. Expose them to cloth or board books with things like flaps, textures like a bit of fur or rubber on the page, crinkle pages or electronic buttons to keep their interest. But don’t be surprised if they just pull the book from your hand and just mouth it or physically explore it—that’s totally normal, and okay at this stage.

Simple sells

Books that have simple pictures paired with single words help babies learn their first vocabulary. If there is more than one picture on the page, be sure to point to what you’re talking about. “When there are two or more pictures on a page, kids don’t know what to look at,” says Hudson Kam.

I Love You Through and Through

I Love You Through and Through

Written by Bernadette Rossetti-Shustak and illustrated by Caroline Jayne Church, Scholastic Inc, $11,

Reading to a one-year-old

Turn to the classics

Nursery rhymes are great at this age because of their natural rhythm. “Kids seem to learn new vocabulary better when we pause before something important, because that lets their brains catch up,” says Hudson Kam. “It’s very hard to do that intentionally, but we do it naturally with rhymes.” Books should also have thick pages to make turning the page easier, be colourful and have on picture per page.

Expect more

You’ll still want to point at pictures and label them, but now you can expect your child to respond by pointing, gesturing, making a sound or imitating the word. “By the time babies are about 12 months old, you can say, ‘Where is the red balloon?’ and they can point at it,” says Alyson Shaw, a paediatrician and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. Then, to take it further, aim for a few more back and forths. You might wait and see if your toddler taps the page, and then you could say “the boy is holding the balloon” and wait again to see if your child does something in response. These kinds of back and forths are the beginning of what’s called dialogic reading, a technique where parents and kids have a conversation about what’s in a book that helps kids retain vocabulary. “Research suggests children who have more conversations prior to two have superior language skills at 13,” says Luigi Girolametto, professor emeritus of the Department of Speech-Language Pathology at the University of Toronto.


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