Practical tips for building lifelong readers

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

A daily dose of Moo, Baa, La La La is good for baby. While this may seem like a strange prescription from your pediatrician, researchers studying premature infants found that parents who read to their babies in the NICU felt just as close a bond as parents who were able to take their babies home with them right away. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics began recommending that parents read to babies and young children daily, not only for the benefit of their later reading skills, but also as a way to forge bonds to improve cognitive, social and emotional well-being. At well-baby visits, doctors are now urged to suggest that parents read to their infants.

“You can read anything to baby at first,” says Melissa Beyer of children’s book publisher Usborne Books. “It is really about comfort, the sounds of your voice, and showing that reading is a pleasurable part of their life. This is an important first step in building a life-long reader.”

While you are holding your baby and a book, you demonstrate the importance of reading, an activity experts say should start early.

“Reading board books helps a baby’s cognitive and motor skills,” says Sarah Ketchersid, senior executive editor of Candlewick Press, a publisher of board and children’s books. “Let a baby put books in their mouths and turn the pages. A mangled, torn book is well loved. It is a good sign they are interested in the book and love it.”

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“Look for books that jump-start a baby’s attention,” says Tressy Collier, assistant director and children’s librarian at the Blackstone Public Library. “Any book that is touchy feely with texture, movement, flaps to flip, that makes crinkly noises, will help to introduce a baby to what to expect in a book.”

“Books with rhyming are pleasurable and can help early readers figure out words based on the sounds,” Beyer adds.

Reading helps to build vocabulary, and experts say the size of a child’s vocabulary when she enters school is a strong measure of her school success, intelligence, and social skills. We don’t speak with a very large vocabulary in our daily lives, and books introduce a delicious cornucopia of fresh vocabulary. If you think about how children learn in the first few years of life, through spoken words, the bigger their vocabulary, the more they can learn and understand about the world around them. Children who start kindergarten with larger vocabularies generally learn to read at higher levels compared to students with smaller vocabularies upon entering school.

“Reading aloud right from birth helps cognitive development and language development,” Ketchersid notes. “They need to hear as many words as possible. You want to read books that are fun for the parents to read, too, so they feel your joy.”

Don’t be surprised if a baby puts a book in his mouth or grabs at the pages. At early stages, babies need sturdy board books to explore. This is part of the learning process. From listening to their parents read to them, babies will learn that books have specifics parts, such as beginnings, pages that turn, surprises, and ends.

Look for books with great “munchy words and brightly colored pictures,” suggests Jane Yolen, a Massachusetts resident and author of hundreds of books for babies and children as well as science fiction and fantasy novels. “What do I mean by ‘munchy’ words? Ones that babies can try out in their mouths, as salty as a pretzel, as crisp as a piece of apple, as sweet as mashed plums. Words they already know — ball, Mama, Daddy, bottle — but onomatopoeic words like bees buzz, dogs howl, cats meow. Words that rhyme or that sing. Funny words like eensy and weensy. And words they get to learn by munching on them over and over: mush and pepper and watermelon and salamander.”

In a 2004 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, To Read or Not To Read, the organization found that children who read for pleasure were better students. “Kids who achieve the most, read the best and stay in school. And the single most important factor in a child’s reading success in school is being read to aloud by their parents,” Beyer says.

No one expects a baby to read, but reading to your baby plants the seeds of literacy. As you read with a child, you turn pages, which happens in the same direction every time. You read left to right and the pictures in a book relate to the words. These pre-literacy skills get children ready to read on their own and help them when they start.

“Reading to babies regularly teaches them that reading is a magical time. They pick up on your excitement when you are looking forward to a book,” Collier says. “We as adults enjoy sitting with a book and babies will learn that same pleasure even from a young age.”

Generally when babies start to pay attention to their surroundings they are ready for a baby-specific story time such as that offered at a local library or bookstore. “We usually read two board books, sing, do a finger play, and have fun with a texture toy like egg shakers or scarves,” Collier says. “Engaging babies with music can also help them build literacy skills.”

Possibly the most important literacy skill a baby learns from reading with a parent is a passion for reading. “There are three simple ways to teach babies and young children to love books: books, baskets, and bedside lamps. Put books in baskets in every room and give them a reading lamp,” Beyer suggests.

“The best picture books for babies are like Zen poems that address the mysteries of the world in very simple and engaging terms,” says Jeff Mack, author of picture and chapter books like Look! and Duck in the Fridge. “[Good books] entertain the youngest readers, and make older readers think twice by offering them fresh points of view. They use language inventively. They have pictures that capture emotions too deep for words. And the two work in perfect tandem to tell the complete story.”

“Look for books with bright colors and clear illustrations,” Beyer adds. “Many touchy-feely books just have soft texture. Look for books with a wide range of textures and rich vocabulary words. They’re more fun for you and your baby.”

So pull out a book, put your baby on your lap, and enjoy a story together.

American Academy of Pediatrics Book Building Connection toolkit offers tips and advice on building early literacy skills, and more family reading resources. Also find out how you can win great baby and children’s books from Candlewick Press.

Expert Read-To-Baby Recommendations

Jeff Mack, author

• I Can Help! by David Costello is a very clever and charming book about both a duckling’s search for home and an entire ecosystem busy cooperating.

My own books, Good News Bad News, Ah Ha!, and Look! are comedies with deep emotions and carefully chosen sets of words (or letters) to help extra-young readers find greater meaning in stories told mostly with pictures. One is about friendship, another is about freedom, and the third is about paying attention.

Jane Yolen, author

• Look! by Jeff Mack

• Little Elliot, Big City by Mike Curato

• Wee Rhymes by Jane Yolen

• Baby Love by Angela Di Terlizzi

• You Nest Here with Me by Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple

• Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle

Tressy Collier, children’s librarian

• Yummy Yucky by Leslie Patricelli

• Binky by Leslie Patricelli

There are several board books by Leslie Patricelli that are very, very funny and are a huge hit with the little ones (and parents). The two titles above are my favorites.

• Dinosaur Vs. the Potty by Bob Shea

• Dinosaur Vs. Bedtime by Bob Shea

• This is My Hair by Todd Parr

• The Mommy Book by Todd Parr

The Todd Parr books are very diverse and colorful, and come in both board book and picture book format.

• What Will Fat Cat Sit On? by Jan Thomas

• Let’s Sing a Lullaby With the Brave Cowboy by Jan Thomas

The Jan Thomas books are only available in picture book format as far as I know, but they are super silly and have just a few words on each page.

Sarah Ketchersid, senior executive editor, children’s publisher

• Hurray for Fish by Lucy Cousins: This has just really bright and bold illustrations and it is a joyous story to read out loud.

• I Kissed a Baby by Mary Murphy: This is a celebration of a new baby by animals. The bold style is really fun to read.

• Barnyard Dance! by Sandra Boynton: This book is fun to read in funny voices for all the animals.