From Toddlers to Teens, Here’s How to Engage Kids in Reading

Kristin Guay

Babies and toddlers enjoy stories with rhyme and repetition. Books with vivid illustrations and hands-on involvement such as flaps to lift or textures to touch are especially engaging for the very little ones. Children at this age are slowly starting to learn the names of animals and objects and the sounds that they make such as “moooo” or “vroooommm.” They also enjoy plush characters that go along with a story and will use the character to mimic the actions in the story (think of a bunny hopping or a dog barking). As children reach the age of 2, they begin to recognize the feelings of characters in a book, can start counting, and will learn the names of objects they see in their stories.

When children are around 3 to 4 years old they start recognizing letters, numbers, and shapes. They also recognize words that are a part of their everyday life such as “ball” or “dog” and will notice their name if it appears in a story. They begin to understand the silly humor in books such as Amelia Bedelia, and they will memorize aspects of some of their favorite stories, often joining in with repetitive phrases such as “I will not eat them Sam I Am. I will not eat green eggs and ham.” They will start to make connections between the stories and their own lives and this is a prime time to help them make these connections. They might also show an interest in holding the book and turning the page at the appropriate time.

When children reach the elementary age, they are ready to start exploring the characters, setting, plot, irony, and foreshadowing in a story. This conversation can be as simple as discussing how the Rainbow Fish went from being selfish and unhappy to giving and happy because he decided to share his beautiful shimmering scales. Children at this age will be able to relate to some of the topics in their stories such as losing a pet, trying something new, bullying, and what to do when things don’t go their way. They will be able to answer questions with more detail and will be able to recall events of the story in proper order. They especially enjoy thinking about what might happen next in a story -- maybe even making a prediction based on the subtle illustrations in the story.

When children enter the middle school and high school years, the practice of engaged reading can be seen in the classrooms. Teachers will ask students to not only identify character development or foreshadowing but show evidence from the text that support their position. At this age, students are encouraged to “ask” the author questions about word choice, plot development, or irony in a story. Students are taught to not read passibly but to engage in a “dialog” with the author about their writing.

What Does Engaged Reading Look Like

Let’s look at the picture book Corduroy, written and illustrated by Don Freeman. The following is an example of engaged reading with a young child.

First, take some time to look at the cover of the book and ask “What is on the cover of this story and what do you think this book might be about?” As you read the story, the following questions could come up: What do you notice about his overalls? What is he reaching for and why? Where does he live? Who is next to him? Do you have those stuffed animals in your bedroom/playroom? How do you think he felt when the little girl said that she wanted to take him home? How do you think he felt after the mom said that a button was missing on his overalls? Look at the girls face when they are leaving the store, how is she feeling? Why do you think Corduroy wants to go off and find a new button? What do you notice about the store right now? How would you feel being in a store all by yourself? When he gets on the escalator why do you think Corduroy thinks he is climbing a mountain? When he gets to the top of the escalator, Corduroy thinks he is in a palace, what part of the store do you think he is in? What is he pulling off of the mattress and why?

This is just an example of questions that could be asked during the reading of this story, however, it is important to follow the lead of the child and ask questions and make comments based on how they are interacting with the story. Engaged reading is not about asking a predetermined set of questions but it is about actively engaging the child in the story. Your own set of questions will develop as you read the story with your child.

As children get older, the questions can prompt the children to dig a little deeper into the underlying messages in a story and to explore the author’s craft in writing the story. Books for middle and high school students will delve into topics of racism, poverty, power, prejudice, abuse, and relationships. These topics are perfect for discussing how they would do something differently, what are their thoughts on a particular topic, or who is their favorite character and why. At this age, it is also important to think about why the author wrote the story the way the did. This includes character development, foreshadowing, and even word choice. This practice is done in language arts classrooms across the country to help students become fully engaged in the story -- to question, inquire, and express their thoughts on a book as opposed to simply reading from cover to cover.

Resources for Parents

Reading Picture Books With Children, How To Shake Up Storytime and Get Kids Talking About What They See,” by Megan Dowd Lambert. The author draws on her work experience at both the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and Simmons College to create a wonderful guide for parents in “reading” picture books to their children. Her book outlines the many special features of children’s picture books that are used to enhance the reading experience. As she states in her book “I didn’t realize how very much I was missing until one day when I slowed down enough to let a child expand upon this observation.”

“The Read-Aloud Handbook,” by Jim Trelease. Before this book even begins, there is an important message for parents and caregivers about reading with young children. “We must take care that children’s early encounters with reading are painless enough so they will cheerfully return to the experience now and forever. But if it’s repeatedly painful, we will end up creating a school-time reader instead of a lifetime reader,” he says. This book outlines the importance of reading aloud with your children, what to do and what not to do, how to create a reading climate in your home, and even book suggestions that are perfect for reading aloud with your children.

“Reading Magic, Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever,” by Mem Fox. This book is an excellent guide for parents and caregivers in getting the most out of reading time with a child whether it is using a dramatic voice or creating word games with the book. Fox provides tips that support children really seeing the words on the page. “When we play games with books, we always begin with a whole real story that excites and engages the child, a story that will become familiar over many readings. Then, continuing our game playing, the child can look for individual words and read those words aloud. For example, after we’ve read Tough Boris again, we could say, ‘You know something? I think it says He was on just about every page of that book. Look, here it is on this page. And here it is on this page as well. I wonder if it’s on the other pages?’”

“How To Read Literature Like A Professor, A Lively And Entertaining Guide To Reading Between The Lines,” by Thomas C. Foster. With chapter titles such as “It’s More Than Just Rain or Snow”, “He’s Blind For A Reason You Know”, and “Now, Where Have I Seen Her Before” all guide older readers to look closely at what they are reading. This guide encourages readers to think about all aspects of a story -- why is it a gloomy day, why is the character disabled, or why are they wearing a certain color of clothing.