Five Keys for Getting Young Children Hooked on Books

I know from personal experience that sharing a book with your child is not always magical. Especially when parents are busy and stressed, and when kids aren’t used to looking at books. But that’s when kids and parents need it most. Book-sharing has so many benefits, but it takes some practice to get the benefits.

During my medical training, I realized I wasn’t giving my own kids the benefits I was encouraging other parents to give theirs. So I decided to change that.

It wasn’t easy. My preschooler had been looking at books since she was a baby, but my active energetic toddler was newer to books and harder to interest. I realized I needed some help on tactics. I read the “Read Aloud Handbook” by Jim Trelease and learned from experience some very helpful pointers which I will share with you below.

1. Individualize the book-sharing experience to each child

You have to pick the right book for the age and developmental level of your child. See below for some examples of age appropriate books.

I found that for my active toddler, the best books had bright colored pictures and few words, or required active participation, like picture-finding books or pop-up books. You can make any book into a picture-finding book.

Toddlers have short attention spans because they have to practice all the new skills they are learning. They often have an innate need to keep moving. So if they get up and roll around in the middle of a book, don’t assume they are not listening; you may just need to let them “orbit” for a moment and then try again to recapture their attention and they will likely come back. The more regularly you read, the better they will get at sitting still and paying attention.

For babies, board books or fabric books work well, since they love grabbing and mouthing (which usually results in ripping and crumpling). Sensory books with different textures or objects embedded in the pages work well. The younger the child, the fewer the words. Babies love pictures of other babies.

It definitely helps to start with books early, even as young as 6 months. Try not to get frustrated when they explore the book the way their brains are wired to explore them. They are wired to learn by imitating, so if you turn the page, they think they are supposed to turn the page. Let them practice their motor skills- it’s all in the experience of a book. You don’t have to read the whole book word for word, page by page. Try to distract them from constantly turning pages by pointing to the pictures and acting interested in them. Say some words- any words. Hold their attention as long as you can.

Babies may not understand the words you are saying (yet) but they are very good at picking up on nonverbal communication. They will be fascinated when you vary the pitch, speed, tone, inflection and emotional quality of your voice even if they have absolutely no idea what you are saying. This gives them a rich offering to whet their young verbal and emotional palates. Babies learn words by gathering clues from this emotional context, and as you read and say the same things over and over again, they will begin to learn their first words.

The more you engage your kid when he is a baby and a toddler, the more pay off you’ll get when he gets to the preschool and Kindergarten stage when he can start following and enjoying those longer stories like the book below.

2. Find time for each child

This is especially hard when you’re going from a one child family to a two child family. I started realizing my second wasn’t engaging when reading to my first because the books were over her head. Therefore, she tuned out. As she got older she got harder and harder to engage as she learned that books were a boring thing that dad and sister did together but didn’t interest her. This changed when I carved out time each day for reading to her alone. As a young toddler she needed totally different kinds of books than her preschool-aged sister, and different delivery methods from me.

It’s harder to split your time and attention but believe me, it makes a huge difference in the long run. This has to come along with an “all hands on deck” approach with both me and my wife doing bedtime instead of us taking turns relaxing like we did when we only had one kid.

Single parents can take advantage of the older sister/brother being at preschool or napping or with a sitter to make time for baby book-sharing. If you have to do book-sharing with both kids at the same time, try alternating between books on each kid’s level.

3. Make it interactive

Book-sharing works best when it’s a two-way process.

Even the youngest want to have an interactive experience, which is what you’re letting them have when they grab, turn pages and mouth the book.

For toddlers, ask questions about the pictures: “What’s that?” or “Where is the apple?” This is a good way to introduce and reinforce new words. For preschoolers, ask “What do you think will happen next?” to encourage processing the story and critical thinking. Ask “Does she look sad or happy? Why does she look that way?” to encourage empathy and social and emotional awareness. Make text-to-world connections. Stop in the middle of familiar phrases or rhymes and let them complete it. Intentionally make outrageous silly mistakes to “get caught” and let them correct you. Let them “read” the story or make up a new one to go with the pictures.

A recent study showed a much greater level of interaction between parents and toddlers that read old-fashioned print books compared to eBooks on a tablet. Isn’t there something about the feeling of a print book that a tablet just doesn’t have?

When they are old enough, make the process democratic by letting them chose between two or three books to read. I found displaying the books in a library-style tiered shelf that made the front of each book visible was a great way to advertise these books to young eyes.

4. Keep it fun- for you and them

Delivery is everything. Even parents that don’t have a flare for the dramatic can channel their inner thespian because children are a biased and captive audience. They will learn humor and creativity from you, even if you’re not that funny or creative. You have a completely naive, fresh audience so this is your chance to shine!

Developing brains crave repetition because that is how they are wired to learn. No matter how many times they’ve read it, they still want to see what happens “When You Give a Pig a Pancake”, to the consternation and fatigue of parents’ more sophisticated literary tastes. But don’t let yourself get bored with it, because they learn how to react from copying your reactions to books. Spice it up with some funny voices or a fresh interpretation of Peppa the Pig’s lines. Turn it into a “musical” by singing it, or even modify the story itself (I promise I won’t call the story police.) Remember, the objective is to have a positive book-sharing experience, not read every book perfectly from beginning to finish.

“Read” your child as well as the book and make adjustments or even switch the book if they are just not into it. Make an effort to capture your child’s attention but also know when to call it quits, and remember the value of quitting while you’re ahead so that it is a positive experience your child will want have next time.

5. Set the timing and context

For very active kids, sometimes it’s easier to engage them at bedtime when they are a little more subdued and tired, likewise before a nap or during the “quiet time” of the afternoon. Book sharing has been shown in some studies to promote sleep and help babies sleep longer. Having books as part of the bedtime routine helps baby soothe, unwind and have some positive attention before being separated for sleep. It’s also a good way to make sure reading happens each day. Kids thrive on routines.

You fight a losing battle when they are hungry, overstimulated, uncomfortable or overtired. Eliminate distractions like toys or noisy household activity. Turn off the TV. Put away electronic devices!

Those who rise to the challenge to keep trying to make book sharing meaningful for them and their children will inevitably meet with some failure and some successes. Some days you and your child will love book-sharing. Other days it will be a box that gets checked off, and some days it will even be a box of books that doesn’t even get opened. But if you keep making the effort, and keep having fun with it, you will reap benefits that extend far beyond the 39th straight reading of “Pete the Cat’s New School Shoes.”