If I could wave a magic wand and do something that would give every child a better chance in life, it would be to instill in each and every one of them a love of reading. Too many children experience a slow start in learning to read, or worse yet are turned off to reading before they are done with elementary school. I am always amazed by the number of children I see (and parents, too!) who tell me that they never read for fun because it is boring or too hard. Yet teaching a child to read, and to love reading, depends on early experience. There is a growing body of research that shows that preschool children who are not only exposed to early reading experiences, but exposed in the right way, have an advantage over other children when they start formal reading instruction. Most parents realize that it is important to read to toddlers and preschoolers as often as possible, but many are uncertain as to how to do that in a way that will help their child develop both the language skills and the love of books that will help them succeed.
A recent article by Jamie Chamberlin in Monitor on Psychology, a monthly publication of the American Psychological Association, discusses recent research on the best ways to engage young children in the reading experience. In “Bringing books to life: Psychologists’ research points to new ways to nurture young readers”, Ms. Chamberlin describes what we are learning about effective strategies for helping children develop both skills and interest in books. Recent studies show that these strategies can boost children’s vocabularies, language development, letter-recognition, and awareness of the sounds that make up our language. Helping children understand the connection between those little squiggles on the page and the speech sounds they represent is especially important, as a failure to develop that skill underlies most cases of reading disability (also known as dyslexia).
Some of the most helpful strategies parents and preschool teachers can employ include:
Set the scene for your reading session. Begin by looking at the cover of the book and announcing the title, maybe following up with a question such as “What do you think this book will be about?” You could also provide a brief overview of the plot to help your child anticipate the action to come.
Read with expression. A lively and vivid recitation of the book’s text brings the plot and characters to life. Enthusiasm counts!
Pose open-ended questions about what you are reading. Rather than looking for a simple yes or no answer, ask questions like “What do you think will happen next?”, or “Where do you think you would go if you were the lost puppy?” Questions like that engage the child’s imagination, and help them begin to understand factors like plot and motivation.
Build a simple, low-pressure task into your reading by asking your child to watch for examples of a certain letter or sound as you read together.
Connect the book to your child’s own experience by asking questions such as “Where have you seen a sunset before?” or “Who do you go shopping with?”
Choose books that are at the right level for your child, that provide a rich vocabulary that will add to your child’s language experience while not going too far beyond what they already understand. Books should be challenging, but still familiar and comfortable.
Choose books that are “print-rich” – that is, that draw your child’s eye to the words and letters with typographical features such as dialogue bubbles, words written in large or colored fonts, or innovative typesetting that seems to make words move or dance across the page. Accentuate these details by talking about how the print moves from left to right, or how the same letter might appear in different fonts in different places.
Finally, make reading with your child a nightly experience. One of my favorite things to do is read, read, read. Convey that excitement to your child so that they never want to stop reading, even when they are your (or even my) age!
I hope you find these tips interesting and helpful. You can read the full article, and view a video of a teacher using some of these strategies at www.apa.org/monitor/digital/literacy.aspx.
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