Answers to the most frequently asked questions posed to our panel of experts
Q: My baby tears all his books. How can we get him interested in reading?
A: At first, choose board books — short, sturdy books made of cardboard or with plastic pages. Look for those with a single, colorful, large picture on each page. Choose books that have interesting subjects for a baby. For example, select those with pictures of a baby's crib, bathtub, high chair, ball, and doggie. Babies especially love books that have pictures of Mommy and baby animals.
Choose a time when your baby is well rested and then sit and snuggle on a chair or couch. As he leans on you or sits on your lap, make sure that he can see the page really well. Then turn each page very slowly. Comment on each picture with delight: "There's a moo cow! Moo, moo, moo!" Encourage your baby to make the animal sounds with you and to point to the pictures: "Can you show me the kitty cat? Good for you! There's the kitty cat!" Get him involved in babbling the animal sounds to go with each picture he is pointing to on each page. Praise him when you finish a book. "We read a whole book together!"
Q: Should I give up trying to read to my toddler, since she really cannot sit still for a story?
A: Some children have very high activity levels, so try to work around your toddler's energy requirements. First off, realize that this is one aspect of her personality. She needs to have lots of opportunity to move! Take her for walks in the park. Be sure you let her run around a lot, even at home. Pick her up for a big hug and kiss when she runs back to the place where you are. If you give her the sense that she is OK as she is — high activity level and all — she may be more cooperative when you want her to sit and enjoy a story.
Make sure she is well fed and has had lots of opportunity to use up energy. Lure her to a cozy couch and set a pile of books out to arouse her interest. Choose ones with few pages at first. Think about what your child's special interests are. Some toddlers love animals. Some love dinosaurs. Some love trucks, trains, buses, and cars. Find books with large, colorful pictures that you know will capture her interest.
Don't worry about reading just what is in the book. Use varied voice tones and excitement in your voice to focus your energetic child's interest as you describe and explain about the pictures. If she comments or points, let her talk. As you engage her animated interest in books, she will be far more willing and even enthusiastic to settle in for her special reading times with you.
Q: My son is 2 years and 4 months old. When I try to read with him, he grabs the book away and won't let me turn the pages. I can't seem to get his attention to follow a story. Any suggestions?
A: Choose a storybook that has pictures your son enjoys and read to him while you firmly hold the pages. Have him snuggle next to you on the couch. Then you can both share the pictures together with the book more in your control. Do not let him turn the pages unless your fingers are right in the next page so that he turns exactly to the next page. Then praise him for turning the page so carefully.
Don't read exactly what is in the book. Describe the pictures, scenes, animals, and characters. Change your voice tones. Make the descriptions interesting! When you finish the book, close it and tell him appreciatively "We finished the whole book. Good for you!" Then ask him which book he wants next.
As you help your child see how precious a book is, how gently we treat a book, how amazing each story is, more and more he will absorb your admiration and a cherishing feeling toward books.
Q: At 18 months old, my daughter knows all but two or three letters of the alphabet. She delights in pointing out the letters on signs, menus, etc. How unusual is this and how can I continue to keep her interest?
A: Literacy ability has a wide developmental window. Some very bright children struggle to see the figure-ground relationship between the black "squiggles," which are our letters, on a white paper background. They may have difficulty learning to read. Other children, such as your toddler, are perceptually able to decode those "squiggles" quite early.
However, this does not mean that they can relate the clusters of letters that make up words on paper to the sounds of the letters as they are spoken. In order to read for meaning and understanding, children must learn the correspondence between the "graphemes" (words written down) on paper, and the "phonemes" (the sounds of the letters of each word as they are spoken aloud). This is a difficult task.
Your task is to make language pleasurable for your little one. Try these activities and encouragements.
Continue to show your delight as your daughter triumphantly figures out all the letters she sees.
Sing songs together. Make up a song with the letters of her name in it.
Print her name on every scribble drawing she makes for you.
Share storybooks. Trace the letters of the words in a simple storybook as you read so that she sees that the letters, as well as the pictures, tell the story in the book.
Visit the library often so that you can introduce your daughter to the pleasures of picture books for toddlers and preschoolers. Rejoice in her early interest in literacy learning!
Meet the Expert:
These represent some of the most common queries posed to Alice S. Honig, Ph.D., a professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University who has done extensive research on infants and toddlers and on language development.