An age-by-age guide to reading to your kids

There's more to story time than just reading the words on the page. Help your kids learn new vocabulary and develop empathy and self-control with these expert tips.

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Carla Hudson Kam’s son was three and a half when he realized text in books had meaning. “He was trying to tell me what to say while I was reading to him,” explains Hudson Kam. “When I told him that wasn’t what the book said, he exclaimed ‘Those are WORDS? And they tell you what to SAY?’ He hadn’t realized that I didn’t just have the story memorized.”

Hudson Kam’s kid had an advantage—as a professor and Canada research chair in language acquisition at the University of British Columbia, his mom is basically a professional story reader. And thanks to that, she points to the text on the page as she speaks, to encourage kids to have just that kind of revelation.

While any reading you do to your kid is beneficial, adding in a few simple techniques can help kids learn vocabulary faster and even encourage skills like empathy and self-control. Here’s an age-by-age guide to making story time even more enriching:

Reading to a baby under a year

Try big kid books: You might not think to read a complex storybook to a newborn, but babies under six months old actually benefit from hearing the kind of books you would read to older kids. “It helps them hear the rhythm of the language,” says Hudson Kam. “It trains their ear and makes it a little easier for them to pay attention to longer sentences later.”

Grab their attention: By about six to twelve months, babies start to get interested in books as toys to examine and manipulate. Expose them to cloth or board books with things like flaps, textures like a bit of fur or rubber on the page, crinkle pages or electronic buttons to keep their interest. But don’t be surprised if they just pull the book from your hand and just mouth it or physically explore it—that’s totally normal, and okay at this stage.

Simple sells: Books that have simple pictures paired with single words help babies learn their first vocabulary. If there is more than one picture on the page, be sure to point to what you’re talking about. “When there are two or more pictures on a page, kids don’t know what to look at,” says Hudson Kam.

Reading to a one-year-old

Turn to the classics: Nursery rhymes are great at this age because of their natural rhythm. “Kids seem to learn new vocabulary better when we pause before something important, because that lets their brains catch up,” says Hudson Kam. “It’s very hard to do that intentionally, but we do it naturally with rhymes.” Books should also have thick pages to make turning the page easier, be colourful and have on picture per page.

Expect more: You’ll still want to point at pictures and label them, but now you can expect your child to respond by pointing, gesturing, making a sound or imitating the word. “By the time babies are about 12 months old, you can say, ‘Where is the red balloon?’ and they can point at it,” says Alyson Shaw, a paediatrician and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. Then, to take it further, aim for a few more back and forths. You might wait and see if your toddler taps the page, and then you could say “the boy is holding the balloon” and wait again to see if your child does something in response. These kinds of back and forths are the beginning of what’s called dialogic reading, a technique where parents and kids have a conversation about what’s in a book that helps kids retain vocabulary. “Research suggests children who have more conversations prior to two have superior language skills at 13,” says Luigi Girolametto, professor emeritus of the Department of Speech-Language Pathology at the University of Toronto.

Reading to a two-year-old

Mom and school-aged daughter cuddled up on a bed reading a book together How to raise a readerRead about their world: Toddlers are ready for books that have more complex pictures and stories. The best picks describe something familiar to them, like going to the park or a bedtime routine.

Make it fun: If you have an active toddler who has no interest in sitting still for story time, try getting a more interactive book—lift the flap or pull the tab ones, or electronic ones that make sounds when you push a button are great to keep kids involved.

Ask questions: Toddlers love re-reading favourite stories. After you have read a book together a few times and they have gotten familiar with a story, try prompting them to tell you what happens next. For example, with Five Little Monkeys, you could pause when the monkey falls off the bed and say “UH OH, what happened?” Or you can connect the text to the real world—if the book has a dog in it, you can say, “a doggie! Just like grandma’s doggie!”

“Read” the pictures: When you flip to a new page, try ignoring the text and pausing to see what your kid says instead. If your two year old looks at the picture and says “Doggie run!” you can expand with a longer phrase: “Yes! The doggie is chasing the cat.” Those types of expansions—where you answer your kid with a sentence that’s just a bit more complex —help kids learn grammar and new words faster.

Reading to a three-year-old

Expand the plot: Kids this age are graduating to real stories with simple plots—look for books where the character has a problem, tries to fix it, and finally there is a happy ending. This level of book tends to have three or four sentences per page. You can also introduce your kid to non-fiction books that teach kids about topics like dinosaurs or the solar system.

Follow the text: If the book has multiple pictures on the page, point at the relevant one so it’s clear to your kid what you’re talking about. If there is only one picture per page, try pointing to the text instead of the image, which helps kids learn that you read from top to bottom, and left to right—and maybe even that text has meaning, like Hudson Kam’s kid learned.

Explain new vocabulary: When you come across a word that’s new to your kid, pause to describe it. “If a book says soggy, you can say, ‘He’s soggy! That means he’s really really wet. Just like when you came out of the rain, you were soggy,’” says Janice Greenberg, director of early childhood education services at The Hanen Centre, a not-for-profit organization that teaches language and social skills to parents and professionals.

Focus on feelings: In the same way, stop to discuss what the characters are feeling. “Internal states are really complicated for kids to understand,” says Hudson Kam. “Simply stopping when you run across words like think, want, desire, wonder and hope to discuss what those words mean has been shown to help kids understand other people’s feelings.” You could say something like, “Oh, he wants the toy, but the other boy is playing with it. How do you think that makes him feel?” Then you can tie it to real life and say, remember when we were in the playground yesterday, when you were having a bit of trouble sharing a toy? “If you do that, books become not only a place to build literacy, but also problem solving and emotional regulation, too,” says Greenberg.

Reading to four- and five-year-olds

Get complicated: Kids have now graduated beyond simple, straightforward problem-and-answer stories to ones with multiple issues, secondary plots and characters who have conflicting desires. These books tend to have four to 10 sentences per page, and still have a photo on every spread.

Find the text: At this age, you can focus on pre-reading skills, to help kids learn that words are important and to focus on the text. Point out sentences that rhyme, and alliteration (when words start with the same letter or sound). And read out text in the illustrations—a stop sign or store name, for example— to help kids develop the idea that words are meaningful.

Add predictions: Ask kids to guess what’s going to happen next in the story, which helps them learn to think about experiences as a sequence of events. “That’s one of the skills they need to develop to come home from kindergarten and tell you what happened in their day,” says Shaw.

Reading to six-year-olds and up

Don’t stop!: “Most people stop reading aloud at this age, because they think kids can read on their own,” says Greenberg. “But when kids start to read, they start with really simple books that don’t really advance the child’s ability with vocabulary, or inferencing, or even complex plot.”

Graduate to chapter books: When you’re looking for read-aloud choices, look to chapter books with fewer or no pictures. They’re a great way to show kids more complicated plots and advanced language, like passive sentence structure, that we don’t use in everyday speech very often. (Plus, you might get to finally reach for some of your childhood favourites.)

Connect the dots: Continue having conversations about what you’re reading, and talk about how it relates to your kids own life, and to their previous knowledge. That will make sure that they are ready for the next big transition, moving from learning to read to reading to learn, which typically happens in grade three.

Keep it fun: Above all, make sure you keep the experience enjoyable at every age. The most important part is to keep up a feeling of joy around reading. Hudson Kam found that her kid’s joy of reading lagged a bit when he started learning to read on his own, because he found the early reading books boring. But once he got to the age where he could read what was interesting to himself, “he has just kept on reading,” says Hudson Kam. “We have to limit him at night now or he’ll keep reading until the wee hours of the morning.”

Read more:
Study: Reading aloud to toddlers can make them less hyper as schoolagers

How I got my toddler back on books after she got a taste of screen time

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