This was first posted on elizabethannewrites on May 26, 2011.

As Emma Walton Hamilton points out in her book Raising Bookworms: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, it is never too early to begin reading to a child. Even before the baby is born, reading to him/her can be a way of bonding, of letting your voice soothe the little one, of accustoming the little one to language and the rhythm and beauty of words — as long as this is not seen as a way to produce the next Nobel Chemistry Prize winner straight from the womb!

After the baby is born, of course, the delights of reading aloud become much more apparent. The sound of the voice — and of different voices, if the privilege of reading to the little one is shared with others such as grandparents and caregivers, big brothers or sisters; the tactile and visual stimulation of the pictures and the book itself; the snuggling together which is so much a part of reading to a small child — all combine to make a cherished experience for both reader and read-to.

Little ones can be encouraged to explore books on their own, as well. Board books are great for tiny hands, as are smaller picture books, vinyl books for bath-time, cloth books for cuddling with at bedtime. Books are something for the baby/toddler to experience through touch, taste, smell as well as hearing the words and seeing the pictures. Books are NOT something to be kept on a high shelf, in pristine condition. Yes, we want to teach respect for books, but not at the expense of developing a true love for books.

I want to tell you a story of a small bookworm I once knew. When I was in my twenties, I went back to studying the piano after a gap of several years. My piano teacher was a young woman who taught out of her home. She had a small daughter with whom I would sometimes play if I arrived at the house before the previous student was finished her lesson. One day I went into the playroom and found the little one — perhaps 1 1/2 years old — sitting in a tiny director’s chair, picture books scattered all around her, her attention riveted on the picture book in her hands. I sat down on the floor beside her, and tried to talk to her. Without looking at me, her focus still on her book, she picked up another book from the pile on the floor and wordlessly handed it to me. The message was clear. It wasn’t that she wanted me to read to her, she obviously hoped that the book would keep me quiet and amused so she could go on with her own “reading”! I wonder if she still loves books that much? I hope she does.

Fostering that kind of love of books, of reading, of being read to, is the aim of Emma’s book, Raising Bookworms, and it is so important. The foundation of building that love of reading in a child is reading aloud to that child, over and over and over again. This is not only key in encouraging a love of reading, it sets the groundwork for the child’s entire learning experience in years to come. My mother, who taught kindergarten for a time, said she could tell immediately which children had been read to in the home, and which hadn’t. Why wouldn’t we want to give our children every advantage possible to enhance their future ability to learn, especially when the key is something as simple as reading a story?

I want to say, though, that I’m not talking about pushing children to learn before they’re ready, or plaguing them with flashcards — I’m talking simply about reading stories, books, poems, to the child. There are so many well-written books available in bookstores and in libraries, that it should be relatively easy to find good reading material to share with a child. A visit to the children’s section of any public library can be a real treat for a child, from the time they’re toddling. There are story times, and a vast array of books shelved at their own level, board books in bins, rugs and chairs to snuggle on for a read-aloud time — the library can become one of a child’s favorite destinations on an outing.

One needs to take into account the child’s interests, the child’s cognitive level (remembering that children understand far more words than they are able to say, and reading is a marvelous way of increasing vocabulary and understanding), and even a child’s learning style, when selecting books, and when reading aloud.

The cherished image of reading aloud involves cuddling the child in the crook of one’s arm as together reader and child explore the pictures and the story, the reader pausing to ask questions about the pictures, to ask what else might be going on, to ask what the child thinks might be going to happen next. That ideal isn’t always easy to achieve. Some children find it very difficult to sit still while a story is read to them, and perhaps we need to just relax and let them move around if that’s what they need to do. I remember trying to read to a little boy, age 2 1/2. He sat still for a while, but then wriggled down from the couch, and started riding his tricycle around the living room. I tried to get him to come back to listen to the story, but he needed to move. So I read while he rode, thinking he wouldn’t be getting anything out of the book — but when I finished reading, he immediately piped up “adain” (again). So, while he circled the living room on his small tricycle, I read stories. Looking back at that experience now, with all I’ve learned through reading and study, I realize that he was probably a kinetic learner (or kinesthetic learner), a child for whom motion and activity helped him process the words he was hearing. He evidently was still taking in the story, if his multiple requests to hear the story “adain” were anything to go by.

“Again.” Yes, one may find oneself repeating the story over and over again, one may find oneself corrected if one skips a word, or uses a different inflection than in the first hundred times one has read that particular story — these are important building blocks in the learning process, so it’s a good idea to stifle one’s wish to read something different for a change, and follow what the child needs at that stage (while still trying to introduce new books!).

A challenge? Yes, and a joy, to introduce a little one to the world of books, of reading, to the magic of words.

In my next post, I’ll suggest some books to share with little ones.

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