Thursday, March 10, 2011

Books, Toddlers, and Language: How to Use Books To Enhance Language

Some of my fondest memories from childhood involve reading books with my mom. I can still her voice dance as she made her way through Goodnight Moon, a book that I had long since memorized. Good books, parent snuggles, and love- it's the stuff that childhood is made of.

What a joy, then, to be able to share with you the powerful role that books can play in growing your child's language. Not only does reading books with your young child create rich opportunities for vocabulary development, it also sets the stage for pre-literacy skills. Reading books with your toddler or preschooler is a great place to start her on the journey to all things language related. And whether or not your little one has a language delay, there are some specific ways that you can read with your child to enhance language development.

Many parents will choose to actually read the words of a book when sitting down to read with their children, and this can work well--sometimes, for some children. It works especially well with short, repetitive books such as the aforementioned Gooodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown , or Blue Hat Green Hat Sandra Boynton, or Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See? by Eric Carle. These books have a rhythm, a cadence, that draws young children in, much like singing does. As I explained in Sing, Dance and Be Merry, recurring and predictable language experiences like songs and repetitive board books are very powerful. Such experiences give young children the chance to develop anticipatory sets. Because the words are repeated over and over in the same enjoyable way, infants and toddlers learn to expect what comes next....and they often start filling those words in on their own. It's a trick that we speech therapists use frequently to entice young children to talk. And it works all the time. The key is to find a book the toddler likes, read it over and over and over, and then the 100th time you read the book (or so it seems), pause. Pause for moment and see what your toddler does. She may do nothing, and that's okay. Carry on. But she might just fill in the word and start reading that book right along with you.

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Toot toot!

Repetitive board books, then, can be wonderful. They don't always work, though-- young children have a notoriously short attention span and it can be hard to capture their attention long enough to get through a book. Some toddlers simply don't want to sit still for the time it takes their parents to actually read the words to a book, especially if if that particular book isn't short and snappy. Fear not! There's another highly effective way to use books to enhance language. It's almost deceivingly simple, but it's powerful nonetheless. Instead of reading the words to a book, just look through the book with your child and label the pictures you see. Let your child take the lead at times and point out things of interest-- and then say the names of whatever she points at. Then, if your child does use a word, put that same word into a short sentence for her as you respond to what she said. In speech therapy land, we call this interactive focused stimulation. You can just call it fun.

Despite my reluctance to appear on camera (seriously, what is with the eye blinking?), I captured Baby Girl and I reading a book using this method. We'd tried to read this book before, but she got bored quickly and wandered off. So I switched it up a bit. As you watch the video, notice a few things: 1. I'm following her lead. She points things out, and I label them. Simple, easy. 2. At first she just points. Then she starts using words and I respond by taking her words and putting them into short phrases for her, and 3. Toward the end, she takes one of the things I've been modeling for her ("quack quack") and uses it on her own, even though I didn't ask her to say anything at all. It's a great example of how indirect methods of working on speech and language can be very effective. (I pause here to note that it doesn't always work this well in the moment. Baby Girl is imitating a ton now. But that wasn't always the case! So don't be disappointed if your child doesn't immediately respond to your language models. You are laying the groundwork for future language. I promise).

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Parents are sometimes reluctant to use "baby talk" or simplify their language when talking with their kids. It's important, however, to match what you say to your child's language level. If your child is pointing at something, label the item for him. If he uses one word to label or request something, come back at him with two. If he uses two, you pull out three. Research consistently indicates that this type of indirect language modeling and expansion can be a powerful way to increase your child's language. You don't need to talk in simplified language all the time, of course-- your child needs to hear you give him directions and speak in full sentences and conversation as well. Yet, it is very important to build some time into your day where you follow your child's interest and match your language to his. Books are a great time to do just that....and you'll be creating some beautiful memories along the way.

Looking for repetitive books to read with your toddler? Try...
 

12 comments:

  1. A few questions:
    My husband always reads my son a bedtime story before he goes to bed. He used to do it to teach him letters and numbers and such. Now that my son is older, (he is 3 now) he doesn't have any interest in sitting down for an alphabet "lesson" before bed. He just wants to read any old book. My husband is less interested in reading to him because he is "not learning anything" as he puts it. Because my son is no longer a baby, is he getting anything (other than bonding, which is wonderful!) out of any old story book?
    Second -
    My son has just recently been introduced to books on CDs. He has a few books that he reads along to while the CD narrates. There is a chime that sounds when it is time to turn the page. He loves them and follows along perfectly. However, he wants to read these ALL DAY. Is this helpful or harmful? I don't know if it is good that my husband or I are not reading it to him. I've only been letting him listen to two or three books a day. Do you think more is OK? What if he wants the same book over and over? Thoughts?

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    1. I appologize, I am new to this site, but noticed your question. I am not sure if you have had any other responses to your question, but I recently read an old textbook that was talking about something similar to this, it was on reading itself. It said readers develop in three stages. The first is the love of reading and that is what you see right now with your son. He loves for you to read to him the same book several times in a row. It is the repetition and predictability that he enjoys and this is the same with all things little kids learn, it's all through repetition and refining the way they do an activity.
      The second stage is a more egocentric stage where they want to learn about things they like or the books they choose have a character they can relate to. These two stages have to happen first before they can appreciate more esthetic pieces like old literature, illiad and oddysey, or shakespeare type stuff. So what your child appears to be wanting right now is fine. The repetition and bonding created during those five readings of his favorite book, is normal and okay. Hope that helps.

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  2. She is way too sweet :) And her language has really, really taken off! PS - loooove the little barrette hair, so cute!

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  3. we love all those books, too! :) And I agree with using words they understand at that age. My doctor told me that my son's expressive speech was behind because I used small words with him. When they finally tested his receptive speech, they realized he was severly delayed! It was only those small words that I was using that he understood!

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  4. @Jennie, those are really great questions! (That's code for "Wow, I need to think about that for a while before I respond ;)). I promise I'll respond later when I don't have a toddler and a kindergartner competing for my attention!

    @Stephane, thanks. :)

    @Jess, Gotta love books! I'm surprised to hear that your pediatrician would think that his expressive language was behind because you used small words with him....but I definitely agree that we need to balance small words with longer sentences and conversation. Children learn from both and they need both, for different reasons. Thanks for highlighting that again!

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  5. What a great blog!!! I've loved books my whole life, and I have read to my daughter every single night (except for one when I was too ill to put her to bed) of her 2.5 year life. I see the effects of what you described, though I didn't really know what it was that appealed. She asked for Brown Bear Brown Bear last night... once she's had since she was born.

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  6. Great post! We love reading together in our house. My kids got books read to them as soon as I managed to catch up enough on my sleep to do it ... sometimes when they were really little I used to just read aloud from whatever book I was reading ...

    Now my 5 year old is a reading legend, my 3 year old gets twice as many books read to her! I often catch them lying in bed together WAAAAY after they should be asleep with R sneakily getting in just one last story!

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  7. I love this post. Early reading is so important.
    You may want to link it to http://www.notimeforflashcards.com/ on Sunday night. She has a great link up for posts. I post there regularly and it send me tons of traffic.

    Stopping from Mom Loop!

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  8. Jennie, I'm finally back to answer your questions! Sorry for the delay...

    To your first question: Your son is most *definitely* getting something out of reading any old story book! He's learning a TON about literacy-- he's finding out which way to hold books, which way to turn the pages, which way the words on a page are read. He's also learning that words have meaning and the more you read to him, the more he'll understand that letters have sounds and that the sounds are the building blocks of those words he is seeing. All of these preliteracy skills are super important! If you click on the "preliteracy skills" link in the second paragraph of this post, you can read more about the topic of preliteracy and why it is important! Also, your son is learning new vocabulary with every storybook that is read to him and he's hearing lots of different ways that sentences are put together...both important language skills. There are so many benefits of reading books-- even if kids aren't interested in learning letters (which many 3 year olds just aren't ready for!)

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  9. And, as far as the books on CDs, here's what I would say. They are good...to an extent. They are good for some of the same reasons I just mentioned- they are teaching him a ton about language and preliteracy, especially if he's following along with a written book as he listens. But, as a child, there is also huge value to having an adult sit next to you, read you a book, answer your questions about the book, and really interact with you as you talk about the book. This helps kids learn about the world, helps them learn to think, and helps them understand what they are hearing even better. Plus, there's lots of social interaction that happens when children and adults read books together and that social interaction is important for development, too.

    So, as with most things in life, I'd say it's all about balance: some books on CD are fantastic, especially if they are paired with the written book. But kids need adults to read to them, too. 2-3 books on CD per day sounds great...along with some parent led book reading, too. :)

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  10. I love this post. We read every night to our son and by the time he was one, his favorite activity was books. We felt all that we did was read to him (but we didn't complain). By one and a half, he had learned to recognize all of his letters in upper case and many in lower case as well (not that he remembers this at age 4.5). All he wanted was Dr. Suess books. We must have read him Horton Hatches an Egg every night for weeks straight. He would complete the sentences of his favorite books. It was always our practice that after mommy or daddy read a book, he would flip through the pages and "read" it again. When he was really young it was pointing out pictures and asking questions. As he aged, he started telling us what was happening on each page. Now, for some books, like "Goodnight Moon", he can tell us every page.

    When my daughter was born with DiGeorge's Syndrome, we knew she could have a speech delay. We read to her much like our son, but books didn't interest her as much. We still made a point to read to her, but there wasn't as much time devoted to it because she didn't come to us with book after book like he had. However, since her brother loved books so much, she was exposed to his habits, his "reading" (he used to read her books like "Yummy and Yucky" when she was an infant). By age 2, she tested at a 9 month level for verbal skills, but she loved books. Her favorites were "Goodnight Moon", "Hand Hand Finger Thumb", and Dr. Suess's ABC Book. While she was in the hospital, which she was a lot, we had to read those three books over and over and over again. She couldn't talk, but she still tried to "read" them after we would finish like her older brother would do. She did sign a lot and she would sign the books. Now, at age 3, she has caught up with her verbal abilities and she loves to read us the books.

    I really think all of the reading to both of my children, even when they couldn't verbally participate was very beneficial. Both of them love books, love to read, and have active imaginations.

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  11. Mom on a Line, I loved reading your comment! My daughter is much like your son--brings us book after book after book (my husband keeps saying to me: "is this normal??"). It's so easy and fun to read books with her. My son, though, was like your daughter-- he loves books now, but he didn't naturally gravitate toward them as a toddler/preschooler. Kudos to you for keeping your daughter going in with books even though she didn't have that much of an interest. I am so glad to hear that she's doing so well :)

    Oh, and when my son *did* start to really like books, Horton was one of his favorites, too! That is a looooooong book, but it's so good.

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