You've heard it before, but it bears repeating: Reading aloud is one of the most important things you can do for your child. Not only do daily read-aloud sessions stimulate brain development and help foster a lifelong love of reading and learning, but they're a great way for a parent and child to spend time together, especially at the end of a hectic day. That's why reading aloud is part of so many families' bedtime rituals.
How can you turn reading sessions into events your child not only enjoys but anticipates? Try these tips:
Before you read
• Choose appropriate books. For preschoolers, try to pick stories with clear-cut, ordered endings, and save tales with more ambiguous endings for older kids. While it's important to avoid titles that are completely over your child's head, it's okay to read books that are slightly more advanced in terms of vocabulary and story line. Children understand more than they 're able to express or read on their own. And if you pick a dud, don't feel you have to finish it — admit you made a bad choice and start something else.
• Choose books you enjoy. Nine out of ten librarians agree: It's essential to pick books you like to read, whether they're new titles or favorites from your own childhood. If you don't care for a particular story, it won't take long for your child to notice — and if you don't like it, why should he?
• Go to the library. Taking regular trips to the library teaches your child he can choose what he wants to read, plus it's an inexpensive way to add new books to your rotation. The library's special displays are a great place to find books that complement the season or a particular theme. And watching the librarians conduct their own story hour will give you ideas for your at-home reading sessions.
• Preview your reading. If possible, read through your child's book before the two of you settle down, suggests Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook. If you're familiar with the story and the language, you'll be able to read more expressively (see below) and to anticipate some of your child's questions.
• Create a reading-friendly environment. Choose a quiet, comfortable place to read to your child, whether it's your bed, the living room couch, or a big beanbag chair. Eliminate distractions such as the TV, phone, and radio. If you can, read at the same time every day. This helps turn reading into a ritual your preschooler will look forward to.
As you read
• Read slowly. Your child needs time to process what he's hearing.
• Read with expression. Tracy Heffernan, former coordinator of the San Francisco chapter of BookPALS, an organization that enlists trained actors for volunteer read-aloud events, says this is probably the best way to engage a child's attention. Pause at commas and periods and get excited when you come to an exclamation point. Long pauses add suspense, keeping little listeners glued to the story.
• Try different voices, accents, characters, and sounds. Reading a book about a witch? Make her sound like Dorothy's nemesis in The Wizard of Oz. Is your story about farm animals? Imitate the sounds they make. This isn't for everyone, so if you don't feel comfortable making barnyard noises, that's okay. But hearing Mommy or Daddy neigh like a horse is guaranteed to make your child smile and engage him more deeply in the story.
• Use props. If you're reading Esphyr Slobodkina's classic Caps for Sale, pile old hats on your head. If your choice is Robert McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal, have a bowl of berries nearby. Props help make the story seem real.
• Incorporate songs and puppet play. If you and your child know a song that's related to the theme of a book, sing it before you start reading, or make up a new rhyme together. If you have hand or finger puppets, act out a scene from the book during or after your reading session. This is a great way to reinforce a book's message or simply to extend the enjoyment.
• Take breaks. It's okay to pause in the middle of a story to answer your child's questions or to let him get up and move around a little. If your child gets excited and starts talking about something else or wants to try an activity mentioned in the book, go with the flow. It's also okay to let your child scribble or draw while you read. Active kids often need something to keep their hands busy. Reading sessions should never be a chore for either of you.
• Let your child participate. Kids love to be involved in reading aloud, whether it's by turning pages, supplying sound effects, or filling in missing words in familiar stories. You can also encourage your preschooler's involvement by pausing occasionally to ask what he thinks might happen next.
• Reread. If your child loves a particular book — or giggles at a particular passage or page — don't hesitate to repeat it, especially if he asks you to. For young children, repetition is an important part of learning and processing information and feelings.
• Get it on tape. If your child's grandparents or other relatives live far away, ask them to record stories on audiotapes and send them your way — or make one yourself for when you're not available to read your child his favorite story.
After you read
• Keep the story going. Try a story extender — a term Walter Mayes (a San Francisco Bay Area professional storyteller) uses for activities that encourage expression and bring books to life. One of the best story extenders for older toddlers and preschoolers is an art project. Mayes suggests assembling some supplies and talking to your child about the story you've just read while he draws, paints, or scribbles. What he produces may surprise both of you.
• Go somewhere inspired by your reading. This helps bring a story to life. If you've just read a book about playing outside, head to the park. If the tale was about a trip to the grocery store, go to a local market. While you're on your outing, point out familiar words and phrases on signs and billboards.
• Set a good example. There's no better way to convey a love of books than to have your child see you reading as often as possible. And continue reading with your child as he gets older, even after he learns to read on his own. Nothing takes the place of the connection the two of you share during story time.