Why reading is important for babies and young children
Reading books, sharing stories, talking and singing every day helps your child’s development in many ways.
Reading and storytelling can:
- help your child get to know sounds, words and language, and develop early literacy skills
- introduce your child to the value of books and stories
- spark your child’s imagination and curiosity
- promote your child’s brain development and ability to focus and concentrate
- help your child build social, communication and emotional skills
- help your child learn about the world, their own culture and other cultures.
Reading stories with children has benefits for you too. The special time you spend reading together promotes bonding and builds your relationship with your child.
You can start reading aloud to your baby as early as you like – the earlier the better. Your baby will love being held in your arms, listening to your voice, hearing rhyme and rhythm, and looking at pictures.
More than reading: storytelling and songs
Reading isn’t the only way to help with your child’s language and literacy development.
Telling stories, singing songs and saying rhymes together are also great activities for early literacy skills – and your child will probably have a lot of fun at the same time. Sometimes your child might enjoy these activities more than reading.
You and your child might like to make up your own stories or share family stories. Your child will learn words and develop language skills from the songs, stories and conversations you share together.
You can use books to share stories, but you don’t always have to read. Just by looking at pictures and talking about them with your child, you can be a storyteller and a model for using language and books. Your child will also learn by watching you hold a book the right way and seeing how you move through the book by gently turning the pages.
Reading with children in diverse languages
You can read, sing and tell stories with your child in whatever language you feel most comfortable speaking.
Using a language you’re comfortable with helps you to communicate more easily. It also helps to make reading, singing and storytelling more fun for you and your child. Your child will still learn that words are made up of different letters, syllables and sounds, and that words usually link to the pictures on the page.
If you speak languages other than English at home but want to introduce your child to reading in English, you can look for dual-language books. Or you could read a book aloud in English or listen to an audio book in English and then talk about the story with your child in whatever language feels most comfortable.
When to read, sing and tell stories with children
Bedtime, bath time, potty time, on the train, on the bus, in the car, in the park, in the pram, in the cot, when you’re in the GP’s waiting room ... any time is a good time for a story! You can make books part of your daily routine – take them with you to share and enjoy everywhere.
Knowing when to stop can be just as important as finding the time to share a story in the first place. Pay attention to your child’s reaction to the story, and stop if your child isn’t enjoying it. You can always try a different book, song or story another time.
If you don’t have a book or can’t make up a story on the spot, don’t worry. There are many other ways you and your child can share letters, words and pictures. For example, you can look at:
- packages at home or in the supermarket, especially food packaging
- clothing – what does it say on the t-shirt? What colour is it?
- letters and notes – what do they say? Who sent them?
- signs or posters in shops or on buses and trains – point out signs that have the same letters as your child’s name
- menus – it can be fun for older children to look at menus and work out what they want to eat.
Tips for sharing books with children
- Make a routine, and try to share at least one book every day. A special space where you and your child go to read – with a box of books and something comfortable to sit on – can help with establishing your routine.
- Turn off the TV or radio, put your phone on silent, and find a quiet place to read so your child can hear your voice.
- Hold your child close or on your knee while you read, so your child can see your face and the book.
- Use gestures, facial expressions, funny voices, noises and so on. This can get your child interested and help them learn the meaning of words. It’s also fun!
- Encourage your child to talk about the pictures and repeat familiar words and phrases.
- Make connections between your child’s life and the book. For example, ‘That little boy is playing in the sand. You did this too, didn’t you?’
- Let your child choose the books when they’re old enough to start asking – and be prepared to read favourite books over and over again!
If you have older children, they can share books with your younger children, or you can all read together. Taking turns, asking questions and listening to the answers are all important skills that will help children when they start learning how to read.
Just reading for a few minutes at a time is good – you don’t always have to finish the book. As children grow, they can usually listen for longer.
Books to read with children
As a broad rule, young children often enjoy books, songs and stories that have good rhyme, rhythm and repetition. In fact, one of the ways that children learn is through repetition and rhyme.
Children also like books they can relate to – for example, books about play, toys, dinner, bath time, walks, animals and cars.
It’s also important to choose books that are the right length for your child.
For a guide to what might suit your child, you can look at the following articles:
- Reading with babies from birth
- Reading with toddlers: 12-18 months
- Reading with toddlers: 18 months-3 years
- Reading with preschoolers.
You can also vary the books and printed materials you read. Picture books, ebooks, magazines, instruction manuals, TV guides and letters can all be interesting and engaging for your child.
If your older child is interested in ebooks, look for ones without distracting games or animations. Also, it’s important to read ebooks with your child, rather than leaving your child alone with a device. It’s best if ebooks don’t replace paper books.
If you want to try new books or magazines without much cost, you could arrange book swaps with friends or other parents at your parent group or early childhood centre.
Using your local library
Libraries have a lot to offer. Getting to know your local library can be a part of learning about and loving books.
You can borrow great children’s books for free from your local library. This means you can have plenty of books in your home for your child to explore – and it won’t cost you a cent.
Taking your child to the library and letting them choose their own books can be a fun adventure. You can talk about and plan your trip to the library with your child. You could ask your child, for example:
- How many books will you choose?
- How many books can you find by your favourite author?
- Will you borrow books that have animals in them?
- Do you have a favourite book you’d like to borrow again?
- How many days will it be before we go to the library again?
Many libraries also offer free story times and activities for young children. Going along to these sessions is a way to help your child get familiar with the library, have fun, and enjoy books and stories. Some libraries offer these sessions online.
Libraries often have audio books, dual-language books, ebooks and magazines.
Just contact your local library for more information.