As speech-language pathologists, we often stress the importance of providing children with access to early literacy. Research shows that reading to young children prepares their minds for success in school, exposes them to diverse content, and builds intimacy and bonding with others. It is no secret that reading to a young child supports their development! But what do you do if your child has difficulty sitting still? Or their attention to a book is brief? Or all they want to do is close the book the second you try to open it or rapidly turn the pages? Being able to sit still and listen to someone read is a skill. For some children learning that skill can take a long time to develop. The good news is that this can be taught! I sat down with Sarah DeWhitt, MS, CCC-SLP to hear her best tips to encourage children to get the most out of reading time at home.
Here are Sarah’s 5 tips on how to make book reading more fun for a young child:
1. Think about positioning and time of day
a. Positioning: We all love snuggles from our children and perhaps you think having them sit in your lap allows you to contain their attention but snuggling or being rocked might not put your child in a “ready to learn state”. Your child might respond better if he is allowed to read books in a different position. For example, if you are working on developing articulation, you could to have your child sit across from you and hold the book near your mouth so he can watch how your mouth moves. If your child needs increased core strength or increased input to calm his body, having him lay down with his belly on the floor (prone) might be a better position for him to read. Another way to increase input to the body is having your child lay in a bean bag or rolled up like a burrito. Increasing body input can increase the ability to remain calm.
b. Time of day: As adults, we all have a time of day when we are most productive-children are the same! Perhaps your child is too tired right before bed to engage as an active participant in reading or maybe your child needs to use the morning time to run around and be active so afternoons work better for quiet activities. Observe your child and find a time during the day they seem most calm. Maybe that is right after a trip to the playground? Or maybe it is right after a bath? If your child is only calm when seated at mealtime strapped into a high chair, you might want to consider pairing reading books with mealtime.
2. Establish a beginning, middle, and end to the activity
Young children like to know when transitions are about to take place. Establishing a routine to an activity prepares the child to meet your expectations. Make a routine of saying “open book” to begin reading; “Turn page” is a helpful phrase to signify the act of reading; and “all done” lets the child know the activity is finished. To build up towards increased attention, perhaps you only require your child to help you open the book, turn all the page, and close the book at first. The whole act of book reading would only take 1-2 mins. Once the routine and expectation of book reading are established, then you can increase the time spent looking at each page. If your child starts walking around before the book is over, try encouraging them to say “goodbye” to the characters before moving on. Ask your child to put the book away to signal that reading time is now over.
3. Add gestures, funny voices, and noises
Make the characters and pictures come to life by adding gestures, funny voices, and noises. A bunny doesn’t really make a noise but maybe you use your hand to hop across the page. Perhaps you take time to literally stop and smell the pictured roses. Pretend to eat pictures of food and have your child “eat” food too. Stomp around like the dinosaurs in your story. The Three Bears is a great story for practicing a low Papa Bear voice, a middle-sized Mama Bear voice, and a wee little Baby Bear Voice. (Bonus points-this also teaches vocal play and volume control!) Maybe your child loves cars and vehicles so you can practice the sounds of the sirens or the horn. Focusing on what your child is already interested in will help maintain attention for longer. This will also aid in your child’s comprehension of the world around them and increase their receptive (understanding) language.
4. Follow the child’s lead
Find books that are motivating to your child! Motivating books usually discuss topics of interests for your child (trucks, cars, animals, farm, getting dressed, etc). Also, consider the language level of the books. Perhaps your child would respond better to books that only have pictures and no words. Involve your little one in the process as much as possible by allowing her to turn the page or hold the book. Provide options to choose from to give some ownership over the activity. Try to observe your child’s eye gaze and comment on the pictures that she is looking at. If she points or gestures to something in the book, don’t be afraid to pause and respond!
5. Consider the words you are saying
You don’t have to read the words of the book! You can talk about the pictures and draw connections to your own family experiences. Make up your own version of the story or sing a song about the picture. Over time, as your child’s attention increases, he will be able to sit for the duration of the story. In the early years, the most important thing is to make sure that reading time is fun, meaningful and low-pressure. Teach your kiddo to enjoy storytime now and you are helping to foster a life-long love of reading.
As a final thought, be realistic about how long you are asking your child to attend. As a minimum, a child should be able to attend to a book for double the minutes of their age: So a 2-year-old should attend for at least 4 mins; A 3-year-old should be able to attend for at least 6 mins; A 4-year-old for at least 8 mins; etc.
-Elizabeth Clark McKenzie, MS, CCC-SLP