Parents, grandparents, and older siblings can use story time to help babies learn about the world and develop language skills, and to strengthen family bonds. And of course reading to a baby from a young age is incredibly important in laying the foundation for the child’s own future reading skills. As a new parent, I hear all the time about how wonderful reading is for a baby's development. I've enjoyed reading to my daughter since she was born, so I was excited when her dad, who is a special education teacher, had the chance to take a course in childhood literacy. We've tried to incorporate some of the techniques he learned into our habits at home. The background on how children learn is fascinating, and I thought I'd share some of it.

One of the goals of reading to a baby is to develop “print awareness”. Print awareness starts before children even understand that words on a page mean anything. Repeated association of printed text with sounds and words builds to the eventual understanding that letters contains meaning. This is the very basis of literacy in early childhood, and it is one of the reasons reading with babies is so beneficial.

So here are some ways to help your child develop print awareness and make the most of story time. Some may be new, and some you may do already. All of them enrich your baby's experience with books and build the foundation for future literacy skills.

For Babies:    

Let baby help turn the pages.  One of the very first lessons a baby learns is that we generally read in one direction. Of course babies will flip pages back and forth and hold books upside down, and it is wonderful for them to explore in their own way. As they become more experienced, they will learn that, in English, we read books from left to right, top to bottom, and of course right-side up.

Change voices for different characters. By differentiating between voices, you introduce the concept of conversation in print. It also makes the story more entertaining for the baby! The child will eventually learn that quotation marks and paragraph spacing represents dialog.

Talk about the pictures on the page. This of course is a chance to interact more with your baby while you read. It also introduces the idea that the words on the page are related to the images, and that people can use written words to describe things they see.

For Toddlers:   

Begin to draw attention to the text on the page by pointing to it. Eventually a baby will be able to tell the difference between pictures and letters in a book. By tracking, or pointing to the words as you read them, you teach the child that you’re not just telling a story about the pictures you see; you are reading the words themselves.

Ask the child to find familiar letters on the page. O is a good one to start with because it has an easily recognizable shape that’s the same in upper- and lower-case. As they begin to learn the alphabet, it’s important that children learn that we use the letters to form words. Picking out letters within words is a great way to introduce the concept.

Look for colors on the page and talk about them. Incorporating any new skill the child is learning into story time reinforces what they’ve learned in other contexts. It also makes the story more exciting; if you’ve just been outside looking at the green grass, and then read about it in a book, the child learns, yet again, that books are a printed representation of the physical world around them.

Talk about the story after you’ve finished reading. Having a conversation summarizing what happened helps the child internalize the story and develop critical thinking skills. Ask age-appropriate questions related to the story, answering them yourself if the child isn’t able to.

These common-sense approaches really do make a difference. Simply by spending time with your children, talking and interacting with books, you're helping them learn fundamental literacy skills. So have fun, and happy reading!