1.18 Reading Aloud With Infants and Toddlers

Some people think that we should only start to read aloud with children when they are about two or three years old. After all, is it not a waste of time to read aloud when the children cannot understand the words that we are reading? No, it is not a waste of time. Instead, what the research suggests is that reading aloud can have a positive impact even with infants.

And, not just infants, even children in the womb. One of my biggest surprises in my career in education was reading that even children in the womb are “paying attention” to books that we read aloud with them! Basically, what the researchers did in at least two studies was to ask pregnant women to regularly read aloud certain passages to their unborn children near the end of their pregnancies. After the children were born, when the same passages were read aloud again, hearing those passages had a calming effect on the children, as indicated by a lowering of their heart rate.

Once children are born, most parents and family members talk to them, even though the children do not understand a single word. Even when they begin to understand words, they only understand a fraction of what they hear. Nonetheless talking with these children is okay. What the children are hearing is the tone of what we say; they are hearing a feeling of care and trustworthiness. That is what matters most.

The famous developmental psychologist Erik Erikson found that humans’ lives can be divided into eight phases, each with a central issue. According to Erikson, for children from birth to about 12-18 months of age, that central issue is the need to be able to trust their caregivers. When we read aloud with these children, we are saying, “Don’t worry, I’m here for you.” Plus, when children see the books we are holding as we are reading with them, the children begin to form a positive connection with books and reading.

There are even special books for infants and toddlers, indestructible books. There are plastic books for the bath, and board books made of heavy cardboard for other times and places. In 2020, I was very happy when a nephew of mine sent me a photo from his child’s one-year birthday party, and in the photo, the little boy was reading a board book that I had helped to write. And, maybe it was just my imagination, but he seemed to be turning the pages, just as I’m sure he had seen his family members do when they were reading.

Another special kind of book for young children and older ones, too, are wordless picture books. As the name implies, these books have pictures but no words. Thus, children can “read” these books, even if they cannot read. All they need to do is to make up a story, which is an important skill by itself, because stories need setting, characters, plots, beginnings, middles, and ends. Wordless picture books can be a step toward children reading on their own, although we can still play a role, by giving encouragement, helping with vocabulary, such as the names of animals, and collaborating with children in shaping the story.

One of the big debates in English language education is about how to help young children read is the debate over whether to emphasize phonics (learning the sounds associated with each letter in the alphabet). Critics of phonics approaches support a whole language approach. Rather than children learning individual letters or even individual words, advocates of whole language believe that children learn best and are more likely to become life-long readers when they focus on books and other whole pieces of language, such as stories. As with many debates, the best answer may not always be either 100% Side A (focus of the alphabet and phonics) or 100% Side B (focus on books and whole language). In my opinion, the best answer in the phonic/whole language debate is toward Side B, lot of reading aloud with books and other materials.

Related to the phonics/whole language debate is the issue of when do we want children to start to read silently on their own. A professor of mine who had two adult sons told me that one had started reading at about the age of four, whereas the other wasn’t reading until he was seven; yet, both went on to have successful careers in fields where reading was essential. His advice was to let children go at their own speed. In fact, in countries such as Finland and Norway, countries that do very well in international education comparisons, children who want to learn to read before primary school are often told to go outside and play instead.

Summary: It is never too early to read aloud with children. We can begin even before the children can speak. At the same time, we should not rush children to begin reading silently on their own.