Yesterday afternoon, while in the tub, my 22-month-old toddler tipped a bucket of water onto her head (and the bathroom floor in the process) and said, “Bucket is finished!”. I gently corrected her, “The bucket is empty.”
Later that night (while dropping food and dirtying another floor altogether) she held up her dinner plate and declared, “Chicken is empty!”

I looked at her in wonderment, marvelling at the thought synapses that had led to this obvious connection.

“Oh, sweetheart,” I said, “Your chicken is ‘finished’, not ‘empty’.”

She looked back at me as though I was bonkers.

I find her little mind deliciously fascinating. She has grasped the concept that an object can be present and contained within another object, and that the adjective to describe its absence is either ‘empty’ or ‘finished’ (go with me here). Observing how she learns words; how she puzzles together their meanings and associations has been a highlight of motherhood so far.

I, myself, am a romancer of the English language (I have a few degrees on the subject) and am invested in teaching the same love to my daughter. I was reading to her from early moments after she entered the world, and I believe that even though she could not yet understand the words, she was learning to associate books with love and affection.

She, like all babies and toddlers, is a sponge, ready to absorb everything in her environment. What I have come to see plainly, is that what I say, how I say it, my tone, body language and intonations are all equal parts that go into shaping her understanding of language. During storytime especially, her little mind is at work, taking in the characters, illustrations, and dialogue, and I take it as a lofty responsibility to make learning language as exciting for her as possible!

Tips for reading to children 0-3 years old

Reading doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Honestly, it didn’t come naturally to my husband. In the beginning, he was stiff and wooden, and he would read to our daughter about magical talking ladybugs as though he was presenting to her his end of year financial report. But he got better and braver and he learnt to read with flair and nuance. So here are some tips that we picked up to help get started:

Create Routine

Storytime is something to look forward to, so create a ritual around the activity: - choose the book together, settle into a favourite armchair or lay out a blanket, and set out a few dolls and props to include in the story if you are so inclined. You should aim to read together for at least 15 minutes each day, and around bedtime is especially good as it fits comfortably into a routine of dinner-bath-STORYTIME-and (hopefully)-sleep time. 

Make the pictures a part of the story

Ask your child to participate in the reading process. For example, if the text reads, “The dog looked happy” ask her to point to the supporting illustration of a happy dog wagging his tail.  Or you could start a new story by looking at the pictures and asking her what she thinks the story is about.

Your voice can help tell the story 

Reading can be a physical activity! Use your body, face, and voice to make it fun. Different character voices are always enjoyable for a child, but you don’t have to be a master of mimicking a British Lord or Spanish Don to make a story come alive. Pace, intonation, volume, and the occasional sound effect go a long way to help create a story’s characters. For example, if a character is shy, speak softer, or if a character is always in a rush, try picking up the pace, or if there is a snowstorm outside, add the occasional teeth chatter for effect. Your little one will pick up if you are invested in making the experience fun, so try out new tactics and see what works for the both of you. 

Point to the words

Point to the words as you progress through the story. Soon, she will realise that the words are being read and are not part of the pictures.  

Make physical contact

Hold your child in your lap when you read. He will feel supported and safe, and the physical contact will go a long way in creating a bond between you both. Involve your child by letting him hold the book and turn the pages and let him know that this is an activity that you are enjoying as much as him. 

Be Expressive

For parents or grandparents who are using remote reading apps like Nooksy to read to the little ones in your life, make sure that they can see your face when you read. Animated facial expressions, varied tone and character voices are important to keep the child engaged when you don’t have physical contact to depend on. 

Slow Down

Children aren’t known for having long attention spans, so don’t feel compelled to speed up to finish the story. In fact, the faster you read, the faster she may lose interest in the book. Instead, take your time so that she understands what is happening, and allow her to scan the page to spot familiar items that she can point to and label. Spending time reading with care is more important than reaching ‘the end’.

Know when to stop

If your little one loses interest or has trouble sitting still, put the book away for a while. You can try to return to the story a few minutes later or try again tomorrow.  Do not force reading if your child is not enjoying it. With practice, your child will be able to sit, listen and engage for a longer period. 

Track progress and ENJOY!

In a few days, weeks or months’ time, your child may start to inject familiar phrases into her toddler babble. It is a lot of fun when you recognise your child’s sentence from a favourite story that you were reading together the night before. If you are so inclined, keep a journal of the new phrases that they introduce into their speech, the favourite words that they repeat and how they experiment with their delivery. 

The truth is that when it comes to language development and early literacy, the quality and quantity of the words we speak to our children count. Reading with your little one or telling them stories- even at the earliest age of a few months- will boost their development, spark their imagination, and help you both build a connection.

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