Aside from keeping your children fed, clean and safe, one of the most important things you can do is read aloud to them – and the earlier you start, the better. A 2014 American Academy of Pediatrics study states that reading to infants is actually an essential part of their primary care. The paper, published in Pediatrics, says, “Regularly reading with young children stimulates optimal patterns of brain development and strengthens parent-child relationships at a critical time in child development, which in turn builds language, literacy, and social-emotional skills that last a lifetime”. The quality and quantity of book reading in early infancy can predict the size of a child’s vocabulary, and reading as a child has even been linked to higher income jobs and more professional roles in adulthood.
‘But won’t I feel strange reading to a two-week-old who keeps falling asleep,’ you ask? ‘What happens if my six-month gnaws off the corner of the book? And, how do I get my toddler to sit still?’ Experts say you don’t need to worry about that. In fact, research shows that if you allow your baby to safely explore books – yes, even with their mouth – or let your toddler skip through the pages, you teach them that reading is a safe, fun and positive experience.
Here are the best types of book to enjoy with your child from when they’re babies, to toddlerhood and beyond:
“We begin developing the language skills required for reading when we are just babies,” Jemma Gadher, speech and language therapist at The Developing Child Centre in Dubai, explains. “When you read to your baby, his or her brain is rapidly learning the rules of language that are necessary for reading, and speaking.”
At this age, don’t worry too much about what you’re reading. While babies may not understand what you’re saying, they’ll love the connection and may reward you with a smile or an excited kick. Your baby might want to grab or bite the book and, as long as it’s safe, touching is encouraged. If your little one starts to cry, look away, arch his or her back, or close his or her eyes, take a break.
Nada Iskandar, KG1 teacher and year leader at Dubai International Academy, explains that “babies are drawn to shapes and big pictures. Their colour vision is usually developed by four months so include books with vibrant pictures. Board books are great because they’re easy to handle. Look for books that have lift-the-flaps, mirrors or pop-ups. The more interactive they are, the more interested your baby is likely to be.”
Books we love
- Usborne Touchy-Feely Books - Fiona Watt (Prices vary per book)
- More More More Said the Bab - Vera B Williams (Dh26)
- One Fish, Two Fish, Three, Four, Five Fish - Dr Seuss (Dh32)
Offer babies simple stories with colourful pictures. Repeated rhymes can encourage language and memory development, with some babies recognising characters, pictures and stories, and even starting to mouth along. From 12 months old, start asking more complicated questions like, “Where do you see the sun?” and see if your toddler gestures. Toddlers may start requesting their favourite stories now.
Books we love
- Dear Zoo - Rod Campbell (Dh32)
- One Hot Summer Day - Nina Crews (Dh62)
- A Book of Sleep - Il Sung Na (Dh26)
If your toddler runs away when you read, don’t take it personally. Kids need to move around at this age. Keep reading, and your toddler will reconnect when they’re ready. Adopt a playful attitude by asking your toddler to act like a character, or get in on the action yourself. Ask him or her to label objects using simple sounds or words, like “woof!” for a dog, or give them some responsibility by getting them to turn the pages. Asking them what is happening (“who is carrying the watermelon?”) helps build language and thinking skills. If your toddler can talk, pause before saying a favourite line and see if they can fill the gap.
Books we love
- The Great Pet Sale - Mick Inkpen (Dh40)
- Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? - Bill Martin and Eric Carle (Dh42)
- Where’s Spot? - Eric Hill (Dh33)
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At this stage you can ask more challenging questions, like “What do you think the girl in the book should do?”, or try to connect the book with your child’s life. By three, your child may start ‘reading’ to you based on pictures. Toddlers love repetition, so don’t be put off if they keep requesting the same book. The Developing Child Centre’s Jemma says that “books that include a clear beginning, middle and end are great. You might notice ‘symbolic understanding’ developing, where kids begin to understand other representations of an item, for example, a doll representing a baby.”
Books we love
- Room on the Broom - Julia Donaldson (Dh42)
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar - Eric Carle (Dh30.75)
- Where the Wild Things Are - Maurice Sendak (Dh36)
“At this age children have usually developed a ‘theory of mind’ understanding that they are autonomous beings and therefore others are too,” says Louise Edensor, senior lecturer in media and education and campus programme coordinator for the International Foundation programme at Middlesex University. “This means they can understand deception in stories, so they will follow a tale that perhaps offers the reader something that the characters don’t know.”
Traditionally, this is the age that many children embark on that exciting adventure of learning to read themselves. But what happens if your child is not reading by the age of six?
“Comprehension skills are usually in full gear now, so some children are ready for more words and fewer pictures,” KG1 teacher Nada says. “Having said that, it’s all about knowing what works best for your child. There are many milestones in the pre-reading stages that children should reach before actually beginning to learn to read. Phonological awareness and comprehension stand at the forefront of these skills. Some children flourish at the expected age of around five or six. Needless to say, some children just may not be ready. If you make reading fun, they’ll keep at it. That’s the main thing.”
Books we love
- The Hello, Goodbye Window - Norton Juster (Dh55)
- The Incredible Book Eating Boy - Oliver Jeffers (Dh45)
- The Tiger who came to Tea - Judith Kerr (Dh45)
- The Gruffalo’s Child - Julia Donaldson (Dh42)