Early Literacy and Reading Aloud to Your Child


Why read a book to an infant who does not yet know the meaning of a word and would rather gnaw on the book’s spine? Listening begins well before speaking. Reading aloud stimulates the growth of a baby’s brain, and 90% of human brain development takes place in the first 5 years. This is why early literacy, the reading and writing behavior which takes place between birth and when children typically read and write, is of utmost importance.

“Children are born to learn!” concurs Cee Salberg, Principal at Atherton’s Sacred Heart Schools preschool and kindergarten. “During the first 3 years of their lives they absorb everything around them. An environment rich in words and ideas nurtures language and cognitive development and provides a strong foundation for later academic success. Best of all, using literature is one of the easiest ways to share with your children the beauty and wonder of the world around us.”

Recent studies show that reading aloud regularly to a child from infancy is the most important factor in building a foundation for enjoyment and success in reading. Children who are read to develop background knowledge of a range of topics and build a large vocabulary, which later assists in reading comprehension and development of reading strategies. They become familiar with rich language patterns and gain an understanding of what written language sounds like. Reading aloud to children helps them associate reading with pleasure and encourages them to seek out opportunities to read on their own.

Amanda Hyer, librarian at Palo Alto’s Bowman International School, stresses, “The connection and bonding that occurs while reading together is precious. This really isn’t a teaching moment. Read books that both of you enjoy. Your emotion will be clear, and the love and warm feelings will be what later makes your child curl up with a book on a rainy day or before bed. (It is what keeps me reading!)”

Research shows that a primary indicator of school success is the child’s vocabulary upon entering kindergarten. The words a child already knows determines how much of what the teacher says will be understood. Regular family conversation takes care of the basic vocabulary and reading to your child greatly expands upon that vocabulary. Surprisingly, the vocabulary of children’s books is three times richer than parent-child conversation.

An added benefit of reading aloud is the development of your child’s patience, attention span and ability to listen—all of which are learned behaviors and skills strengthened with practice. It is only minute by minute, page by page, and day by day that these develop.

Children “learn to read” to “read to learn.” However, it is not until around 3rd grade that children’s reading comprehension is strong enough that they can really “read to learn.” It is therefore important to read aloud to your child until at least the 3rd grade.

Reading with your child not only stimulates development of your child’s brain, but also deepens the relationship between you and your child through a meaningful shared experience.

“Reading aloud with a child or children snuggled close to you is truly one of the delights of parenthood and of childhood as well,” says Rachel Samoff, Executive Director at The Children’s Pre-School Center in Palo Alto. “The closeness that comes when we share a wonderful story can smooth and calm the ragged edges of any day. And it is now so well established that early exposure to books full of wonderful art and many words is one of the best ways to predispose our children to be good readers and learners. So snuggle up and read as often as you can! You are building a love of books that will last a lifetime!

Here are some tips on reading aloud to your child:

  • Choose books that are good quality and rich in vocabulary—ones that will stimulate your child’s emotions, mind, and imagination, stories that will stay with your child for years to come. Make sure they are developmentally-appropriate—not too easy but not too advanced.
  • Read books with a variety of subject matters, genres, and illustrative styles. A balanced read-aloud diet will give your child an appreciation for the many different kinds of texts.  Wander over to the non-fiction and folktales sections of the library.
  • Reread favorite stories. This will allow your child to focus on unique features of a story and reinforce previous understandings.
  • Share your own reading. Point out an interesting caption to a photo in the newspaper, read aloud a recipe that your child might enjoy.
  • Ask open-ended questions to encourage discussion and help your child focus on details of a book. For example, look at the cover together and ask, “What do you think this story is about?” Point to the pictures and talk about them. Comment on the story and relate it to your child’s personal experiences: “Have you ever felt like…”
  • Occasionally point to the words while reading. This will help your child see that there are spaces between words, that you read from the top of the page to the bottom, and that you read from left to right.
  • Read expressively. Talk as the characters would talk, make sound effects, make expressions with your face and hands, and vary the pitch of your voice.
  • Read slowly enough for your child to build mental pictures of what is heard.
  • End the reading session if your child becomes restless or fussy; avoid forcing a reluctant listener. The goal is to have fun.

For more information, an excellent resource is The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. This classic handbook on reading aloud to children has been in publication since 1979 and is now in its sixth edition.


Kathy Balch founded BookTree in 2004 to address the challenges busy parents face in finding quality, age-appropriate books for their children. BookTree offers a monthly book-lending program available at schools, workplaces, and neighborhood locations in the San Francisco Bay Area. The program emphasizes variety in styles, concepts, and themes, with sophistication levels ranging from infant to about age 7. For more information, please visit www.booktree.us.

Image courtesy of Shirley Henderson Photography


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