Building Communication Through Interactive Storybook Reading

By Juliann Woods, PhD, SLP-CCC & Mollie Romano, PhD, SLP-CCC

toddler sitting on caregiver lap looking at book
Image from Pixabay.com, CC0

In this blog Dr. Juliann Woods and Dr. Mollie Romano discuss shared book reading and a few tips and strategies.  In the final 2018 FDEI webinar on Nov. 29 Drs. Woods and Romano will expand on this topic and discuss other strategies to support language development, social communication, and early literacy skills.  Additionally our presenters will address aspects of the coaching model they had hoped to share previously.  Join us on Nov. 29, 2018 at 11 a.m. EST.  To learn more, click here.

Interactive Storybook Reading

Many of us take reading for granted.  We don’t think about it; we just do it.  In actuality, being able to read is a really big deal.  It’s often said, we learn to read and then we read to learn. Reading opens a world of knowledge and experiences to us.  We also read for fun and to solve problems, gain perspective, energize or improve ourselves, and develop new ideas and innovations.  As we get older reading helps to keep our brains active and slow down the aging process. What and how we read changes over the lifespan as do the tools we use to support our habit.  Whether we use board books, photo albums, magazines, or a tablet, reading is a wonderful social communication and language learning activity that can be interactive or done independently.

Interactive book reading is particularly important for young learners. It is a shared experience, often called “lap reading,” for toddlers and continues into the preschool years.  Reading together is about more than just the book and the words on the page.  Reading together is about:

  • Interaction between the reader and the child
  • Time together with shared attention to a book or story of interest
  • Words, sounds, and facial expressions in a turn taking exchange
  • The reader’s voice, facial expressions, hugs and touches while reading or telling the story
  • Building social-emotional connections
  • Learning turn taking skills and the talk-and-pause pattern essential to conversations
  • Gestures, such as clapping, pointing, and turning pages to signal “more”
  • Supporting listening, imitating sounds, phonological awareness, and remembering what comes next
  • Opportunities to learn new vocabulary, labels and action words as well as concepts such as numbers and colors, and emotions

Interactive story book reading is a powerful communication tool.  Hearing words helps to build a rich network of vocabulary in a baby’s brain. Children whose parents frequently talk or read to them know more words by age 2 than children who have not had those same experiences. Children who are read to during their early years also are more likely to learn to read and enjoy it.

Getting Started

The importance of reading to children of all ages is well known.  However, it can be easy to overlook the ways in which families and early care providers may need help in getting started in meaningful book sharing interactions with young children. Following are some tips and information to share with caregivers:

  • Young babies may not know what the pictures in a book mean, but they can focus on them, especially faces, bright colors, and contrasting patterns. Holding a little one while reading and rocking promotes an important social attachment, and babies love the repetition that comes with multiple readings of a book. Caregivers can read or sing lullabies and nursery rhymes to entertain and soothe their infant.
  • Between 4 and 6 months, a baby may begin to show more interest in books. He or she will grab and hold books, but will mouth, chew, and drop them as well. Choose sturdy vinyl or cloth books with bright colors and repetitive or rhyming text. This a great time to make a small, inexpensive, and durable family photo book with family and pet pictures to stay connected to family members near and far.
  • Between 6 and 12 months, the child begins to understand that pictures represent objects, and most likely will develop preferences for certain pictures, pages, or even entire stories. A baby at this age will definitely have favorite books they want read over and over. Repetition is good!  Babies respond best when they are familiar with a story and can actively participate.
  • As children develop more words (around 18 months), they are interested in actions and how words combine for people and animals to do things. They love to imitate the characters in the stories and mimic what they say and do.  Books do not have to be long and caregivers can even paraphrase the text – or not read it at all.  The pictures and your ideas are more important to young children.
  • By age two, children are interested in simple storylines and sequences. They can follow and anticipate what comes first, next, and at the end.  They also are interested in emotions and stories which can be a great way to help them learn self-regulation, how to transition between activities, and how to understand fears or new situations.
  • At three years of age, when sentences are increasing in length and growing more complex, the child can become the storyteller! Turn the book over to the child and listen with encouragement to the story shared so many times before! Storybook reading is also a great time to engage in sound play and practice. The wolf who “huffs and puffs” provides fun words to work on with easy sounds to produce (H & P) and final sounds (F) in words.
  • Stories can follow the children’s interests as they grow and range widely from holiday books to family favorites, to TV and movie themes. The preschool years are also a great time to begin going to the library and checking out a variety of books to read.  Many children and families begin to use screens, either on a smart phone or tablet, for story book reading.  The key here is to keep them interactive.  Read together, share information, stay connected, engage in conversations, and enjoy each other through the book.

When and How to Read

  • Try to read every day. Make books available for children in the toy box, diaper bag, even in the car.
  • Read aloud for a few minutes at a time, and do it often.
  • Don’t worry about finishing entire books — focus on pages that are enjoyable to both the caregiver and the baby.
  • Establish a routine. Let the child choose the book, hand it to their caregiver, and climb into their lap. Help them hold the book and learn to turn the pages.
  • Cuddle while reading. Help the child feel safe, warm, and connected to their caregiver and the story.
  • Read with expression, by altering the tone of voice (higher or lower where it’s appropriate) or using different voices for different characters.
  • Stop once in a while and let the child take the lead. Ask a question (“Where’s the kitty? There he is! What a cute black kitty.”). The child might not be able to respond yet, but this lays the groundwork for doing so later on.
  • Ask a few open-ended questions that can engage the child in sharing the story (i.e., What’s your favorite kind of ice cream? What do you think will happen next?). Adjust the questions to the child’s language level but encourage creative responses and prediction.

Finally, don’t forget to have fun!  Book reading with children should be a fun and enjoyable experience.  In the video below you can see just how much fun this grandma had while reading The Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith.

The Family Development Early Intervention team has developed a list of children’s books and supporting materials that may be useful in your practice.  You can learn more here.

This post was edited by Robyn DiPietro-Wells & Michaelene Ostrosky, PhD, members of the MFLN FD Early Intervention team, which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network FD concentration on our website, on Facebook, onTwitter, and YouTube.

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