Watch your young child completely absorbed in "reading" a story, and you'll see a powerful bond form between him and the book. Watch him pore over a book with a friend or sibling, and you'll see the book uniting them. Watch an adult read a story aloud to more than one child, and you'll see them all connecting as a group. There's no question about it — books build bonds.
As a parent — the person who most influences your child — you can nurture your child's love of books and words.
The Magic of Picture Books
Find a comfy chair and a picture book and snuggle up with your child. When you read the words and discuss the pictures, you are introducing her to the wonderful world of print. Use these six easy strategies to encourage your child's bonds with books:
- Talk about the feelings of the characters. Ask: "How do you think the boy felt when his kite went up into the sky? Did you ever feel that way?"
- Change your voice tone as you read to match those of the various characters — a deep voice for a grumpy bear, a high squeak for a baby duck, and so on. Use sound effects too: If there's a truck in the illustration, roar and sputter. Ask your child if he can make the sound of the truck.
- Choose a repeating phrase ("Caps for sale, caps for sale, 50 cents a cap") and chant it with your child.
- Talk about illustrations. Ask her what she notices. Look for detail. When you're finished reading, go back to the beginning and invite her to retell the story from the pictures.
- Keep picture books on a low bookshelf so that he can begin making his own book choices and develop personal preferences.
- Read stories about events that will be meaningful for your child, such as a new sibling. Your child may find it easier to talk about his feelings when he sees that a character is going through the same thing.
You can also foster a love of books by encouraging your child to create her own. Begin by giving her sheets of drawing paper folded and stapled together. The stories she chooses to create will provide marvelous insight into her thoughts, interests, and concerns. Also note how she constructs her book. For instance, the way a 3-year-old puts a few marks on each page will tell you a lot about her understanding of the way a book "works." (She knows there's "print" and that there are pages — quite a sophisticated understanding when you think about it!)
Four- and five-year-olds, who have a more developed sense of what constitutes a book (they know that the picture corresponds to the surrounding text), will have different approaches, depending on their style and comfort level. Some will make the pictures first, then ask you to write the text, while others will have the story already in mind and ask you to write the words first (illustrations to follow!). Still others will draw the story, carefully sequenced on each page, and write a word or two, most often with invented spelling, to indicate the text.
At every step, talk to your child about what he's doing and ask open-ended questions: "What a big blue mark you've put on that page!" and "What would happen if the girl in your story found a lost puppy?"
You can also try creating a book for your child. Pick a topic that interests him and then scour magazines and brochures for pictures to illustrate the story. For example, if he is curious about seashells, look for pictures of oceans, beaches, and sea-going boats — as well as ones of shells — that you can paste onto sturdy paper. A "When I Was a Baby" book, which includes photos from your family album, is sure to be a hit. Your child can sit by your side or in your lap as you put your special book together. She'll know that you made it just for her, and she will "read" it over and over until the pages are tattered. (Slip the pages into clear plastic page protectors so they'll last longer.)
Bonding Through Conversation
The kind of conversations that boost your child's literacy can happen at the dinner table, in the car, during bath time, when you tuck her into bed — whenever you are together. When you talk with your child, she hears language "in action." From you, she learns exciting new words and phrases. Listening to your intonation, she discovers the basics of "grammar" — where a sentence begins and ends, how to raise her voice at the end of the phrase to show she's using a question, and so forth.
In order for your child to get the most out of conversations with you, position yourself at her eye level and respond directly to her words. If she says something like "Shoes are dumb" while she's getting dressed, responding with "No, they're not" will cut short any further exchange. However, saying "Sometimes I think they're silly too. What do you think would happen if a parakeet wore shoes?" could spark a lively and entertaining exchange.
You can also ease "literacy" into daily conversations by quoting from favorite books. If at dinner your child refuses to eat his peas, say, "I do not like green peas and ham." "But it's green eggs and ham," your child may correct you. Similarly, make references to characters in books and draw parallels between his experiences and those of a character he loves, such as the title character of David McPhail's Andrew's Bath: "Tonight you'll take a bath just like Andrew did, but no animals, promise?"
Literacy connections come naturally when conversation flows. Conversation is easy when there are bonds. And bonds grow from books. Books are the beginning of the circle of literacy and at its end as well.