Steal these expert secrets for turning low-key read-alouds into truly memorable moments.

By Molly Ness, Ph.D.
July 09, 2020
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Illustration by James Yang

When it comes to our family’s bookshelves, I’ve decided to ignore advice about decluttering because you can never have too many children’s books around the house. Finding time to read to your kids daily from the time they’re babies is the most important thing; I still read to my 10-year-old every day. But as a literacy specialist, I know that the way you read—your tone, the rise and fall of your pitch, as well as the expression that you incorporate—can matter just as much as the narrative and pictures in a book. Here are three simple strategies that you can use to help your child’s reading interest and level flourish as you cuddle up together. 

Ages 3 to 5

Draw Attention to the Print 

If you open any picture book, your young child is naturally going to be captivated by the colorful illustrations. In fact, research using eye-tracking software has shown that toddlers and preschoolers spend only 6 percent of the time looking at the letters and words on a page. However, understanding the forms and functions of print is a key step in early literacy development. Before your child knows how to read, take these steps to focus on the print in a book (what experts call a “print-focused read-aloud”). 

Point out the cover and title of the book. You can explain to your child, “This is the cover. The title tells me the name of the book. The author is the person who wrote the book.”

Differentiate between illustrations and words. Talk about the text by saying, “These are the words on the page. This sentence has seven words. Each of the words is surrounded by white space. This dot is called a period and it shows the end of a sentence.”

Ask your child to point out print elements. For a 3-year-old: “Can you show me the title of the book?” For a 4-year-old: “Can you show me a short word? Now can you show me a longer word?” For a 5-year-old: “Can you point to a letter that’s in your name?” 

Talk about the typography—the size, shape, and orientation. You might say, “This word is a different color from the other words,” and then ask, “Why do you think the author used a different color?” 

Highlight other text features in a book. Describe the point of speech bubbles (“This tells me that a character is speaking”) and a table of contents (“This shows me where I can find different parts of my book”). 

Illustration by James Yang

Ages 4 to 6

Include Nonfiction 

Think back to the last ten books that you read together at bedtime. If you’re like many parents, most of them were fiction—it’s easy to snuggle up with a story that has a clear plot, a variety of interesting characters, and a unique setting. We often tend to overlook nonfiction books, which have technical vocabulary and dense information without a satisfying resolution at the end. In school, though, young students spend up to half their day with nonfiction text, so you can prepare your child by balancing fiction and nonfiction at home. Many reluctant readers will actually prefer nonfiction books. Try these ways to bring them to life. 

Use books to answer your child’s questions. After all, curious kids this age pose up to 400 questions a day! When my daughter went through the “Why?” phase in preschool, I used to jot her never-ending questions on sticky notes and place them in our “Parking Lot” (a piece of poster board on the inside of the coat closet). Before our weekly trip to the library, we visited our Parking Lot and took the sticky notes with our most pressing questions to help us guide our book selection. When my 5-year-old niece asked why there was a Big Dipper and a Little Dipper but no “Medium Dipper,” I helped her find a book about constellations.

Tie nonfiction into family adventures. If you’re planning a weekend hike, select books about the trees and bugs you might see. During one particularly snowy winter, my daughter and I read every possible book about snowplows. Going apple picking? Check out Gail Gibbons’s Apples

Pair facts with fiction. If you’re reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle, enjoy a book about the life cycle of butterflies. Reading Janell Cannon’s Stellaluna? You can find nonfiction books about bats! 

Ages 6 to 10

Think Aloud as You Read

When you read to your child, you might ask questions to check her understanding of the story, such as, “Where did the boy go next?” A more effective way to increase her comprehension is for you to think out loud about the details. By talking through your thinking, you’ll create a road map for how your child can reflect on the book in a deeper way. 

Use “I” language to show ownership of the thoughts in your head. Start with statements like “I’m wondering ...” or “I wish I could ask the author ...” or “I’m getting the idea that ...” 

Highlight the confusing parts of a book. This way, your kid will have a model of what to do whenever he’s struggling. You might explain to him, “I didn’t understand this part at first, so I had to reread it.” 

Don’t overdo it. You might stop to share your thoughts six to eight times in a picture book. Keep your think-alouds quick and simple—one short sentence is enough to explain what’s going on in your mind as you read. 

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's August 2020 issue as “Supercharge Every Storytime.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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