Toddlers and Story Time: How to Make Reading Fun

Written By Lana Van Boven, M.S. CCC-SLP

Parenting books have very strong opinions about the importance of reading to your children. Read to them frequently and they will go to Harvard at age 13!  Don’t read to them enough and you may as well sign them up for juvenile detention! But…no pressure, caregivers!

So you sit down with your active, squirmy 2 year old bundle of joy and open a book.  You muster up your best narrator voice. You channel Meryl Streep or James Earl Jones, expecting to have a moment of profound intellectual bonding with your child as you share the scintillating tale of the Hungry Caterpillar.  You open the book….commence the story…and your angelic child proceeds to grab the book out of your hand, throw it across the room, giggle, and run off to play with something more interesting.

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone.  And your child is not defective. Here’s a little secret: 2 year olds don’t always enjoy sitting still and listening to a story, no matter how riveting the plot line or how skilled your narration. Young children have shorter attention spans than older kids, and they learn differently than older children or adults do.  They learn by using all of their senses, including touch and taste. They also learn from repetition and patterns. This is why your child might sit for 10 minutes in the bathtub pouring water out of a cup over and over and over again.

Thankfully there are many ways to “read” to your child.  And the classic picture of reading each page of a story to your calmly seated child is probably the least effective for the youngest readers.  “Reading” for young learners may involve touching the book, exploring its’ pages out of order, talking about the book, pointing to pictures in the book, or singing about the book.    All of these activities build interest in literacy and vocabulary, even if they don’t match the classic image we have of reading to our children. These strategies are just as beneficial, and in some ways more so!  When your child flips through the pages of a book, she is learning the landscape of books in general. When she “interrupts” you while you are mid-narration, she is building her vocabulary and her awareness of the world by asking, commenting, and labeling.

There are many resources that offer ideas for how to grab and keep your child’s attention to make reading time more effective.  Here is a short list of my favorite reading “tricks”. Over the next few weeks, look for video demonstrations of each of these tricks.

  1. Build suspense: Harness your inner actor or actress and use a suspenseful tone of voice, then close the book dramatically after each page and ask “what’s going to happen next???”.   Or, put your hand over one of the pictures and ask “who’s hiding under my hand?”. Use books with sturdy flaps that your child can lift up.
  2. Add in physical movement: Find simple stories with repeated actions such as “jump frog JUMP!”.  But instead of sitting and reading the story, get up each time the line repeats and jump along with the frog.  Learning action words by DOING the action is a fantastic way to teach your child vocabulary.
  3. Sing the book: many children’s books have repeated lines.  For example, in the Eric Carle story “Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See?” the title line repeats on every other page. The line changes to animals of different colors (“black sheep black sheep what do you see?”) but the basic structure of the line remains the same.  Try making that repeated line into a simple melody. You need not be the next Mozart and there is no need to invent the song writing wheel. Instead, find a common simple tune you and your child already know such as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and change the words to match the story.  Instead of “twinkle twinkle little star” sing “brown bear brown bear what do you see?”.
  4. Play dumb: children LOVE to have the answers and be the expert.   If you’re reading about spot the dog hiding in different places, pretend you don’t know where on earth spot has gone.  The more animated you can be the better. “Wait! WHERE did Spot go?????”. Or pretend you don’t know who a character is- “Who is THAT???”.

Most importantly, remember that reading should be fun.  There is not a “right” way to read with your child. Interacting with the book is the most important part.  So save the narrator script a few years and let them chew on the pages and ask silly questions. This will give them the best gift of all; a love of books and reading.

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