One more time

Does your child ask you to read them the same book over and over and over? It’s okay, says Diana Noonan – there are benefits to repetitive reading!

I don’t know about you, but there are a few favourite novels on my bookshelves that I’ve read not just once or twice, but several times over – and I never tire of them. I enjoy the characters, the settings, the vocabulary, the sentence structure, and the rhythm of the writing style. I even like the smell of the book and its dog-eared pages! It doesn’t matter that I know the story itself inside-out – I keep coming back to the same books again and again.

It’s the same with children. Just when you feel you can’t read the same picture book to them one more time, that very book ends up on your lap. But before you sigh, consider this: Repeatedly reading the same books to children actually benefits them in a number of ways.

Recent research with three-year-old children has shown that vocabulary acquisition develops in all little ones who are read to, but it develops faster in children who are read the same books over and over again. This shouldn’t really surprise us when we consider that repetition is what fixes words and information in our brains. What’s more (and this is worth considering in a publishing climate where extended picture books for older readers are no longer in vogue), children aged six to 12 also have their vocabulary increased by up to 40% when they are repeatedly read the same picture books.

Hearing a story over and over also builds a child’s reading confidence even before they have actually learned to recognise words. After all, what parent hasn’t heard their toddler sitting with a book in their lap “reading” a story to themselves? While we know they are actually memorising the story, this is the first stage in acquiring a range of reading skills, from how to hold a book, scan from left to right, and turn pages. So as you struggle bravely through the book for the umpteenth time, remind yourself that you are helping lay down the building blocks of reading.

Reading is also about much more than just memorising words or recognising them. Reading is about the ability to read with expression. The more expression you build into reading a story aloud to your child, and the more your child hears this same expression over and over again, and the more they will internalise and be able to mimic it. Don’t let this “copying” worry you – it’s the way we all learn. Just as great artists studied their craft through first copying the works of their masters, so your child will gain confidence in displaying expression by listening to and copying you. In fact, create as many opportunities as you can for your child to mimic you. Read not only stories, but rhymes and poems, too. Choose books with dialogue as well as narrative so you and your child can use voice to play the part of many characters, each with their own particular way of saying things.

While our children learn vocabulary and expression from us through repeat reading of picture books, so they also learn facts in the same way. Never feel you should restrict your reading-aloud time to fiction only. Reach for the early “maths” books and read them aloud over and over again to help instil a basic knowledge of colours, shapes, and numbers. Choose books about places, animals, inventions, and discoveries. And when choosing non-fiction books, be sure to include those with elements which entice children to ask for them again and again. Although storyline may not be a non-fiction book’s strength, non-fiction can still offer plenty of opportunity for fun in the form of pop-up surprises, guessing games and prediction, speech bubbles and diagrams. Non-fiction books for very young children often include texture (a tuft of wool to accompany an illustration of a sheep, or a feather to go with a photo of a bird) as well as sounds. An illustration of a mouse that actually squeaks when you press the page is so much more fun than one that doesn’t! Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction you are repeatedly reading to your child, you can rest assured that you are helping them gain essential language skills, and that is largely because as they become familiar with a text and require less effort to concentrate on the story, they are able to absorb other aspects of the writing. They can study illustrations or diagrams while the familiar words take a back seat; they can look at the shape of letters and notice grammatical marks; they can hear rhyme and perceive rhythm, and relax into the soothing pitch of your voice. Perhaps this sheer pleasure at being read to aloud and learning from it in such a gentle, natural way is why, years later, when our children have flown the nest and we are tasked with packing up their childhood possessions, they react so dramatically to the suggestion that at last a few of their early books could be donated to the op shop. Some things, much-loved books among them, are simply too special to part with!

Tip! Remember the storybooks loved to have read to you as a child? Try reading these to your own children. You’ll recall some fond memories while making new ones!

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