Reading to kids of all ages

Instilling a love of books, reading aloud and engaging in meaningful conversation with your child are three of the best ways to improve your child’s vocabulary and comprehension.

reading comprehension and verbal skills

We’re all unique. Some children are verbal (they learn best by following words), others aren’t (they will learn best using logic or physical activity or visual images). No learning style is better than the others, but they all have implications. A child whose learning style is logical will learn maths easily, while a verbal child will take to reading like the proverbial duck to water.

That’s why some children love reading and listening to stories, while others don’t. The good news? Verbal skills are just that: skills. You can help your child to get better at reading comprehension, just as you would train your child to become a more competent swimmer or a better goal shooter.

the importance of conversation

All parents talk to their children. Have you ever wondered, though, how much of what parents say consists of commands and reprimands (“Take off your shoes”, “Don’t bounce the ball inside”, “Time for bed now”) as opposed to a true conversation? Research suggests that children who hear mostly commands and reprimands aren’t nearly as good at reading comprehension as those who engage in meaningful communication.

As with everything, verbal comprehension starts in babyhood, which is why we’re encouraged to talk to our infants and provide a running commentary of everyday activities: “Let mummy take you out of your cot. That’s a good boy. A big cuddle. Say bye-bye to teddy. How’s your nappy? We’ll change in a moment.” As the child learns to speak, we change this into a dialogue, asking questions about colours and birds and what they had for lunch at daycare. Sometimes, though, we forget to progress that to another, more adult level of conversation. We ask how they enjoyed the movie, but we don’t ask their opinion on why they think the baddie did what he did or whether the movie would have been better with a different ending.

The more you talk with your child (as opposed to talk to or at them), the more you’ll help them develop their verbal skills.

the importance of stories

Tell your children stories. It may be an event from your childhood, a news item or something which happened that day at work. A story is more casual and less intimidating than a book, and because it resembles a conversation, children will be more inclined to interrupt and ask questions if they don’t understand something.

the importance of reading to children

As one primary school teacher put it: “It is so sad that
some parents are not reading at all to their children, and it has been definitively linked to success or failure in reading. Most parents do listen to and share the children’s
take-home instructional reading books though, which
is reassuring.”

As you read aloud, pay attention to your intonation and try to act out the plot. If you can’t, borrow audio books from the library – professional readers often make the story easier to understand.

Every few pages, make a point of stopping and summarising what has happened so far. If they don’t need it, they’ll stop you soon enough. Discuss the story, make comments, give your opinion and ask theirs, relate the text to personal experiences, predict together what will happen next. You can also ask questions: “Do you think Little Red Riding Hood is being naughty or forgetful?” or point out important themes: “Isn’t it kind of Summer to sit with Auggie at the lunch table, even though she doesn’t know him?”

tips on choosing books

To increase the children’s buy-in, read books they’ve seen movies of, or played computer games of. As their comprehension improves and their love of books grows, you’ll be able to reverse the order and read the book before you see the movie.

Children find it easier to understand books about familiar topics or things they love, so select the books accordingly. Encourage your child to relate their own experience and passion to what’s happening in the book.

Re-read favourite books. Re-reading familiar texts increases comprehension. Listen to audio books in the car or at home instead of watching TV.

Children find it easier to understand books about familiar topics or things they love, so select the books accordingly. Encourage your child to relate their own experience and passion to what’s happening in the book.

Finally, choose books you’ll like as well. Your enjoyment will be infectious.

Yvonne Eve Walus is an education specialist, a senior consultant to Creative Learning Systems in Auckland, and a mother of two children.

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