Reading through the ages
Queensland’s Teacher Librarian of the Year, Megan Daley, is a passionate advocate for starting the reading process early.
The former National Vice President of the Children’s Book Council of Australia and voice behind the website Children’s Books Daily has some advice on what children get out of reading at each age or stage.
Reading with newborns and babies
Megan says you should start reading to your children from the moment they are born. In fact, some parents start the process in utero.
“The whole idea of raising a reader is that newborns will start to recognise the sound of a parent or carer’s voice very early on, and start to get into the rhythm of language of a book or story. It’s an incredibly good way to expose them to the sound of the primary carers in their lives: those sounds are very soothing,” she says.
Song and story can both do this for newborns (Megan encourages both), but in terms of books, at this age Megan says anything goes.
“I would read my newborns Tim Winton or any adult book I was reading, it doesn’t matter what: they don’t understand the words but they do understand the rhythm of language,” she says.
She makes a distinction between literary language and our ‘everyday’ language.
“We often talk to our newborns and tell them things like, ‘I’m going to change your nappy now’, and that’s great. But exposing them to books gives them a richer variety of language – the two go hand in hand,” Megan says.
She points out that once babies can grasp a toy, they can grasp a book.
“It’s the perfect time to start reading picture books with high contrast, and unfussy, uncluttered illustrations. Large images are great for newborns,” she says.
Soft books are good for babies to hold onto.
“I often think if you give them a toy you may as well give them a book as well.
As early as nine to twelve months they start to understand the feel, touch and mechanics of a book. That’s when you see the start of a reader, even though they don’t understand the words for a very long time,” Megan says.
Megan also encourages carers and earlly learning centres to face picture books “out” so the cover is showing.
“Picture books for young children are absolute works of art,” she says.
Reading with toddlers
Toddlers are famous for not treating their books well. They might rip them, chew them, sit on them, or make them into a truck. Megan says to take it all in your stride.
“That’s all about discovering how a book works. I teach really young kindergarten children, and most only rip a book once or twice before they understand it’s something they treasure,” she says.
The active nature of toddlers means short, snappy books come into their own at this age.
“There are great books that ask children to be involved in the process, like the Books That Drive Kids Crazy series from Beck and Matt Stanton. Today’s toddlers are exposed to a lot of interactive technology: a book shouldn’t be any more of a static experience,” she says.
Reading with preschoolers
Although preschoolers still exhibit a lot of toddler behaviours and may not want to sit for a long time, Megan says a lot of them will sit for a long time to read a book. But beware: this isn’t the time to teach them to read.
“Preschoolers are going into early language development and early reading and writing behaviours. But at this age, whether it’s at home or in early education centres their life is not about school. It’s about the joy of learning and preparing them for school.
“The way you raise a reader is that first you imbue them with a love of reading, then when they go to school the mechanics of reading, learning phonics and vocab comes into play,” Megan says.
Instead, with preschoolers, Megan focuses her attention on comprehension.
“We talk and predict what might be going to happen in the book based on the cover and the end papers. Then we read the book through and discuss what happened, like characters, setting and storyline,” she says.
At this age, she continues to encourage children to understand the mechanics of how a book works, including how words run on the page.
“We often start to trace the words from left to right in a page, so they are starting to understand that words move from left to right in the English language. And we get them to identify the front and back covers, the spine and all the different parts of the book, so that when they go into school they have a good understanding of how books work and they can focus instead on the acquisition of reading skills,” she says.
She admits that it’s a natural response from a parent or an educator to want to teach their preschooler to read.
“But they are in school for twelve years. The best flying start parents and early educators can give really young children is that natural joy, play and curiosity around books,” she says.