This week, in honor of National Read a Book Day, Kids Therapy Made Simple’s Speech Therapist, Abigail Ristow is guest blogging about the importance and benefits of building your child’s language and literacy skills through shared book reading. Enjoy!

Before a child begins to read and write on their own, they are exposed to a multitude of experiences that shape their literacy development.  This developmental stage is known as the emergent literacy stage. During this stage, children begin to learn literacy knowledge such as the understanding that printed words have meanings and can be used for things (e.g., street signs, ordering food, following directions, reading a recipe, etc.), as well as literacy skills such as how to hold a book, turn a page, and how to orient and read the text (e.g., top to bottom, left to right). Literacy begins to develop early in life and it is important to support your child’s literacy development through active exploration of print and social interactions around reading and writing (e.g., reading books together, writing thank you notes or cards, following recipes for baking their favorite desserts, etc.). These interactions will provide you with lots of opportunities to model literacy behaviors to your child.  A child will first understand the functions of literacy (e.g., reading an invitation or ordering from a menu) before completely understanding the forms of literacy (e.g., letters, words, and sentences).


Early language acquisition and emergent literacy are undoubtedly linked as they both influence and facilitate the other. Shared book reading with your child is one of the easiest ways to positively influence your child’s early language acquisition (e.g., their spoken language, vocabulary, comprehension, inferencing abilities, and sound development) and their emergent literacy skills (e.g., turning pages in a book and learning that printed words have meaning).


So when should you start shared book reading with your child? The research tells us you should begin reading to your child during infancy. At five months old, a child can distinguish two-dimensional pictures from objects. At six months, a child is able to maintain joint attention (both you and your child are looking and interacting with the same thing) on objects and pictures. At nine months, children will begin to explore pictures by grasping and scratching at them. At 15 months, a child will point at pictures and explore books themselves (e.g., turning the book, opening and closing the book, turning the pages, etc.). At 19 months, a child is able to point to pictures in books to demonstrate understanding.


Ok, so you’re ready to start reading! Pick an engaging book that’s appropriate for your child’s age (e.g., board books for infants, bright colorful picture books for toddlers, etc.) Or better yet, let your child pick the book. Now what? During shared book reading, create opportunities for interactive conversations around the story as these are the KEY for increasing your child’s overall language and literacy skills. This, and I cannot stress this enough, means you do not have to read the entire book front to back and word for word! Interactive shared book reading involves labeling pictures to assist your child is developing vocabulary. This is especially important in the preverbal stage (e.g., 6-12 months) to encourage the development of joint attention. As your child gets older (12-18 months), encourage them to point and label pictures themselves. At around 2 years, begin asking your child open ended questions while reading.  If your child is young (e.g., 2-4 years old), ask more literal questions (e.g., “Where is the bear?” or “What is the bear doing?”). If your child is older, ask more inferential questions (e.g., “Why do you think the bear did that?” or “What do you think the bear is going to do next?”). Make sure you wait and give your child some time to answer! If your child is pointing to a picture or appears interested in something, make comments about what they are interested in. Repeat what they said and expand on it by adding more information. For example, if your child says, “Dog,” you would repeat and build on their production with, “Yes! It is a dog. It’s a big white dog.” If your child asks you a question about the book, respond to their questions and expand on their comments to add new information.

But here’s the real secret to interactive shared book reading… BE GOOFY! Have fun with your child while reading! Use exaggerated intonation and stress during reading to highlight important elements in the text. Gasp or act surprised or scared to highlight important events in the story. This is great for building your child’s ability to read others’ facial expressions. Make up voices for the characters or do sound effects for animals or objects in the book.  Relate the themes from story books you read to play activities in your house (e.g., after reading “One Fish, Two Fish” encourage your child to find red and blue things around your house.) Relate what you read to other things they have experienced or other stories they read (e.g., talk about the time they saw red and blue fish at the aquarium). Make it engaging so that reading with you is enjoyable and they will want to do it with you more often.  Research shows that children who participated in daily book sharing routines demonstrated better early literacy skills, were better able to learn and remember the story’s content, and increased their overall vocabulary compared to peers who did not have daily shared book reading experiences.


The most important thing is to truly surround your child with language. You are the primary communication partner for your child so your active involvement in their overall growth of language is crucial. Reading books is just one way you can create a positive language environment. You can also point out street signs, read menus together to order food, follow a cookie recipe together, buy magnetic letters for the refrigerator, encourage the use of age-appropriate writing utensils, make signs to support your favorite sports team, write thank you notes, and/or encourage your child to write their name.  Remember to follow your child’s lead so you can engage them around things that interest them, daily experiences, and motivating topics. When you increase the frequency of your verbal interaction, you increase the number of words your child will hear. This, combined with increased exposure to printed books and letter knowledge at an early age, has been shown to be positively related to a child’s overall development of language and literacy. 🙂