Growing up, I loved it when my parents read aloud the stories of the Berenstain Bears living in their treehouse. So while I was pregnant with my daughter, I imagined lots of cuddly quiet time with her in a comfy chair, reading about the latest adventures of Brother and Sister.
Of course, reality soon let me know just how ridiculous that idea was. My newborn couldn’t see more than a foot away, cried robustly and frequently for mysterious reasons, and didn’t really understand words yet. Baby V was simply not interested in the latest dispatch from Bear County.
When I started reading child development expert Elaine Reese’s new book Tell Me a Story, I realized that I was not the only one with idyllic story time dreams. Babies and toddlers are squirmy, active people with short attention spans. “Why, then, do we cling to this soft-focus view of storytelling when we know it is unrealistic?” she writes.
These days, as Baby V closes in on the 1-year mark, she has turned into a most definite book lover. But it’s not the stories that enchant her. It’s holding the book, turning its pages back to front to back again, flipping it over and generally showing it who’s in charge. Every so often I can entice Baby V to sit on my lap with a book, but we never read through a full story. Instead, we linger on the page with all the junk food that the Hungry Caterpillar chomps through, sticking our fingers in the little holes in the pages. And we make Froggy pop in and out of the bucket. And we study the little goats as they climb up and up and up on the hay bales.
And maybe our meandering approach is just as it ought to be. Reading should not be a one-way street, in which the story is coming down from on high to a docile, spellbound child, argues Reese, of the University of Otago in New Zealand. Instead, it should be a chat, a way for both people to chime in and take turns directing the conversation as it flits about from here to there.
Reese provides a few tips for reading stories to your little ones, many of which are used by speech pathologists working with children with language delays. The method, called dialogic reading or, as Reese calls it, rich reading, treats the book as less of a story and more of a conversation starter, a way for language skills to more easily sneak into the child’s brain.
- Forget about reading all the words on every page. Instead, ask lots of questions (and not just yes/no ones). Ask your young one, “Why did the caterpillar eat all of that food?”
- Pause longer than you think you should. Young kids sometimes need a long time to formulate answers. If there’s no response, you can pipe up with the answer.
- Confirm and praise the child’s response. “That’s right! He was hungry — very hungry. He needed to eat some food.”
- Extend the child’s response with another question. “What do you think he’ll eat next?”
Wash, rinse and repeat. The important thing is to get the conversational juices flowing. So, parents, it’s OK for us to let go of our dreams of that cozy, quiet linear story and embrace slow, meandering story time conversations instead.