Reading is foundational to helping children develop communication skills, and we all want to help our kids engage in the joy of reading and storytelling. But if your child has ever walked away from a story as you were reading or left you wondering if they don’t like books, you are far from alone. Here are some tips from our Speech and Language Therapy team to help engage your child in reading and support communication skill development.
“There are many reasons children avoid reading,” says Nikki Rosner, MeBe’s Clinical Director of Speech Language Pathology. “If you find that your child has developed an aversion to storytime, you may need to fine-tune your reading skills to help them connect with the content and find joy in reading.”
Many parents and caregivers think reading involves reading all of the text in a story, but depending on the child’s age and ability, this can really test the limits of their attention span, overwhelming them and making reading feel tedious.
“Many parents will quiz kids too much during a story because it’s rewarding to get an answer and see how much they know,” says Nikki. “But while it’s rewarding for the parent, the child feels like they’re taking a test, which can be stressful.”
Parents may be similarly pleased when their children learn to read on their own, but surprised to learn that although they can recite the text on the page, they’re not understanding much of what they’re reading.
“We see this a lot with children who have autism—they can be hyperlexic, meaning that they’ve cracked the reading ‘code’ due to their strong ability to decode language patterns, but their comprehension is often low,” says Nikki. “This is estimated to occur between 5 percent and 20 percent with children on the autism spectrum, so it’s important to assess a child’s understanding and vary the reading method to ensure comprehension.”
Whether you’ve just read your baby their very first story or have a school-aged child who knows how to read, there are several techniques you can use to make sure the children in your care get the most out of reading.
- Don’t force it
Some kids want to flip through books quickly. Nikki recommends making them sit through reading only as long as they want to, while trying to slowly increase the amount of time spent reading from one session to another.
“If they can only sit through three pages, next time try to get through four,” she says.
- Keep it at their level
“If a child isn’t sitting through the story, it may be that the level of the book is too hard,” says Nikki.
While it may be satisfying to read the whole story, for younger kids or kids with short attention spans, consider describing the pictures or pointing out objects rather that reading the complete text to keep them engaged. You can easily tell a story without ever reading the words on the page!
- Talk about the pictures
Children often love looking at the pictures in a storybook. You can model lanugage by talking about the pictures and making comments about the story. Modeling language can be very powerful in your child’s speech and language growth.
You can also ask questions about the pictures but remember that asking too many questions can make it feel like a quiz!
- Allow books to grow with your child
Don’t be so quick to put away or donate books just because your child has grown past the suggested age range, advises Nikki. A book that is short or simple can still be an invaluable tool to help build reading and communication skills as your child grows older—especially if it’s a beloved book or character.
“There are a million ways to read a book,” she says. “It can mean something totally new two years down the line.”
Try asking hypothetical questions, making guesses about what the characters are thinking, or making a guess about what the character will do next.
- Ask the right questions
As your child’s skills and understanding grow, shift your questions to match your child’s skill level to make sure they’re getting the most out of reading time. Start by asking who or what questions; these are the easiest to answer. Then, move on to the other question types (what are the characters doing, what happened, where, when, and why) as your child is ready.
From there, you can move on to perspective taking to get even more out of the story. Try asking your child how they can relate their own experience to what is happening in the story.
“If Pete is drinking from a cup that has brown liquid, we can guess what’s inside: Is it hot chocolate, chocolate, milk or coffee? Or if a character is thirsty and needs water, ask the child where they think he will get it,” Nikki says. “You can’t know these things from the pictures or text, so you have to guess, but it has to be a smart guess. You wouldn’t guess that brown liquid in a cup is fruit punch.”
- Forget the words
Once your child can read, consider covering the words when you read books together to focus on the story sequence rather than the narrative.
“The story can change every time you read it,” says Nikki. “You can expand on ideas that aren’t just in the narrative piece. There might be a picture and you can delve into the thoughts and ideas of the characters. What are their motivations? How will they solve the problem in the story?”
While finding or rekindling a child’s love of books can make you feel like you’re the one learning how to read, these strategies, along with a little patience and a lot of flexibility, can go a long way toward creating lifelong readers.
For more tips to help engage children in reading and communication and to see some examples of what it looks like, check out @mebefamily on Instagram and click on the MeBe Readin’ story highlights and visit the MeBe Family YouTube channel.
If you think you may need a bit more help with the task, MeBe’s speech language pathologists can help with a tailored plan and play-based therapy in a fun environment.