Making reading fun for pre-school children

Scarcely a week seems to go by without an attack on children’s literacy standards by politicians or others in the media eye. Under such bombardment it is all too easy to look on reading as a source of anxiety, a hurdle for our children to overcome. In fact the children who read with greatest happiness and success are not necessarily those who learnt at the youngest age, but those who have from earliest childhood linked books with pleasure.

In a forthcoming issue, I will look at how pre-school practitioners can help children towards a love of books and reading. In this article my main focus is on parents and carers.

Children who have parents and others who read with them regularly have an easier task when it comes to learning to read, and are much more likely to read for enjoyment. Sharing books with children is such a lovely thing to do - how wonderful that it also has such positive long-term results! Every time we read a book with children we are doing so many crucial things:

  • We are giving our time.
  • We are sharing pictures, a story, fascinating information.
  • We are having a moment of tranquillity with the child.
  • We are providing a vital first step towards our children’s own later reading, because we are showing how books work and modelling the skills and enjoyment of reading.
  • As well as all this, we are helping our children’s language skills, their concentration and their understanding of themselves and the world.

What to read

One of the questions I am most often asked by parents and carers is ‘What are the best books for my child?’ The answer is never the same, because children are never the same. Here are some markers to bear in mind:

  • The most important is to look for books that you will both enjoy. Use your children’s interests as your guide when choosing, and remember that although you might think story books are the most fun to share, many children get as much, in some cases more, from information books.
  • If you speak languages other than English, it will be enormously helpful for your child if you read books to them in those languages. Bilingual children often turn into the best readers.
  • Most young children relate well to books that reflect what they know of life, books that show families like theirs, doing things their family does. At this stage the pictures in the book are at least as important as the words, and many picture books are a real joy to share.
  • Pop-up books and books with flaps and things to do are great, and for children who are unenthusiastic about books they are often the best way in, because they help children associate reading with fun. Some children love comics. Make sure to choose ones with under-fives in mind, or they can be confusing.

Books can be a tremendous comfort. As parents and carers, we all know the frustration of the ‘Read it again’ scenario. However much we may have enjoyed our child’s most beloved book the first three or four times, by the three hundredth it’s becoming pretty hard to summon up the same enthusiasm. But this extreme love shows that the familiar words and pictures are giving some vital reassurance, and we need to respect this. For the sake of adult sanity, it’s definitely a good idea to have a variety of other books to read before or after the unmissable one.

Your local library will have a huge range of wonderful books for you and your child to choose together. You can take home lots. Do not worry if the odd one gets a bit damaged. Libraries want children to enjoy books and accept wear and tear. (When you’re at the library, do check out their activities for children. Most have fabulous rhyme times and story sessions.)

When to read

So, now you’ve got some lovely books - when should you be reading them? Well, the only ‘should’ is that you should do it when it’s convenient and most likely to be enjoyable for you both. Many families have a bedtime story ritual, but for some that’s not appropriate. I know of least one where the children are read to when they are in the bath. How about popping a book in your bag when you’re taking your child to the doctor or dentist, or anywhere else there’s going to be a wait? It’s great if children can enjoy books every day, but it’s important not to feel guilty if reading occasionally gets squeezed out. And of course it does not always have to be you doing the reading. Perhaps grandparents can take a turn. Older siblings often love showing off their reading skills to younger brothers and sisters.

Incidentally, children also need to see that we value reading for ourselves - for information and for pleasure. Look things up together in catalogues, books or online; grab the chance to read the paper, a magazine article or a book for a few minutes here and there. You will be sending out really valuable messages.

Reading for pleasure

Going back to sharing books with your child, whoever it is who is reading, it should be lovely experience. Since we want children to link books with comfort and pleasure, finding a cosy place to curl up together is a really good start. Getting children involved, so that we’re reading with rather than to them, makes sharing books a lot more fun, and gives them confidence. Children love finishing off the sentences in familiar rhyming books. With old favourites, they may want to be the ones who tell the story. (And what does it matter if their version differs from the one that is written down?) Flap books just call out to be played with. There are lots of other books too that encourage children to find things in the pictures. Remember to talk with your child about the books. Most children love the opportunities books provide to match their experiences with those in the pictures and the story.

Preparing for reading

Talking to children - about anything and everything - is probably the most vital thing we can do if we want them to enjoy reading, because it help their language development. Good talkers tend to become good readers.

What else can we do to encourage later reading? (Actually, if your child is three or more, I am prepared to bet that she or he is already reading, even if not in the way usually understood by the word. There are not many pre-school children who cannot recognise the symbol on a Kit-Kat, or find their label in the cloakroom, or chant the words of a favourite book. All of these are early forms of reading.) A surprising number of the activities pre-school children enjoy will already be helping them. Sorting buttons, doing jigsaws, playing lotto - all these help with shape recognition, which will later stand children in good stead when distinguishing letters and words. Some children love letter games, and there are lots of alphabet jigsaws and card games that you can buy or make. Don’t worry if your child has no interest in knowing the sounds of the letters yet. Having fun with them is more important.

There are an increasing number of technological aids to reading available. Lots of online resources are wonderful: interactive and great fun. If you’ve got a smartphone, it’s worth checking out all the books that are being made into apps - brilliant for sharing when you’re out and about with your child and they’re getting bored. Books on CD are nothing new, but they are really good for stimulating children’s interest in books, and especially useful for enlivening boring car journeys in my experience. Sharing texts and emails with your child is another way to interest them in reading.

Don’t forget all the non-technological ways you can support reading. For children who are beginning to get a grasp of letters and the alphabet, a set of magnetic letters they can stick on the fridge to make their names and other favourite words is one of the best aids to reading you can buy, especially if you join in too. How about pointing out road signs, shop names, titles on favourite television programmes, food labels?

Research shows that an early appreciation of rhyme is really helpful later on when children are learning to read.. We can make a big contribution by singing songs, reading nursery rhymes, doing finger rhymes.

I’m running out of space, but I don’t want to finish without mentioning one very important activity: making books. I’ll go into more detail in another issue, but for now let me just say that your child will gain a great deal of understanding of how books work, and considerable pride, if you make scrapbooks or story books together. Your child does all the important and artistic bits: you act as the faithful scribe.

There is no-one more important to our children’s reading than their parents and carers. No teacher will ever be more influential, however excellent they may be. All that we do at the pre-school stage will provide our children with benefits and with pleasure that will last all their lives. What a bonus that this is a responsibility we can really enjoy!