When Should I Start Reading To My Child?
Let me first say that reading is a lifetime gift, so it should be encouraged at all ages! Research has shown that children who are read to from early on do better in school and have a better command of their language. Reading also encourages bonding, because, as you read to your baby, you hold her and interact with her. Infants as early as three months can recognise colours, but they begin to form their "natural" language before then, in response to sounds that they hear. So use expression and drama in your voice when reading to your infant, and choose a book that has high contrasts and bright colours (one of my favourites: Look, Look! By Peter Linenthal). Reading aloud to your toddler enhances his language base at a crucial time. You can informally introduce him to phonics by sounding out words when you read aloud. Look for books that are repetitive, rhythmic, and colourful, and for picture "word" books with large, simple words that he may come to recognise. (Check out Margaret Wise Brown's classics, Goodnight, Moon and Big Red Barn, or Sandra Boynton's silly Moo, Baa, La, La, La! or Blue Hat, Green Hat).
How do I know if my child is reading something that is appropriate for her age?
I've had parents complain to me that their child won't take his head out of books. What a complaint! What a wonderful thing to have a child who loves to read so much. But what is a "good" book for him to read? For your primary school child, there are several things to check for when choosing the right book:
If your child is not reading yet, select books that have simple rhymes and patterns of repetition for her to follow along. This will encourage her to memorise the words and she can then read along with you. Intersperse these books with more complex books that you read to her. Make note of the kinds of books that your child likes to read (folktales? Books about animals?) and read to her as often as you can. At this stage in reading, you want to encourage her love of books.
If your child is an early reader, someone who has just started to sound out words, choose simple books with big, bold words, and be patient! You can select books in her area of interest that are specifically geared towards phonics learning. One fun choice is the Phonics Comics series, which has different levels for different readers and comes in entertaining themes, like Cave Dave and Pony Tales.
If your child is reading on her own, finding the right reading material gets a bit more challenging. Here are some tips:
Check her reading fluency:
Ask her to read a few pages aloud. Does she read the words quickly and easily, without any problem? Does she hesitate once in a while and stumble or mumble over a few words? If she reads with no stops, the book may be one level too simple for her. To stumble over a word now and then is okay; you just have to make sure that she is not struggling to read every sentence, because this indicates that the book is beyond her skills at this time.
Does she sound like herself when she reads aloud? Do the words sound like words that she would use in normal conversation? If she doesn't recognise the words, she will have a difficult time understanding the content. A sprinkling of unfamiliar words is okay – oftentimes, she can figure out meaning from context. But if these unfamiliar words appear with frequency, the book is likely too advanced, and you should choose a book that uses a vocabulary that she is more comfortable with.
Check for theme and content Read the cover:
In many ways, you CAN read a book by its cover. Select books that are age–appropriate in theme and content. If your child is reading on his own, he won't have you to guide him through page by page, so you need to pay special attention to what he's reading. This is especially true if he is picking out his own books.
Read the book synopsis on the back cover and try to determine if the content is suitable for your child's age. Books about social issues at school (popularity, cliques, etc.) are better suited for middle schoolers than primary age kids; so are books dealing with issues like war and death – not only because of the seriousness of the issues, but also because the themes can be very complex and hard to understand. Kids generally enjoy reading about other kids their age because they face the same kinds of issues. So determine the age of the main characters and go from there.
Flip through the pages:
Some parents feel uncomfortable with the language used by young characters in books because it's not allowed at home. Pick something that you are comfortable with, because it's very likely that your child will be mimicking the characters' speech.
Younger primary children who are transitioning to chapter books may like to try a detective story (like Nate the Great) or an adventure book (like Flat Stanley). More advanced children can move on to more complex chapter books like the ABC Mystery series or adventure books like The Magic Tree House series. Some other age–appropriate chapter books are Ramona, Judy Moody, Clementine, Ready, Freddy, and Ivy and Bean. When in doubt, ask your librarian or child's teacher for recommendations. They are familiar with what other kids in your child's age group are reading, and they should be able to point you towards several different kinds of books. But in the end, you are the best judge of what your child should be reading. Let your values guide your way.
Vary the genre and the theme:
I've heard parents wishing their daughter would read something other than fairy books, or their son read something other than Diary of a Wimpy Kid. These books are fine if they are what your child is interested in, but you should also encourage them to read other genres and themes. Kids sometimes need help to be more adventurous in their choices. Determine their interests, and help them pick a book in an entirely different genre than they are used to: historical fiction, fantasy, mystery, realistic fiction – there are many, many choices, and chances are, they will find books they love that are outside of their "usual suspects"!!!
Be the gatekeeper:
Parents are busy folk, and it's hard to keep track of everything your kids are doing. Shouldn't it be fine as long as he's got a book in his hands and not a video game? Yes, it should be, but it's always a good idea to be aware of what your child is reading. You may not be worried about your son reading inappropriate material, but you should ensure that he's getting the most of his reading experience. And checking in with him also shows that you care about what he's doing. This is especially important for the adolescent and teen years. Some parents may be fine with their daughter reading the Twilight series, but others may object to the sexual content. Just check in to make sure that you and your child are on the same page.
But my 8–year old son LOVES Harry Potter!!!
Another common "complaint" from parents is that their child can read and wants to read books that are advanced for his age. That may very well be, but even if your 8–year old is able to read Harry Potter word for word, he is likely too young to understand some of the themes in the story. Of course he may be able to comprehend the basic plot, but some stories like Harry Potter are geared for older readers because they deal with complex issues that a younger child may not be able to grasp fully. By giving your child a book that is above his reading level, you keep him from gaining a fuller experience from reading a book that is age– and skill–appropriate. Don't worry – there'll be lots of time to read Harry Potter when he's older.