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“My toddler doesn’t like to read, he only tears the pages.”

“My toddler chews the books so I have kept away all the books at home.”

These are some of the common woes of parents and most of us can relate to these situations. It is common knowledge that reading should start from young. However, the reality is that some of us do face real challenges in getting our toddler to sit down with a book.

Toddlers are natural do-ers. They use their five senses to learn intently and this includes putting things (like books) in their mouths. They are also attracted to bright colours, pictures and special features in the book (e.g. pop-ups, textures, pull-outs). To get them interested in books, use board books that are easily held by the toddlers themselves, that they can fidget with, with thick pages as they do not tear easily when the toddlers turn the pages. This will minimize reading bloopers which discourages both parents and toddlers. Adults could also get the toddler’s interest by talking about the pictures, relate the pictures to a previous experience, holding the child’s hand to feel the textures in the books and trying the pull-outs together. Do not be discouraged if these pockets of interaction do not last very long as that is the nature of how toddlers learn but are important pre-reading activities that a toddler should be engaging in regularly.

What activities can a toddler get involved in because they can’t read yet?

There are many activities that a toddler can be involved in before reading actually happens. Pretending to read, flipping the pages, talking about the illustrations, are examples of such activities. First, we need to understand that language development starts from listening, speaking, reading then writing. Therefore, having lots of conversations with the toddlers is really a good way to get them ready for language. They are receiving it but not using them yet because they are developmentally not ready. So talking to the toddlers sets the first language environment. They will try to model after the adults and imitate the sounds or phrases they hear. This is important as it will help them make the connection that another form of language is written and it can be found primarily in books around them.

Singing, playing and dramatizing are activities that are considered as low-risk to children. This means that when children are engaged in these activities, they are not under any pressure. This is especially true for play as play is intrinsic in every child. Therefore, using these activities as a platform to learn language works best as the child is not put in any ‘I have to get it right” situation.

Parents can also pick books with topics that interest their children. For example, the child likes aeroplanes so parents could select books based on this subject or have stories that have aeroplanes in them. This encourages the child to read.

Creating an environment that supports reading

Creating a print-rich environment is one of the first steps to support reading at home. A few things that can be done at home would be to label some of the furniture. Labels should be in lowercase as this is the natural form of words in books and reading materials. We should not be too concerned with upper case letters or any other grammar structures at the initial stage as it is the child’s interest that we are concerned with. The grammatical concepts would be incidentally picked up with exposure to language and good role modelling.

A print-rich environment would have interactive songs and rhyme charts visibly displayed, great selection of developmentally appropriate books, different kinds of reading materials like informational books, stories, newspapers etc. There should also be materials for the child to doodle on. Put drawing tools like crayons, thick pencils, paints, paper etc. easily available to the child. These ‘doodling’ activities are pre-writing activities. Beside a print-rich environment, there could also be a language expression corner where children have materials to dramatise or engage in pretend play. Puppets (finger puppets, hand puppets, paper bag puppets etc.), masks, head gears can be left with the story books to encourage children in extending their reading by dramatizing the story, pretending to be one of the characters or tell a story through the puppet. This makes reading more interesting and also helps children who are less confident to visit the reading experience.

In many homes where the day goes by in a frantic rush, it is helpful to create a corner at home called the reading corner. Give it a catchy name that children would love. Set aside time every day (15mins the most) where the whole family will go into that corner and read something. It could be shared reading time or individual reading. Though the toddler would not be able to read, they should be encouraged to pick up a book and look at the pictures and talk about it in their own capacity. This corner should be made as cozy as possible to invite the child in. Do ensure that the corner is child-friendly and child-safe as the child should be encouraged to go there any time of the day.

What’s the adult’s role in this?

Adults act as important role models at home. Reading begins when the toddlers see their parents/siblings or other adults reading. When reading the newspapers, an adult should attempt to make it visible for the toddler. Read out the captions or tag lines aloud to the toddlers and draw their attention to the print. As toddlers are in the stage of imitating, engage their participation by giving them a book, magazine or papers to flip. Though they may not read, this is an important process that cultivates their reading habit for the future. During this process, the adult could facilitate by guiding the child to hold the book/reading material the right way up and turn the pages in the correct way. The toddler might not be able to do it straight away since their motor skills are still developing, especially if the pages are thin. It is alright and not necessary to force the toddler to do it.

Have books, magazines and reading materials easily available in the home environment so that the toddler can easily access them when they feel like it. Also, reading need not always start from books. The idea is to get the toddler to be interested in text from young so that they will love to read later. Text exists everywhere in the environment. We could draw their attention to signboards, text on food packages (especially their favourite food), pamphlets or brochures. Read out the signboards, road signs, text on the packages, mails to the toddler. It should be done in a very natural and incidental way so that we do not make the process ‘forced’ or stressful for the little one. It could be a fun thing during a supermarket trip where you draw the toddler’s attention to some text of things that he/she is interested in. e.g. toddler is looking at some chocolates. Just read the words on the packages at that moment. It is important to catch this moment as when interest is high, the learning is meaningful.

Reading is a lifelong habit and if cultivated well, opens up a huge window of possibilities for the child as they journey in their life, acquiring new knowledge and appreciating good literature. It is never too late to start and the key to growing readers is to read with them.

We read, they will read too!

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