Reading with babies and toddlers

mother and baby reading togetherBy Adele Morsen

One of the greatest gifts that you can bestow upon your children is a love of reading.

To fill their heads with fond memories of favourite childhood books can lead to a life long love of literature. But when do you begin reading to your children and what do you read to them?

Mem Fox, author of Possum Magic and countless other children’s stories, recommends starting early. With Australia’s illiteracy rate hovering around 15%, it is vital that parents understand the importance of reading to children from birth. Up to 90% of the brain develops by the age of three and much of that occurs in the first year of life. Mex Fox says that the amount of stimulation received in the early years of a child’s life can make all the difference. “The connections in the brain that will determine how creative, imaginative and clever the child will become will have been wired by the time the child is one,” says Mem Fox.

Right from birth

A wide range of beautiful books are available for children right from birth, and what better place to start. Tiny babies simply enjoy the sound of mum or dads voice. A ‘reading’ voice is often different to that of a talking or ‘conversation’ voice and babies enjoy the gentle consistency of parent’s voices as they ‘read’ or ‘tell’ a story. New born babies, will enjoy having books read to them as they lay on the play mat or snuggle in your arms. There are books designed specifically for babies that contain lots of big bright pictures and pages of stiff card. These books often have only one simple picture to a page and just a few words. You don’t need to stick to the words on the page, create a simple story around the picture or even a song.

Older babies

Older babies who have become mobile begin to develop the small muscle skills they need to manipulate books. At this stage small books made with sturdy card pages are the best for little hands. Many books designed for this age group have simple pictures of everyday items that are a part of the toddlers’ world. As you read these books to your toddler they will recognize, with fascination, the familiar items in their everyday life.  They may also begin to develop some understanding of ‘reading’ as an activity.

Young toddlers

Young toddlers, who have been read to regularly, will turn the pages of card books and ‘read’ for themselves. This is often toddler gibberish, but it is an essential element in beginning to understand the process of reading. When this happens young children are beginning to understand that books can be read aloud and enjoyed with parents and siblings. They understand that some of the things in books can represent real life objects and places. They are beginning to learn how to hold a book (maybe even the right way up!) and how to turn pages and vocalise the pictures. At this stage, as with every stage, it is vital that young children see others around them reading and handling books. Modelling daily reading habits and a love of literature is one of the best ways to encourage young children to love reading. It doesn’t matter what you read - recipe books, magazines, the newspaper or novels, as long as your children see you as a regular reader they will begin to understand that reading is an important life long skill.


As toddlers slowly turn to pre-schoolers, their knowledge of books and reading develops to encompass more complex understandings. They begin to imitate ‘adult’ reading behaviours, holding the book the right way up; turning pages and looking at both words and pictures and often ‘telling’ the story in their own words. These are all vital skills that demonstrate children’s growing knowledge of the reading process.

Older children

Older children begin to take notice of the print on pages and recognise the difference between writing and drawing. They begin to recognise some letters (especially those in their name). They become curious about print and may ask what are you writing or what does this say? At this stage children often develop favourite books and will ask repeatedly for them to be read. They become so familiar with these books, that if you skip a page or a line they will let you know! This knowledge of the 'predictability' of texts and books is another important stage in understanding the process of reading.

When children enter their first year of school, all of the above experiences and skills cumulate to give them a keen interest in wanting to learn how to read for themselves. Repeated exposure to lots of different types of books and the modelled behaviour of siblings and adults at home gives young children the confidence and enthusiasm to want to learn to read for themselves, when the time is right.

Ways to help children develop a love of books and reading:

  • Read to your children every day. Begin reading when they are born and make it a part of the daily routine to share and read books together.
  • Put children’s books on low, easily accessible shelves or in baskets where your child plays.
  • Join a local library and visit regularly. Most modern libraries are well equipped to cater for toddlers. They often have a selection of toys and puzzles for young children to use while parents select books. They also have many children’s books casually arranged on low shelving for older toddlers to choose and ‘read’ for themselves.
  • Choose books that are about children the same age as your child and about subjects in which they are interested.
  • Make a cloth book bag with your toddler and allow them to decorate it. Place favourite or new books into the bag for car trips or anywhere where your child may have to wait for a while.
  • Let your child hold the book as you read to them and ask them to turn the pages. For older children, point out interesting words and letters and discuss them. “Monkey starts with the same sound as Micheal!”
  • Encourage your child to ‘tell’ you the story in the book or ‘tell’ a story about their day (favourite event at child care, visiting grandparents, shopping or playing.)
  • Give books as gifts or special treats.
  • Point out other opportunities to recognise print and words (Most three years olds can recognise the words ‘Mcdonalds’ and ‘Pizza Hut!) and many will know words like ‘stop’ on a stop sign.
  • For older children ask them to guess and discuss what might happen next in a story.
  • Ensure that your children see you reading for information and for pleasure and talk to them about what you are reading and why.

These are just a few ideas for encouraging a life long love of reading and books. It is one of the most precious gifts you can share with your children as they grow and develop into independent readers.