Eight Baby Read-Aloud Basics
By Caroline Jackson Blakemore and Barbara Weston Ramirez
Chapter One covered the wide-reaching benefits of reading to your baby. In this chapter, we present a few simple suggestions to help you and your baby begin a journey together that will enrich your lives. Besides the calming and bonding benefits, you’ll develop a conversational resonance through everyday ideas and events that children’s books inspire. In the very beginning you may feel like it’s a one-way monologue, but before you know it, you’ll be in a dialogue in which your baby responds to you by locking her eyes in rapt attention on your eyes, your mouth, and the book. She’ll wiggle her legs and arms, and breathe faster. In return, you’ll read more to her, and the read-aloud dance is underway with all its lifetime benefits of increased vocabulary and language skills.
1. Newborns Need a Quiet Reading Environment
As your baby makes the transition from a uterine environment to our noisy, well-lit, open-air world, many physiological changes are taking place. A newborn’s perceptual system does not screen out everything that her eyes see, her ears hear, or her skin feels. Be sensitive to your newborn’s needs by providing quiet time when she can listen clearly to your voice as you talk or read to her. When reading to your baby, turn off any competing noises, such as the television, stereo, or radio. In early infancy, it is especially important to prevent over stimulation or stress. During read-alouds, allow your baby to hear only you rhythmic voice without the disturbance of background noises.
2. Newborns are Comforted by the Sound of Your Voice
Initially, right after your child’s birth, you have a lot of leeway in what you may select to read to your baby. One parent told us he read aloud from the stock market pages of the newspaper. Since babies are mostly focusing on your voice at the outset, you could read anything aloud. However, since babies love your melodious voice the best choice right after birth might be any kind of rhymes, such as Mother Goose.
Some parents start right out with board books, such as Goodnight Moon, and note that their babies become so accustomed to these books that they continue to request them for the first year or longer. Gradually you will become aware of your baby’s favorites and select books that you know he would like. As babies mature, they become pickier and let you know what they like through their body language. Whatever you choose to read, become aware of the effect of the sound of your voice on your baby. Notice your baby’s excited movements when you read with enthusiasm or change the pitch of your voice.
3. Hold and Cuddle Your Baby When You Read
The most important thing to remember when reading a book to your infant is that you are providing love, attention, and intimacy while giving important language input. When babies are old enough to begin to choose books and bring them to you to read, often what they really want is to cuddle and be given loving attention.
When you first hold a newborn it can feel awkward, especially before they can hold their heads up. Imagine holding a book and the newborn at the same time. After a little practice, you’ll find the most comfortable position, whether it’s in your favorite rocker with a “boppy” (a donut-shaped lap pillow often used by nursing mothers) or lying next to your baby on the bed.
4. When Choosing a Book, Allow Your Baby to Be Your Guide
There is no prescription from pediatricians, educators, or psychologists recommending a list of books for each stage of a child’s early development. This is a good thing, as we have never encountered identical lists of books from parents we interviewed. Each child is unique and has his own preferences. One size does not fit all. Parents begin early with books they think their child will like and then reread many, many times those that get a favorable reaction. In each of Chapters Three through Eight, we provide detailed reviews of several age-appropriate books with tips for how they can be used to launch rich interactions between you and your baby. You can readily adapt these tips to whatever books you and your baby prefer.
Newborns benefit most from hearing your familiar voice reading poems or books with rhythm and rhyme when they are awake or asleep. After the first two or three months, your baby will react favorably by looking back and forth with interest between your face and the book, wiggling her legs and hands with excitement, or smiling happily. Conversely, if your baby is not enthused about a book she may look away from your face and the book, push the book aside, or fall asleep. By the time your baby is a year or more, she will select the books she wants you to read from the shelf, pile, or basket.
Your choice of books is not as important as making the choice to read to your baby on a regular basis. By making that choice, you will give your baby a powerful boost of language development, the benefits of which will last a lifetime. More importantly, your baby will associate reading with cuddly love and attention.
5. Start Reading at Any Page
You don’t have to finish a book, or even start at the beginning. You can go right to the part you know your baby likes best and have fun on one or more pages by dramatizing different parts with a variety of voice inflections and tones. Your baby may even want to switch back and forth between one book and another. Often baby books do not contain stories, but illustrated rhymes or labeled pictures. Skipping around the text is easy in these types of books. If there’s a story line, it still doesn’t matter if you pick and choose pages that interest your baby.
6. You Don’t Have to Read All of the Words in the Book
Sometimes you’ll find that your baby prefers that you merely point to the illustrations and name some objects, or that you make up your own words or story as you go along rather than reading what the words on the page say. Your baby will let you know. For example, when you select a favorite book for your baby, if you know from previous readings that your child prefers a certain page, you can turn directly to that page. You can read it in the way your baby loves to hear, perhaps dramatizing certain sentences or words by speaking them more loudly or in a squeaky voice. How will you know what your baby likes best? She may wiggle her arms and legs or gaze at the page with great interest. She might also look at the page longer than other pages.
For a wordless picture book, like Tana Hoban’s White on Black, you may dream up anything you want to say about the pictures of simple objects. Your baby will show you which pictures she’s most intrigued by. In this interaction with your baby the most important element is listening, observing and following your baby’s cues. Your baby will let you know what pages she prefers and how long to remain on a page. Usually, at this stage it’s best to remain on a page for only a few seconds.
7. Repeated Readings are Good for Baby’s Language Development
As soon as your child can speak in phrases some of the first words you’ll hear are “read it again.” Hearing language from books repeatedly helps children memorize it. Eight-month-olds can remember certain words that are read to them after two weeks of hearing repeated readings. Reading the same books over and over again may seem an interminable task, but the language benefits as well as your child’s joy will keep you going.
Even at birth babies have been shown to prefer hearing books that were read to them in utero. Researchers gave newborns a choice between hearing their mothers read a new book or hearing a book read repeatedly before birth. Using a sucking device, babies responded by increased sucking when they heard the familiar book read to them before birth. Rereading of traditional nursery rhymes starting at birth helps your baby identify and learn the sounds of his language. A good knowledge of sound discrimination forms the basis of later reading and writing skills.
8. Use “Parentese” when Reading and Talking to Your Baby
If you think reading to babies is having a quiet baby on your lap soaking up every word that you read straight from the book, think again. Reading to babies looks and feels very different from reading to older children. The principal difference in reading to babies as opposed to older children is the way you interrelate using your voice and a baby book. This way of talking to newborns is called “parentese.”
When parents are in intimate, face-to-face contact with their babies, they speak in a sing-songy, higher-pitched, slower, louder voice. When reading, you’ll use the baby book primarily as a vehicle to converse and dialogue with your baby using your parentese voice. You may use none, some, or all of the words in the book to have this kind of conversation.
Studies show that beginning at around five weeks, babies prefer parentese, rather than regular adult conversation. Parentese is the best way for babies to hear and learn language. Studies show that it takes babies twice as long as adults to process information. With parentese you speak more slowly so babies can hear the individual sounds and words in the stream of speech. This helps them distinguish the unique rhythm of the language spoken in the home.
Babies learn language best when parents speak with their parentese voices using face-to-face, personal, baby- directed talk. The more parentese babies hear before the age of two, the more words they’ll learn. A large vocabulary will lead to higher intelligence and academic achievement in school. Parentese aids in the process of learning the sounds, grammar, and structure of language necessary for effective speaking, reading, and writing.
About the Authors:
Caroline Jackson Blakemore and Barbara Weston Ramirez have a combined experience of over fifty years helping thousands of elementary school children with reading difficulties. They have given workshops on read-alouds to thousands of parents of babies, preschoolers, and school age children.
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