When I was in graduate school, I took a class on Language & Literacy Acquisition Development. I was really excited about this course because, since I love books and reading and children’s books, I assumed it would be super interesting and kind of a breeze. Well, I was right about one of those things—the course material was fascinating. It was also the hardest class I took in graduate school.
As it turns out, language and literacy are not as simple as reading and loving books. Language is complex and nuanced. Literacy is layered and has many roots in socioeconomic status and racial discrimination. Communication is complicated and incredibly deep. And it all works together to develop each individual’s understanding of themselves and the world.
In the class, our professor told us that reading to children is the most important work we would do as future teachers. She was absolutely right. But it would take me years of teaching and parenting to being to understand why.
What children learn when we read to them is about so much more than words—it’s about process and love and respect and curiosity and perspective. And that work starts when they are babies. These four things are among what I’ve found to be the most important concepts babies learn when we read to them.
1. Reading together is a time of comfort and connection
When you pull your baby into your lap and share a book together, the first thing they feel is love—closeness, affection, warmth. This is a time of togetherness and presence for both of you and that one fact alone makes reading an unbeatable activity. Even if you are reading to them from afar, as they lay in their crib or bouncer or crawl aimlessly around the room as young mobile babies often do, they still hear your voice: gentle, animated, calm, and focused. They hear your intention towards them, they sense your attention distraction-free, they feel your love radiate.
Reading together can create a routine of closeness for parents and children to quietly bond during the course of an otherwise busy day of work, chores, and other baby chaos. Choosing a few times a day to share some reading time can help to make this a regular, expected, and anticipated part of your routine as your kids get older (before naps and bedtime is always a great option).
2. There is great variety in the colors, shapes, and sizes of things
We live in a great era when it comes to children’s books. Though there is still a great deal of work to be done when it comes to inclusive and diverse books being readily available and considered the norm, there are tons of wonderful, gorgeous books to round out your kids’ shelves.
When babies are young, they’re still developing their perceptions of the world. They’re still learning that balls can be big or small, red or blue. They are all still balls. They’re learning that a tree can be a tree over here and also over there. This concept, the idea that an object can look different and still be the same, is one that is vital to not only the classification and sorting skills they’ll soon acquire, but also to the perceptions of humanity which we hope they’ll grow up with: things and people and families can look different and still be the same.
Fortunately, we can now share books with them that offer a variety of color and life. We can read fairytale remakes that share broad characters and worldviews and alternate endings to the traditional ones with which we grew up. We can read books that showcase people of different colors and cultures—these books act as a mirror for some children and a window for others and both are equally important. We can promote ideas of differences in features and personalities in a positive way, that differences are good and help create the tenacious fabric of our world. We can learn that families can be different too and that all families are built on the same love.
3. Curiosity and perspective are important and ever-changing
Reading to your child as a baby allows a foundation for your relationship as they get older. While babies can’t talk, they still observe curiously. They wonder about pictures and objects in books and they begin to decipher words and language. As they grow and gain more verbal skills, the questions start: Why? How? What? When? Why?
Questions, though sometimes annoying, are good. They are a function of curiosity, imagination, and a developing perspective. All of these things, in addition to the interests of your child, will continue to change as they get older. But if they are given a safe and warm opportunity to ask questions, they will continue to do so as they grow. And the foundation for this starts in babyhood.
4. Listening is part of communication
Reading to babies and young toddlers is often a tasking event; they want to eat the book or stay on the same page for a year or just hit you repeatedly in the face for no reason. Or they just get up and crawl/walk/roll away. So many parents I’ve worked with have lamented, “But how can I read to him if he doesn’t even listen!?”
It can be frustrating. This is because babies and toddlers are still learning about the reciprocity of communication (and also, because they’re babies and toddlers). Reading to your child doesn’t always look like a straight line—you don’t have to sit quietly in one place and read a book from cover to cover in order. You can read aloud to them as they play with blocks. You can poke around their favorite pages and just talk about the pictures. You can count the pages on the book or the objects on each page. You can listen to an audio version of the story as you browse the pictures together.
Reading, like communication, is not a black and white activity. There’s no one right way to do it. It takes time for children to develop an understanding of communication, and reading is one way to help that lesson along.