We all probably know we should read with our children, but do we always know why, and how reading can help support language development? I find that consciously knowing why I am doing something helps me to be more targeted in the way that I do it, and recognise when the outcomes I am aiming for are being achieved.
Of course, there is no problem whatsoever with just enjoying reading with your child for reading’s sake, for the precious snuggle time, the close special interaction you get and the joy of getting caught up in the story. But when a child is having difficulties with their language development, knowing how reading together can target a range of language skills can equip you with a focus and an understanding of the gains your child is making over time.
So how does sharing a book with your child promote language development, and what can you do when you are reading with your child to further develop opportunities for language development?
Through reading books, children can gain an understanding of many different communication skills. Here are some of those skills and ideas for how they can be encouraged:
1. Developing an ability to label and use descriptive language
This is a skill most parents encourage naturally as we go through the pages of a book pointing at the pictures and asking ‘what’s that?’. While this is a very typical strategy to encourage labelling skills, it can actually put pressure on a child if they are having difficulty with their verbal language and slow progress in this area. An alternative is to simply describe what you are seeing to your child and then waiting and giving your child time to respond or imitate. This can reduce this pressure of a direct question, while still allowing your child lots of opportunities to imitate and expand on your model. Building on any attempts made by your child then also reinforces your child’s contribution to the conversation and encourages them to keep going.
E.g. parent: ‘Oh look, I see a monkey!’ Child: ‘oo-oo-aa-aa’ Parent: ‘Yes you’re right, monkey does say oo-oo-aa-aa. Cheeky monkey’
2. Teaching new vocabulary
Expanding a child’s vocabulary is important for both a child’s expressive language but also for a child’s reading comprehension as they get older. Books understandably provide a great opportunity to be exposed to new vocabulary they haven’t heard or come across before. Talking about what words mean and explaining them using vocabulary your child understands helps to build their understanding of new words. Using pictures and gesture to help your explanations can strengthen a child’s understanding of new vocabulary further.
3. Demonstrating how grammar is used in language
A recent study by Dickinson et al found that although grammar can be taught as a standalone concept, the way we typically learn grammar most effectively is not like this. Grammar and vocabulary actually are best learned together – we come to understand how grammar is used through vocabulary, and how grammar is used teaches us about vocabulary. This, therefore, makes books a perfect tool for teaching grammar, as we can demonstrate grammatical structures in use through the sentences we read in a book.
4. Increasing Sound awareness
Teaching language skills is not the only gift gained from sharing books together. Reading together is also a fabulous way to develop an awareness of sounds needed for speech production, as well as important pre-literacy skills. Repetition of phrases and alliteration (phrases containing lots of words with the same sound) are popular and engaging devices in children’s books, and this provides the perfect opportunity to draw attention to a particular speech sound. When targeting a speech sound - put extra stress on the target sound as you say a word and comment on it to increase your child’s awareness of that sound. For example in the book ‘Where is the Green Sheep’ by Mem Fox is perfect for stressing and drawing attention to the ‘sh’ sound ‘Here is the near shhhheep and here is the far shhhhheep, but where is the green shhhhheep?’ ‘Can you hear the ‘sh’ sound in shhhheep?. Sometimes I also like to play a game in therapy where I get a child to do a silly move every time they hear the target sound, which can be funny when it is repeated over and over in a book.
5. Developing sequencing skills and an understanding that stories are told in an order of events
Sequencing is the process of putting events, ideas, and objects into a logical order. This is important in developing both coherent and understandable oral texts such as explanations or stories, as well as written texts needed throughout school and adult life. This is a vitally important skill in effective communication and books are perfect for teaching children the idea of sequencing and planning. When reading a book or telling your child a story, use temporal key words like “first,” “next,” “then,” and “finally,” to cue your child as to what is coming next. After reading a story with your child, talk about what happened and see if they can put what happened in order, and what happened before or after a particular event in the book.
6. Providing opportunities to retell a story and develop narrative skills
Children need sound narrative skills to be able to recount stories about themselves and their personal experience and narratives make up a large part of the spontaneous conversations of preschool and school-aged children. A child’s narrative telling abilities is also one of the strongest predictors of future academic success, and poor discourse skills can place a child at risk of language and literacy difficulties. Reading lots of stories with your child provides them with lots of models for what a narrative is, how stories are told, how stories need to provide information so that you can understand them and how they need to be interesting to hold your attention. Talking about the parts of a story and asking questions about what you have read helps a child understand these important components of narrative texts. Encouraging children to retell a story in their own words can also give excellent practice at how to tell stories themselves, while having an organisational framework modelled before they do so.
7. Encouraging and developing inferencing skills
Children are typically able to derive implied meaning from a text by around the age of 6-7 years of age, however children with language impairments can find inference a difficult skill to grasp. Reading stories with your child can be an excellent opportunity to explore implied meaning and develop inferencing skills. Take a moment to pause during a story and ask questions – see if your child can predict what might happen next, and why they think that. If they are having trouble, help them by finding ‘clues’ together, add them to what you already know/have read, and remind them that there is often more than one correct answer, so have fun being creative and coming up with ideas together!
As you can see, books truly are a wondrous tool for encouraging and developing a catalogue of communication and literacy skills. So next time you are reading a book with your child, you can now be thinking about all the amazing language skills they are developing and be primed to encourage specific skills in that moment. If your child is having trouble with their language development, or even if they aren’t, you can have a go at some of these strategies knowing that you are further extending their understanding and use of language through the pleasure of sharing a book together.
Looking for a wonderful book to read with your child? Check out the 2016 Winners of Speech Pathology Australia's Book of the Year Awards, categorised by age ranges.
 Dickinson, D.K., Griffith, J.A., Michnick Golinkoff, R & Hirsh-Pasek, K (2012) How Reading Books Foster Language Development around the World. Child Development Research vol 2012. Article ID 602 807, 15 pages, 2012. Doi:10.1155/2012/602807
 Bliss, L and McCabe, A (2012, Oct) Personal Narratives: Assessment and Intervention) Perspectives on Language Learning and Education. 19 130-138
 Bishop, D.V.M. & Edmundson, A (1987) Language impaired 4-year-olds: Distinguishing transient from persistent impairment. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 52 156-173