Rocking and Rolling. Reading Aloud with Infants and Toddlers
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It’s nearly naptime, and Ms. Leda and 11-month-old Charlotte settle into a rocking chair in a cozy corner of the room. Ms. Leda reads Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama Misses Mama, and Charlotte listens with rapt attention. Ms. Leda chose this book because she has noticed that Charlotte becomes upset when her mom drops her off each morning. This separation anxiety is new, and the book offers a comforting approach to adjusting to a new setting. It is a favorite among the babies and toddlers in this program.
Ms. Katherine, a toddler teacher in the same program, knows this well. In her classroom, 3-year-old Javier plays with blocks as she reads Llama Llama Misses Mama and repeats the words from a story that he knows by heart.
Reading Aloud with Infants and Toddlers
Read alouds are an instructional practice during which adults read texts aloud to children (beginning from birth). To build engagement, the reader varies their voice and pace; they use eye contact, gestures, props, and more (Morrison & Wheeler, n.d.). Engaging read alouds go beyond reading a book from cover to cover. They involve pausing to ask questions and offer explanations, reactions, and comments. In fact, teachers should think of read alouds as an important source of serve-and-return interactions with young children. They might share a few pages of a text, responding with words to a baby’s gestures or babbles. Or, they may invite a toddler to “read” to them, promoting vocabulary and comprehension.
Reading aloud helps develop essential competencies infants and toddlers will need to become skilled readers later on. Two of these competencies are vocabulary knowledge and world knowledge (Wright 2018–2019). Through read alouds, children can learn the names and meanings of the objects, actions, people, and ideas all around them. At the same time, children can learn how these people, ideas, and things relate to one another, which is the critical background information for literacy development in the future.
Read alouds with infants and toddlers can happen at any time! Early childhood educators can include read alouds in daily routines and in planned activities and play throughout the day. They can also thoughtfully integrate books into learning centers and other areas to encourage discovery and exploration. For example, including a copy of Building a House, by Byron Barton, in the block center may launch the creation of different types of homes. The classic Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson, or the newer title Beautiful Oops!, by Barney Saltzburg, can enrich the arts center.
How to Plan for an Effective Read Aloud
Read alouds should be done using quality texts, rich with illustrations and content that connect to children’s interests, questions, and prior experiences and that introduce new knowledge. Quality texts should come from diverse authors and illustrators and include diverse characters, places, and events. Infant and toddler educators can enhance read alouds by including a variety of genres, such as informational texts in addition to storybooks.
As you plan ahead, consider the following strategies for selecting quality texts and arranging the environment for reading aloud with infants and toddlers.
Selecting Quality Texts to Read Aloud
To begin, have a goal in mind. The goal may be related to the social and emotional domains (as in the opening vignette), the physical domain, language domain, or other domains. As seen with Charlotte and Javier, books can help children safely explore feelings and process new experiences, such as the birth of a new sibling or the loss of a beloved pet. If your goal is related to social and emotional development, gather a small collection of books that name and explore feelings, from simple board books to texts about more complex feelings. These might include
- Wemberly Worried, by Kevin Henkes (2000)
- Lola Reads to Leo, by Anna McQuinn (2012)
- My Friend and I, by Lisa Jahn-Clough (1999)
The goal of the read aloud may be to simply reflect children’s interests and questions—the weekly arrival of the garbage truck (I Stink!, by Kate and Jim McMullan) or an impending snowstorm (The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats). It can also connect to a bigger idea, topic, or theme the class is exploring. Read Growing Vegetable Soup, by Lois Ehlert, to build shared vocabulary (such as soil, shovel, and broccoli) as you jump into gardening activities with 2-year-olds in your center.
Also think about how a particular book can introduce or reinforce certain vocabulary and concepts. Children’s books include words they do not hear in everyday conversations. One study found that picture books contain more unique word types than child-directed speech (Montag, Jones, & Smith 2015). In another study, children’s books contained 50 percent more rare words than primetime television or even college students’ conversations (Hayes & Ahrens 2009). Books should model rich language with illustrations to support comprehension. For example
- Rosie’s Walk, by Pat Hutchins (1967), can be a jumping-off point for an activity focused on spatial learning and engineering, such as helping children construct a pulley system.
- A Good Day, by Kevin Henkes (2007), explores how a day can turn from bad to good for a variety of animals, and it includes words such as tail feather, tangled, and tucked.
- Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo, by Kevin Lewis (1999), takes readers on a toy train ride as a little boy makes his way to bed, and it introduces vocabulary like echo and swift.
Planning for repeated readings of a text with rich vocabulary and of related learning activities enriches children’s learning across domains and the curriculum. It is also a wonderful strategy for making the most of the reading experience.
When the goal is to build world knowledge, begin with children’s own world. This means seeing characters that look and act like themselves, their families and friends, and their cultures and communities. There are so many titles to choose from. Some favorites focus on cultural traditions, like Bee-Bim Bop!, by Linda Sue Park. Others share about family routines and traditions, like Saturday, by Oge Mora, and different family structures, like Love Makes a Family, by Sophie Beer, to name just a few.
Welcome the world into your classroom by inviting parents to participate as readers or storytellers. You can use books to nurture identity (Parlakian 2019) and celebrate differences (Kinsner 2019). Visit DiverseBookFinder.org for suggestions.
Arrange the Environment for Reading Aloud
A big part of sharing a book with babies and toddlers is the intimacy of reading together—the snuggles, the conversation, the joint attention directed to the book and each other. Choose a setting and time that support that intimacy: a comfy chair or soft floor cushions in a quiet corner at a time of day when children’s physical needs have been met. Remember that babies do not differentiate between read alouds and playtime, so you can use books throughout the day one-on-one or in groups of two. You can also use stories to support transitions, such as before naptime or during arrival.
When reading with toddlers, select a space where you can keep an eye on them: They are often driven to move at this age, and it can be satisfying to listen in from a few feet away. You can also plan ahead and identify actions or props they can use to act out the story while you read—intentionally tapping into their activity level and curiosity rather than expecting quiet toddlers sitting still. It’s also fine to end the read aloud before the story is officially over to be responsive to their interest and attention.
Engaging Infants in Read Alouds
Being attuned to babies’ cues—of both active involvement and boredom—helps educators to tailor read-aloud experiences to meet children’s interests and needs. Babies will be interested in exploring every aspect of a book. This includes chewing the corners and dropping the book to see what happens—all of which help infants learn what a book is and what it can do. Knowing how a book “works” is an important early literacy skill, so do not be surprised if babies are equally interested in how the pages can move back and forth as with finishing the book.
Early educators can encourage babies’ engagement by asking a question and pausing for a baby to respond: “Where is Mama Llama going? Do you think she’ll come back?” This interaction models turn-taking and paves the way for more sophisticated early literacy skills, as described in the toddler section below. Based on a baby’s attention span, teachers can simply talk about what is happening on each page using just a few words. Teachers might also create sturdy homemade books with photos of the baby and loved ones to talk about as part of read-aloud time. You can provide more than one way to access texts, such as by creating a book path (photocopying and laminating images from simple board books and taping them to the floor). As babies crawl along, you can talk about the text and point out and name objects in the pictures.
Babies enjoy rhyming stories (like Jamberry, by Bruce Degan) and even songs in book form (like Wheels on the Bus, by Raffi). Although easy to overlook, nonfiction books can be used quite effectively with infants too. My Car, by Byron Barton, is usually a big hit: it has simple illustrations and focuses on the experience of driving a car, including a trip to the gas station.
Engaging Toddlers in Read-Aloud Experiences
Around age 2, children are ready for a chance to take the lead during read alouds. Talking about what is happening in the story helps children build language skills and grow their vocabulary (Whitehurst 2002). It also models the interaction between writer and reader that’s useful throughout adulthood.
Let’s take a toddler favorite: Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, by Mo Willems. As you read together, you can (Napoli & Johnson 2019)
- Repeat a word the child says. “Yes, that is a bird!”
- Offer new words. “That kind of bird is called a pigeon.”
- Add information. “The pigeon looks angry (sad/disappointed/frustrated) that he can’t drive the bus.”
- Connect to children’s experiences. “We saw pigeons in the park this morning.”
- Highlight differences. “Here is a picture where the pigeon looks angry. Can you find one where he looks happy?”
As children progress in their emergent literacy skills, you can turn more of the read aloud over to them by doing the following (Whitehurst 2002):
- Pause when the book repeats a phrase to give children a chance to say it instead of you. “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do . . . [you see]?” (Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle)
- Ask children to remember what happened. You can do this at any part of the story, not just at the end. “What happened when Goldilocks sat in Baby Bear’s chair?” (Goldilocks and the Three Bears, by Jan Brett)
- Ask children to talk about what is happening in a picture. “What is happening to the seeds? Do they look different now?” (Plant the Tiny Seed, by Christie Matheson)
- Ask questions about the pictures in the book. “What’s your favorite part of the picture? Where is the rabbit? Who took the carrots?” (Carrot Soup, by John Segal)
- Make connections to the children’s lives. “This book is about going to the market. Our class went to the farmer’s market yesterday. What did you see there?” (Baby Goes to Market, by Atinuke)
Reading should be fun, so make reading aloud a dialogue and not a quiz. Keep the conversation going so children can participate with their current language skills. Over time, let them take on more and more of the storytelling as a way to build their language and literacy skills.
After reading these texts together, teachers can use photos and captions to create classroom books that document children’s discoveries and activities; for example, “We Explore Our Neighborhood” or “We Plant a Garden.” These can be read again and again. Copies can be made and sent home to families to share with children at home; teachers might also send a list of questions that families can use to foster discussions and engagement with their children outside of the classroom.
Think About It
- Were you read aloud to as a child? What about that experience would you like to keep the same or change for the children in your classroom?
- Who were the main characters in the books you read growing up? Were a diverse group of people represented and celebrated? How do you think about diversity when you choose books and literacy experiences for children in your classroom?
- What books are the current favorites in your setting? Why do you think this is so?
- How are you currently reading aloud with infants and toddlers in your settings? What are you currently doing that you would like to continue to do, and what might you add or change?
Choose books that
- include a rich vocabulary
- have illustrations that amplify the text
- connect to children’s interests and experiences
- tie in with topics you’re exploring and children’s questions
- address a developmental issue like separation anxiety, sharing, or losing a comfort object
- you enjoy reading
- Encourage families to read at home. See the Reading Rockets website for printable tip sheets in multiple languages.
- Think about three or four questions you can ask as you read.
When reading aloud to infants and toddlers, the goal is not to get through the book. Babies will drop books, mouth them, and open and close them as they explore. Sometimes toddlers will have an irresistible need to skip pages or even get up in the middle of a story and investigate something across the room. The goal is to make shared reading a joyful, nurturing part of the everyday routine—and to give children many rich opportunities to hear and use language as you read together. You bring the joy, and everything else will follow.
Rocking & Rolling is written by infant and toddler specialists and contributed by ZERO TO THREE, a nonprofit organization working to promote the health and development of infants and toddlers by translating research and knowledge into a range of practical tools and resources for use by the adults who influence the lives of young children.
Copyright © 2021 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.
Hayes, D.P. & M.G. Ahrens. Vocabulary Simplification for Children: A Special Case of ‘Motherese’? Retrieved from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-child-language/article/abs/vocabulary-simplification-for-children-a-special-case-of-motherese/6821EFB9BA68750A095DA0BE040A8A30
Kinsner, K. 2019. “Who Am I? Sharing Picture Books that Nurture Positive Self-Identity.” ZERO to THREE. zerotothree.org/resources/2789-who-am-i-sharing-picture-books-that-nurture-positive-self-identity
Montag, J.L., M.N. Jones, & L.B. Smith. 2015. The Words Children Hear: Picture Books and the Statistics for Language Learning. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797615594361.
Morrison, V., & L. Wheeler. Revisiting Read Alouds: Instructional Strategies that Encourage Students’ Engagement with Text. Retrieved from https://www.readingrockets.org/article/revisiting-read-alouds-instructional-strategies-encourage-students-engagement-text.
Napoli, A.R, & V.J. Johnson. 2019. Promoting Young Children’s Early Language and Prereading Skills with Dialogic Reading. Retrieved from https://extensionpublications.unl.edu/assets/html/g2317/build/g2317.htm
Parlakian, R. 2019. “Using Stories to Nurture Identity.” ZERO to THREE. zerotothree.org/resources/2788-using-stories-to-nurture-identity
Whitehurst, G.J. 2002. Dialogic Reading: An Effective Way to Read Aloud with Young Children. Retrieved from https://www.readingrockets.org/article/dialogic-reading-effective-way-read-aloud-young-children
Wright, T.S. 2018-2019. “The Power of Interactive Read-Alouds.” American Educator 42 (4): 4–8.
ZERO TO THREE. 2016. Books About Feelings for Babies and Toddlers. Retrieved from https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/7-books-about-feelings-for-babies-and-toddlers
Kathy Kinsner has been a reading specialist, an Emmy-winning producer on the PBS series Reading Rainbow, and the person in charge of curriculum development at nonprofit Roads to Success. She has a master’s in education from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in television, radio, and film from Syracuse University. Currently, she is the senior manager of parenting resources at ZERO TO THREE.
Rebecca Parlakian is the senior director of programs at ZERO TO THREE. She has developed a video series on early STEM and coauthored a recently released early math curriculum supplement. Rebecca has also coauthored five parenting and professional curricula and published articles on topics ranging from dual language development to the impact of screens on very young children. Rebecca holds a master’s degree in education and human development, with a concentration in infant-toddler special education, from the George Washington University, where she currently serves as adjunct faculty. Her most important work in child development, however, is her two children, Ella and Bennett.