UNTIL a child
is four months old, it doesn't matter a great deal what
you read, as long as you are reading. Doing so lets the
child become accustomed to the rhythmic sound of your
reading voice and to associate it with a peaceful, secure
time of day. Mother Goose, of course, is always appropriate,
but my neighbor read aloud Kipling when she was nursing
her daughter, who eventually went on to both Princeton
and Harvard. Did Kipling have anything to do with that?
Not much, compared to her mother’s reading to her day
in and day out.
Over the last decade or so, known in some circles as the Decade of the Brain, a heated debate has raged over the importance of the infant years in a person’s brain development. Although psychologists and neuroscientists have argued in public conferences, news magazines, and professional journals, the jury remains out on exactly how critical the first three years of life really are. Do the doors of opportunity really slam shut after age three, or are there second, third, or fourth chances later on?
I personally tend to compromise between the two extremes: that learning
(and life) is easier if the first three years are enriched, but later opportunities
can be rewarding if there is an ideal learning environment. Still, later
learning will be more arduous. Anyone wishing to pursue the debate will find
it fully explored in The
Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn by Gopnick,
Melzoff, and Kuhl (Morrow); and The
Myth of the First Three Years by John T. Bruer (Free Press). (See
Web note below on Dr. Jack Shonkoff's cautions against some
of today/s learning mandates in the name of science and brain research.1)
What is firmly established by the research is that measurable long-term storage of sound and word patterns begins as early as eight months of age. Children hearing the most language will have the best chance of having the best language skills.2 There are only two ways for words to enter a child's brain: through the eyes or through the ears. Since the child isn't reading yet, that leaves just the ears.
Let me reiterate an earlier statement: None of this is intended to create a super-baby. The focus should be on nurturing whatever abilities are already there, building an intimate bond between parent and child, and constructing a natural bridge between child and books that can be crossed whenever the child is developmentally ready to cross it as a reader.
Which books are best for infants?
Your book selections for the first year should be ones that stimulate your child’s sight and hearing—colorful pictures and exciting sounds upon which the child can focus easily. One of the reasons for Mother Goose’s success is that she echoes the first sound a child falls in love with—the rhythmic, rhyming “beat-beat-beat” of a mother’s heart.
The new brain research tells us that
Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss were on to something important.
Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss not only rhyme in name and text, they also must
have sensed what researchers would later prove. According to learning specialists
at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda,
Maryland, the ability to find words that rhyme appears to be an important
ability in children. Indeed, kindergartners who struggle to find words that
rhyme with “cat” are prime candidates for later reading problems. Moreover, considering the many rhyming chants found in children’s games (such as jump-rope rhymes), and popular children’s books like Seuss’s The
Sleep Book and The
Foot Book, it’s obvious that children find pleasure in words that rhyme—but why? Researchers say the pleasure is identical to the reasons humans subconsciously enjoy looking at stripes and plaids, or listening to musical harmony—they
help to arrange a chaotic world.
With that in mind, a prime recommendation is that parents frequently read
aloud books and stories that rhyme. The impact of rhyme can be traced as early
as the womb. For one study, women in the last trimester of pregnancy repeatedly
read aloud Dr. Seuss’s The
Cat in the Hat; then, fifty-two hours after birth, monitored infants
were able to distinguish Seuss’s rhyming verse from another book without
We don’t turn to Mother Goose for the plot. We turn to her because she takes all those sounds, syllables, endings, and blendings, and mixes them in with the rhythm and rhyme of language, for us to feed to a child who already takes delight in rocking back and forth in his crib repeating a single syllable over and over. “Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba...” There are many collections of Mother Goose, but my two present favorites are The
Lucy Cousins Book of Nursery Rhymes (Dutton) and The
Neighborhood Mother Goose by Nina Crews.
Many parents find that singing or reciting these rhymes during the appropriate activity further reinforces the relationship between rhyme and activity in the child’s mind. Compact disks, long-playing records and tapes of these rhymes are available at your library and local bookstore.
Also keep in mind the physical bonding that occurs during the time you are
holding the child and reading. To make sure you never convey the message
that the book is more important than the child, maintain skin-to-skin contact
as often as possible, patting, touching, and hugging the child while you
read.4 Linked with the normal parent-infant dialogue, this reinforces
a feeling of being well-loved.
What is normal behavior by the infant or toddler
ecent interest in early learning has spurred investigations
on how infants and their parents react in read-aloud situations, though any
reading parent can tell you a child’s interest in and response to books varies
a great deal. But if you are a new parent, any seeming lack of interest can
be discouraging. Here is a forecast so you’ll not be discouraged or think
your child is hopeless.
The babies' attention
spans for books averaged only
At four months of age, since he has limited mobility, a child has little
or no choice but to listen and observe, thus making a passive and noncombative
audience for the parent, who is probably thinking, “This is easy!”
Your arms should encircle the child in such a way as to suggest support
and bonding, but not imprisonment, allowing the child to view the pages if
you're reading a picture book.
By six months, however, the child is more interested in grabbing the book
to suck on it than listening (which he’s also doing). Bypass the problem
by giving him a teething toy or other distraction.
At eight months, he may prefer turning pages to steady listening. Allow
him ample opportunity to explore this activity, but don’t give up the book
At twelve months, the child’s involvement grows to turning pages for you,
pointing to objects you name on the page, even making noises for animals
By fifteen months and the onset of walking, his restlessness blossoms fully,
and your reading times must be chosen so as not to frustrate his immediate
In nearly all these studies,5 attention spans during infant reading time averaged only three minutes in length, though several daily readings often brought the total as high as thirty minutes a day. There are some one-year-olds who will listen to stories for that long in one sitting, but they are more the exception than the rule.
As babies mature, good parent-readers profit from earlier experiences. They don’t force the reading times, they direct attention by pointing to something on the page, and they learn to vary their voices between whispers and excited tones. And they learn that attention spans are not built overnight—they are built minute by minute, page by page, day by day.
nce the child begins to respond to the sight of
books and your voice, begin a book dialogue, talking the book instead of
just reading it. Reading aloud with a young child shouldn't be a solitary-passive
experience. As much as possible you want the child to interact with you and
the book. You elicit the interaction by the questions or comments you interject
to the reading, as you'll see below. What you want in the reading is the
same thing you want when you talk with a child—give and take, or as one educator
put it, "Play ping-pong, not darts." When you simply throw words or orders
at a child, you're playing (verbal) darts. Here is a sample dialog between
a mother and 20-month-old during a reading of Blueberries
for Sal by Robert McCloskey. Note the parent doesn't stay tied to the
exact text, which is underlined here.
Little Bear's mother turned around to
see what on earth could make a noise like kuplunk! And there, right in front of her, was—Sal!
Sal. And mother bear was very surprised to see Sal and not Little
Bear behind her. Look at the surprised look on her face. Sal looks a little
surprised, too, don't you think?
cried. This is not my child! Where is Little Bear? And mother bear ran
off to find him. Where do you think Little Bear is?
don't know? Well, let's turn the page—you can turn it—and
maybe we'll find him there.
In this simple exchange, a number of important things are being accomplished with language.
Parent and child are sharing the pleasures of a book together, a story
that unfolds gradually at their pace (not the video's pace) on pages that
have illustrations that are stationary enough for the child to study or scrutinize
The mother uses both her own words and the words in the book. How closely
you follow the exact text is determined by the age of the child and the attention
The dialog is interactive; that is, the parent interjects simple questions
that elicit responses;
When the child answers, the parent affirms
the response ("Right") and/or
corrects it (pronouncing "Sal," "yes," and "don't know" correctly).
When a middle-class mother and her child were monitored for 10 months, researchers found that 75 percent of the labeling of objects done by the mother was done in the context of a book, and the child's responses were corrected or reinforced 81 percent of the time.6 A similar study of lower-class mothers found this behavior was much less likely to occur.7
attempt to use research on brain development for assessing children
in education settings at the present time is completely unwarranted,"
states Dr. Jack Shonkoff, pediatrician and dean
of the Heller Graduate School at Brandeis University in Waltham,
MA, and chairman of the Committee on Integrating the Science of
Early Childhood Development. Shonkoff waves a red flag about some
of the learning mandates imposed today by federal education authorities.
LISTEN as he addresses the Minnesota School Readiness Business
Advisory Council, a group of local business leaders working on
issues of early childhood development. (2004, Minn. Public Radio)
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