Children are born with a drive for learning to communicate. Newborns study their parents’ faces and attend to their voices as they develop their vision and listening skills. Throughout the first year of life, before first words emerge, babies learn building blocks of communication: facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, and early sounds when interacting with their parents. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that reading be an integral part of parent-child routines as early as possible:
“The first 3 years of life is the most intensive period for speech and language development. Reading, talking, and singing regularly with young children from birth stimulates brain development. This stimulation in turn builds language, literacy, and a child’s motivation to learn.”
“Promoting Literacy in Pediatric Primary Care”, American Academy of Pediatrics (2021)
Here are five elements to help parents choose and use books to successfully to support communication development in infancy and toddlerhood (or at any point in early language learning):
Faces in Pictures: Books with simple photos of faces are among the most engaging for babies. Newborns prefer looking at faces; this interest grows stronger beginning at just 3-4 months of age. Studies have shown that babies look longer at faces than other images. The My First Learn-to- Talk Books use simple photographs of babies’ and toddlers’ faces to increase attention to the page for the youngest readers. Each face has a different facial expression and emotion, supporting social-emotional learning.
Building Blocks of Communication: Books that include the building blocks of communication are among the most engaging choices. As infants grow, they are excited by gestures, sounds and words paired with strong emotion (known as exclamatory words; think: Wow! Ow! Yay! Pee-yoo!). These elements of communication are often repeated and fun parts of parent-infant daily interactions. Each expressive face in the My First Learn-to-Talk Books is paired with exciting gestures, sounds and/or words. These sounds and words and the gestures that accompany them- waving a hand in front of a nose, for example-are small pieces of communication that infants and toddlers attend to early on because they are silly and exciting!
Imitation: Babies and toddlers learn communication skills through imitation; they watch others and try to repeat what they are doing. When parents choose books that include a variety of facial expressions, gestures, sounds, and words infants and toddlers can learn to imitate in different ways! In fact, infants can even imitate simple communicative acts before they are able to use words. Imitation of facial expressions begins before six months of age and as motor skills develop, babies between 6-8 months typically begin to imitate gestures. Around one year of age, they often begin to imitate sounds and words with increasing accuracy.
Flexibility: When we engage children in books at just the right level along the reading journey, we can prepare them to communicate well; to do this, parents can choose books that can be used in different ways depending on the child’s developmental level. No need to worry about finishing the book; this comes in time! When parents read My First Learn-to-Talk Books, infants enjoy looking at the simple photos and using their hands to explore the books as objects. Attention spans are brief, so parents may only read 1-2 pages at a time.
There is also no need to worry about reading all of the text on the page at first- simplicity will be more engaging. Parents can choose to model only the gestures or words on each page, and if they are unsure what to say or do, they can notice which pictures capture their child’s interest and model a sound or word that goes with it (e.g., If a child is looking at a car, say, “vroom!” or “beep-beep!”). Toddlers begin to better understand phrases and sentences and begin to enjoy listening to longer lines of text on a page.
Bonus: Choosing books that can be read at different stages of language learning doesn’t only benefit children; parents who can use a book in different ways to support their child’s learning grow confidence in their ability to be their child’s best teacher. They return to reading together again and again, and books become a part of everyday routines!
Repetition: Babies and toddlers LOVE to hear their favorite books over and over again, and this repetition serves an important purpose in language learning. With repeated exposure to a book, in which the sounds, gestures, and words are the same each time, children begin to anticipate the words and want to participate! Speech-language pathologists know that if we simply pause before an exciting sound or word at the end of each page, little ones will begin to “fill in the blank,” and try to say what they have heard so many times before:
“When I eat an apple, my mouth says…” “MMM!”
“When my mind is thinking, my mouth says…” “HMM!”
The most important thing to remember about reading with infants and toddlers is that each journey is unique. Offer your child the opportunity to explore books and discover what sparks their interest, imagination, and engagement!
Stephanie Cohen is a speech-language pathologist with over 20 years of experience working with babies and toddlers. She is the author of My First Learn-to-Talk Book and My First Learn-to-Talk Book: Things that Go (Sourcebooks). Connect with her on Instagram and Tiktok: @Learntotalkwithme.