Before they can read, children can learn from books

February 10, 2006|by KRISTIN WILSON

Christian Neumann practiced his best "grr" and growl while pointing to the brightly colored dinosaurs popping out of the children's book Boonsboro librarian Joan Snapp was reading to him during a Wednesday morning program.

When Snapp pulled out a book that featured flip-up windows, Christian knew just what to do - he reached for the book and opened tabs to reveal more of the story about some friendly critters.

Even though Christian, 2, cannot yet talk or read, his expressions of curiosity and excitement show he's learning through story time.


Yvonne Neumann, Christian's mother, has been reading with her son since he was a baby. "We started when Michayla (Christian's older sister) was born and it's something that we just continued," Neumann says. Often Neumann, her husband and two children will read together around bedtime.

Build child's success

Reading to young children is an important component in early-childhood education, doctors and teachers say. And word is spreading among parents and literacy experts that children can benefit from story time as soon as they are born.

For about six years, volunteers with the Washington County Books For Babies program have distributed baby books and information about reading to infants.

"I think that reading to children is the most important thing to build a child's success," says Pam Michael, a volunteer with Books For Babies and literacy coordinator for South Frederick Elementary School. "Kids can't be successful in anything unless they can read."

Early and often

Regular reading with an infant does not help a child learn to read earlier than other children, according to information from Zero to Three, an organization focused on early-childhood development. Regular reading does, however, stimulate a baby's brain to understand language patterns and eventually develop vocabulary.

"Generally the thing that correlates best with children who are doing well academically and linguistically is how often and how young (children were when) parents read with them," says Dr. Pamela High, a professor of pediatrics at Brown Medical School in Providence, R.I.

The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly encourages parents to read to children on a daily basis starting around 6 months of age, according to information on its Web site.

But High is an advocate of starting a reading habit with children from the time they are born.

"There's no reason to wait until children are 6 months of age," she says.

Infants might not understand the words their parents read to them, but the action of reading a book does provide mental stimulation to the baby and offers affectionate contact with the parent, High says.

Melissa Wernick started reading to her son, Andrew, as soon as she brought him home from the hospital.

"I felt it was a very rewarding experience," she says of reading with her son in infancy. "Even though (Andrew) didn't recognize a story, he responded to my voice." While Wernick was on maternity leave, she developed a pattern with her infant son of reading together in the morning. Now that she's back to work teaching at Pangborn Elementary School, she finds time to read to Andrew before dinner.

Andrew, who turns 1 on Saturday, is now pointing to objects in the picture books his mother reads, and he's learning how to use hide-and-seek flaps in children's books.

"I'm hoping that soon it will go from pointing to pictures and me saying what it is to him saying what the object is, then eventually letters and words," Wernick says.

She looks forward to reading time with her son as a quiet time for bonding, she says.

"(Reading) is a wonderful time that parents can spend together with their children that's doing something good," High adds. "It's about interaction and relationships and enjoying things together. One of the most important things for parents to do is enjoy being with their children."

It's not just words

"Reading is an emotional kind of thing as well as an academic experience you can have with your child," Michael adds. Books for young children are not just about words. Children learn about shapes, objects and animals through picture books. They learn about textures and develop fine motor skills by turning pages and using hide-and-seek flaps, she says.

"Reading a book is interactive," Michael says. "It really develops the brain." Babies also benefit from hearing "book language," which is different from the way people speak, she says.

As babies grow, books can grow with them, High says.

"Books open up a whole other world to talk about with children. We do know that the more we talk with and to children, the more their language develops," she says.

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