Sunday, June 29, 2008

I can read to babies!

Look what I've learned about reading to children since starting my job at the library! (A big shout-out to Betsy Stroomer, head of the Children's department at Lafayette Public Library, who spoke at the Survival for New Moms group at the hospital and who leads the baby storytime at the library--thanks for sharing so many books and rhymes and ideas with us.)

While there's no wrong way to read a book to a child, a few tricks will help your baby get more out of the book, regardless of which language you use.

First, choose a book that's appropriate for infants. A lot of popular children's picture books have been republished as board books, but just because the pages are sturdy doesn't mean that the story will resonate with babies! In fact, babies prefer very simple books with big pictures and few words on a page--they can't follow the plot of a story and don't appreciate complex illustrations.

Rather, choose books that will allow you to use each page as a springboard for sharing words and ideas with children. Describe the picture, tell them what it reminds you of, connect it to their lives. Ask them questions based on the picture. Count the number of objects in each picture. Sing songs and recite nursery rhymes that are related to the content of the book.

Among your read-aloud collection, include books that rhyme to turn children on to the sounds of the language and to help train their brains to recognize patterns. Encourage kids to play with words!

All the while, make your voice and face as expressive as possible--babies respond more to animated reading than to calm or expressionless reading. And read the same book many, many times. You'll get tired of it, but your baby won't.

Yes, an infant won't really understand what you're saying, whether you're slowly and clearly counting the ducks on a page or reading a moralistic fairy tale. But that baby will stare at the picture, will gaze at your mouth, will make sounds in reply. That baby will gradually understand that books have words which represent concepts, that those words have accompanying sounds, that books are read from front to back and left to right (or whatever the case may be in your language), that you turn their pages, and much more--all of which prepares that baby to learn to read down the road. Moreover, that baby is learning tons of words in context from your commentary.

I'm discovering that I can spend ten or fifteen minutes reading an eight-page board book with one word per page to Griffin. As an example of my recommendations above, here's what I might do with the following page of the charming I Can by Helen Oxenbury:

Tu vois le bébé? Le bébé peut courir. Maman peut courir. Oui, je peux courir. Mais toi, mon fils, tu ne peux pas courir. Non, tu ne peux pas encore courir. Parce que tu ne peux pas encore marcher! Papa peut courir, et ton cousin peut courir. Ils courent. Ils courent vite! Ils aiment courir. Moi, je n'aime pas courir. Mais un jour, toi et moi, on va courir ensemble. Oui, nous allons courir ensemble dans le jardin et dans le parc et à la montagne.

Griffin, tu connais le furet? Le furet qui court? Tu connais la chanson du furet? Tu veux que je chante la chanson du furet qui court? "Il court, il court, le furet, le furet du Bois Mesdames, il court, il court, le furet, le furet du Bois Joli, il est passé par ici…"

Que porte le bébé qui court? Qu'est-ce qu'il porte? Il porte une salopette rouge, un t-shirt rouge et blanc, et des chaussures blanches. Il vaut mieux porter des chaussures quand on court, sinon on peut se faire du mal. Toi, Griffin, tu ne portes pas souvent de chaussures, parce que tu es trop petit pour marcher. Tu ne marches pas, tu ne cours pas. Mais tu portes des salopettes comme ce bébé. Tu es trop mignon dans tes salopettes! Tu en as en bleu et en beige. Tu as même une salopette avec un lapin sur la poche!

Qu'est-ce que tu portes aujourd'hui, Griffin? Tu portes un body jaune avec Winnie l'Ourson. Tu ne portes pas de salopette. Tu ne portes pas de chaussures. Qu'est-ce que Maman porte? Maman ne porte pas de salopette non plus. Maman ne porte pas de chaussures. Maman porte une robe violette.

No, it's not Shakespeare. It might bore you silly. But it's what your baby needs.

(The English translation of my monologue is located beneath the Griffin in Overalls photo spread. Yes, any excuse to post pictures of my beautiful baby!)

All right, enough oohing and ahhing. Time for the translation: Do you see the baby? The baby can run. Mommy can run. Yes, I can run. But you, my son, you can't run. No, you can't run yet. Because you can't walk yet! Daddy can run, and your cousin can run. They run. They run fast! They like to run. Me, I don't like to run. But one day, you and me, we'll run together. Yes, we'll go running together in the yard and in the park and in the mountains.

Griffin, do you know the ferret? The ferret that runs? You know the song about the running ferret? Do you want me to sing the ferret song? "He runs, he runs, the ferret, the ferret of the Ladies' Forest, he runs, he runs, the ferret, the ferret of the Pretty Woods, he ran past here…"

What is the baby who runs wearing? What is he wearing? He's wearing red overalls, a red and white t-shirt, and white shoes. It's a good idea to wear shoes when you run, or else you could hurt yourself. You don't wear shoes very often, Griffin, because you're too little to walk. You don't walk, you don't run. But you wear overalls like this baby. You are too cute in your overalls! You have some blue ones and some beige ones. You even have a pair of overalls with a bunny on the pocket!

What are you wearing today, Griffin? You're wearing a yellow onesie with Winnie-the-Pooh on it. You're not wearing overalls. You're not wearing shoes. What is Mommy wearing? Mommy's not wearing overalls either. Mommy's not wearing shoes. Mommy's wearing a purple dress.

P.S.: Read my friend Estela's articles for more ideas on sharing books with babies and how to choose good books for them.


  1. Another idea for reading to babies: my friend Kendall (whose daughter, Sally, was born two hours before Griffin, just down the hall in the hospital) reports that when her husband reads to their baby, he reads the book cover to cover, literally, including the copyright page, the back cover, and the blurbs praising the author. She says it never would have occured to her to read those parts aloud, yet doing so teaches Sally new vocabulary and additional information about books in general!

  2. Oh, and can any fluent French speakers weigh in on my language use? What sorts of things might you say in this context? Thank you--your comments and advice help me become a more natural-sounding speaker!

  3. Hi, Sarah. I just found out about your blog from Mary Vogl. I'm a French teacher from Denver who just had a daughter, Eleanor, in March. I'm so excited to read about your journey into bilingual baby raising. I speak French to Eleanor, but not exclusively because I'm the only one around her who does speak French. I worry that since I'm her primary caregiver (and therefore spend the most time with her) that I'm responsible for her English language development first, and French comes second. Do you have any thoughts on that? I love what your thoughts on board book reading...I, too, try to make up my own unique story for each one and let Eleanor enjoy the pictures while I babble away. Thanks again for sharing your story - I'll be reading!

  4. Thanks for visiting, Kate! I'm delighted to learn that there's another French teacher mom in the area who's using French with a baby Griffin's age. I hope to organize a francophone toddler playgroup in a couple of years!

    Your question is so pertinent I'm going to make a separate post of it and invite other parents in similar situations to share their thoughts as well. Stay tuned!

  5. Hi Sarah. Thank you for the post, I'll try this method with my 6-month baby this evening. It will be fun not just to read the text, but to add some extra explanations and personal insights like you suggested. BR, Michael

    1. Good! I think this approach makes it more interesting for the parent, too. Thanks for your comment!

  6. So intuitive, yet I needed to read this, as I sometimes wonder if I'm doing the right thing or not by "interrupting" the story to point out other things on the page. I DID order the board book version of several classics, and I'm now thinking they're not appropriate for my son after all. Oh well, I suppose as long as there are clear illustrations, I could just ignore the text and make up my own?

    1. Hi Elizabeth,

      I see from your blog that you are a new(ish) parent, which means that you have probably been bombarded with advice and "ought to"s and "shouldn't"s from folks trying to be helpful.

      (I'm sorry if that's how I come across on my blog!)

      Ignore them and do what feels right for you and your son. You're reading and talking and singing to him, and that's what matters, not whether a classic lends itself well to the board book format!

      I have added your blog to my sidebar and a Pinterest board and look forward to reading about more of your bilingual adventures!

  7. Nice post on why it is crucial that you also make time to read to yourself as a parent:

  8. Article contains so many fruitful information which will be liked by the readers as in my opinion
    this is the best article in this category.
    Arabic dictionary

  9. Reading to the babies is an art. Sometimes, I need to be a baby too. Thanks Sarah for your nice blog. I read it regularly.

  10. Thanks for sharing this informative article. Looking forward to read more.