Reading books to children with a language delay or disorder

Reading books to your young child is a wonderful, interactive way to develop expressive and receptive language, as well as valuable pre-literacy skills. With apologies to all the hard-working children's authors who spend so much time and effort crafting their words for a young audience, my advice for "reading" to young children, especially with language delays or disorders, is to free yourself from the text and simply talk about the pictures.

When we read text word-for-word, we often feel like we have to keep moving at a constant pace. This way of reading books does not invite the child to chime in, and we may even feel annoyed at being "interrupted" if he does.

When you "talk" a book instead of reading it, you can more easily follow your child's lead and talk about what interests him. You can linger on a page for a long time if he's particularly interested, or you can quickly move on if he's not. Here's how I would "talk" the first page from Curious George and the Pizza by Margaret and H.A. Rey:

Me: I see George sitting at the table, holding his knife and fork.

Child: Eat.

Me: Eat. Yep, he's ready to eat. He's hungry. Look, there's some fruit.

Child: No, pizza.

Me: Oh, he wants pizza. Pizza is yummy. His friend says, 'Okay, we can eat pizza.'

Child: Where pizza?

Me: Where's the pizza? There's no pizza in George's house. Let's see where they go. [Then we turn the page]

The text on that page reads as follows: 'Let's go out for pizza tonight, George,' said his friend. My way has a lot more words in it, but not just that. Note how I set up the clues for the situation (sitting at the table holding his knife and fork) and let the child draw the conclusion that George is ready to eat. Then I reinforce the child's conclusion by repeating it and suggest a possible (but false) solution, prompting the child to correct me. Then I pair pizza with an appropriate descriptor (yummy). Now the child is really into it, and wants to know where they're going to find pizza. I didn't set that one up--the child threw me a freebie there because he was so engaged.

Of course, this exchange is made up and hypothetical, but it's pretty typical of the kind of thing I can do when I ignore the text and let the pictures and the child's interest drive the process.

This sort of thing takes practice, and you may find it awkward at first--that's okay, just keep at it and you'll get better. You might want to start out with books that have only pictures, like A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog By Mercer Mayer. You can also put post-it notes over the text so that you're not tempted to rely on the text. Whatever works for you.

As you read to your child, do not forget the "Prime Directive" of early language stimulation: Follow Your Child's Lead. Your child will let you know which books he finds engaging. Read those. If your child is not interested in a particular book or series, leave it on the shelf.

Take a trip together to the public library, grab a stack of books in the children's section, and find a spot to sit down and get comfortable together for a 'triage' session. Make a pile of the books he likes; check them out and take them home. Put the books he doesn't respond to on the reshelving cart.

Reading books to your child is great; "talking" them is even better.

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