Reading to Toddlers: Tips for Boosting Language

how to readIn my experience consulting with parents of children with learning difficulties, my most common recommendation is that they read to their children, and read often.  I urge parents to read everything with their children from books and magazines to labels and signs.  This is because reading supports language development, which is critical to both cognitive development and later academic success.

Considering the importance of reading, I began reading to my own children soon after their birth.  In fact, we kept books with high contrast pictures in the NICU for our babies.  I felt an increased urgency to expose our quadruplets to literature early because multiples are at-risk for communication delays.  This is because the number of language interactions between them and caregivers is divided.  Additionally, many multiples are born prematurely and experience overall developmental delays.

Despite valuing early literacy, I really didn’t know how to read to promote language development until we began working with a speech therapist and specialized skills therapist.  Among the methods for helping increase communication with our quadruplets, they modeled specific tips for reading.   Once I began following their advice, my children without delays blossomed even more while my delayed children made notable gains.

When most people think about reading to children, they presume it means reading the text on the page as written.  However, even in children’s books, the language can be too complex for young toddlers.  They often learn more when the reader doesn’t even read the text at all, and instead emphasizes new concepts and vocabulary.  Here are some ways I’ve learned to promote language development:

Encourage a Response & Wait

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Spend time pausing on each page to point out something interesting. Then, encourage your toddler to respond to it in some way before turning the page.  There are several ways to accomplish this, depending on your toddler’s current vocabulary and language skills.

Toddlers are highly interested in environmental sounds, and they learn them rather quickly (e.g. “moo”, “tick tock”, “beep beep”) so that’s a great place to start.  For instance, if there’s a cow on the page, point it out as you say, “moo”.  Keep repeating, “moo” and encourage your toddler to repeat you.

If you are attempting to teach your toddler a new word, emphasize the initial sound and encourage them to repeat you.  For example, instead of saying, “pig”, say “p-p-p-pig”.   The repetition helps them pick up the individual sounds and increase the likelihood they will try to imitate you.

At first, it’s best to introduce only a few new words or sounds at a time.  There’s no need to overwhelm your toddler!  As your toddler masters new words or sounds, add more to his repertoire.

Each time you sit down to read, try to repeat the familiar words or sounds and add a new one or two.

As your toddler develops stronger language skills, you can begin ask him to point to specific items (e.g. “Where’s the dog?”), or even items with particular features (e.g. “Which car is red?”)

books learning teachingHere’s the hard part — allow enough time for your toddler to realize what you’re doing and make an attempt to respond.  If your toddler imitates you or responds in some way, praise him and go to the next page.  If not, help him point to the picture as you make the sound or say the word once more before moving on.   It often takes several exposures to something new before a toddler will respond.  Be patient!

Make connections

As you read and point out items in the book, help your toddler connect what is in the book to his environment.  For instance, if you point out a clock in the book, saying “tick tock”, and there is a wall clock in the room, show your toddler.  This can help your toddler generalize what is in a book to the real world.


Reading the SAME book over and over can feel monotonous to an adult, but not to a toddler. They thrive on repetition and learn from exposure to the same things over and over.  However, just because you are reading the same book repeatedly, does not mean you have to read it in a monotonous way.  Instead, try to point out different items and focus on different things with each reading.  Your toddler will learn to notice more and it will help keep you engaged too.

Split up the Pack

Parents of multiples (or multiple children for that matter) tend to do everything in batches.  Certainly, it’s efficient to have everyone do the same thing at the same time.  Undoubtedly, there are benefits to group story time.  More verbal children often teach their subdued siblings new words and respond quickly.  However, they can also overshadow the quieter children.   Reading to each child individually helps adjust the pace to each child’s skill level.

Next time you sit down with your toddler (or toddlers) to read, don’t worry about the printed words, and instead think about teaching new vocabulary.  Most importantly, have fun!

Related articles:

The Best Twin Books for Twins

How Do You Choose Books That Are Right for Your Kids?


amber shawver how to read to toddlersAmber Shawver and her husband, George, are the proud parents of girl-boy-girl-boy quadruplets who debuted in 2012.  Amber draws from her experiences working in childcare settings and as a school based behavioral consultant to manage raising quadruplets at home.  Amber continues to practice school psychology part-time in an urban school district.  She chronicles life raising quadruplets at You can also find her on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. 


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