If you want to send your children to school with a head start, reading with them, rather than to them, is the best way to begin. Reading does not need to be a daunting or over-complicated endeavour for your child – it should be an enjoyable activity that they look forward to.

Reading is, without a doubt, the foundation of all learning, and the correlation between good readers and good learners has been extensively documented. However, the foundations for reading are laid out long before your child goes to school. They begin at home, with picture books and bedtime stories, and it’s the way those stories are read that is just as important as the reading itself. Over time, consistent active reading can significantly improve your child’s language and literacy skills.

What is Active Reading?

Mother reading to child

Active reading, also known as interactive or dialogic reading, is reading in a way that makes your child an active participant. In other words, it’s reading with, rather than to, your child.

Instead of simply reading aloud from beginning to end, active reading allows the book to become a tool or prompt for you to have a two-way conversation with your child. Active reading involves not only following the text, but also looking at and talking about the pictures, asking questions, explaining new words, and discussing the story. This more interactive style of reading helps children expand their vocabulary, greatly improves their comprehension, and encourages them to think analytically from an early age.

How to Read Actively with Your Child

There are many acronyms that have been suggested to guide parents and caregivers in making reading interactive, but the simplest is the 'ABC' one:

  • A Ask questions

  • B Build vocabulary

  • C Make connections

Ask Questions

Father reading to daughter

As you read, pause often to ask questions that prompt a conversation about the story. With toddlers, you may ask them what a story book is about based on the front cover, or use the pictures inside to help develop their language skills. Have them count objects, name colours, or point out animals.

For pre-schoolers, ask questions about the story: What is the boy doing? Where is the family going? Who is inside the house? Open-ended questions like this encourage children to think about the story and to express their understanding in their own words.

As they progress, questions might arise about why they do or don’t like the story, what they think will happen next, or why a character might be feeling scared, happy or excited. These types of questions not only check their understanding, but also encourages them to make inferences about things that are implied but not specifically stated.

Build Vocabulary

Use pictures to teach your toddler new words. For example, point to a picture of a cow and pronounce the word. Later, ask them to point to a cow on another page.

As your child grows older, take time to pause at new words and phrases, sound them out and explain their meaning or act it out. This could be whispering the word 'whisper' or demonstrating scratching, stroking or snoring sounds/actions.

Stories expose children to vocabulary they may not encounter in every day conversation at home, and the wider a child’s vocabulary is, the easier they will find learning to read.

Make Connections

When you talk about the story or introduce new words, try to make connections between them and your child’s experiences, whether that is explaining that a 'bungalow' is a one-storey house 'like Grandma’s house', or illustrating that 'rough' can mean wavy, 'like the sea on a windy day'. By relating words and events in the story to things your child has encountered or experienced — be it people, places, or emotions — they will absorb new words and ideas faster.

Benefits of Active Reading

Parents reading to children

Sitting your child on your lap to read their favourite story is an experience to be cherished. Not only does the intimacy of the experience build strong bonds with your child, but the positive associations your child makes with books — especially when reading is fun and interactive — helps foster a lifelong love of reading.

As the esteemed children’s author Julia Donaldson told Cayman Parent, "Reading broadens the mind and stimulates the imagination — and it’s one of life’s great pleasures."

Although children will be exposed to new words and become familiar with sentence and story structure with all styles of reading, when reading is interactive, children are more engaged, and therefore learn concepts faster. They are pushed far beyond listening to and thinking for themselves. Their comprehension therefore improves, and their attention span is longer. In fact, a 2013 study found that reading to a child in an interactive style raised his or her IQ by over six points. Given that 90% of a child’s brain development occurs before the age of five, the sooner they are introduced to language, literacy and comprehension, the better.

Tips to Keep Children Engaged in Reading

Look at pictures: As you read, prompt your child to name colours, count objects or identify animals in pictures.

Check understanding: Ask your child to tell you in their own words what the story is about, who the characters are, or what they might do next.

Allow interruptions: Interactive reading is a two-way communication, so keep it unstructured and let your child make comments and ask questions.

Know when to stop: If your child is restless or not paying attention, don’t force it. Put the book away and try again later.

Make it fun: Put on voices for different characters, act out movements and make the story fun so that your child thinks of reading as an enjoyable activity.

Repeat: Toddlers love repetition, so if they want to read the same story over and over, don’t resist. They will soon be able to finish sentences and fill in the blanks in well-loved books.