Turning children’s books into conversation starters

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April 23 is World Book Day, also known as International Day of the Book, and the week following is Children’s Book Week. What better time, then, to reflect on the power of turning books into conversation starters with the children in your life!

If you’re the parent of a young child — and even if you’re not — you likely know that children’s books come in all shapes and sizes. Some are board books, impervious even to teeth and tearing. Others have hidden flaps and variable textures that delight kids to no end. Some are so inexplicably tall as to not fit on an average bookshelf. Others are so small it’s hard for grown-up fingers to turn the pages. Some even require batteries. Others, frankly, require patience — and that’s okay.

Compared to books for any other age group, books for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are a particularly unpredictable lot. Children’s books are vehicles for stories, yes, but they’re also so much more. Even before you crack the cover and read the first page, they’re kind of conversation pieces in and of themselves.

For children, in fact, books are conversation pieces. They’re invitations to rev the brain and ignite its neurons. The adult-to-child and child-to-adult exchanges that books encourage — conversational turns — are totally unpredictable. Those conversational turns aren’t confined to the words on the page or the illustration on the cover. They’re limited only by the imagination of the adult reading the book aloud and the (probably much more expansive and magical) imagination of the child following along.

We think this is a big part of what makes books special. After all, we’re an organization dedicated to showing that increasing early talk is the easiest way to supercharge children’s brain development and improve their kindergarten readiness.

You might’ve heard this saying before: “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Likewise, it may very well be impossible to read the same book twice — especially when your audience is an engaged, inquisitive child or an infant whose brain is a blank slate. Anyone who has ever been made to linger on a single page of “Goodnight Moon” for five minutes, or has been made to engineer an off-the-cuff, elaborate backstory to Peter Rabbit’s mischievous ways,  knows this to be true. The words on the page should make up just a fraction of the conversational turns you and the child experience (even if the child isn’t talking yet).

Staying engaged and animated when you’re reading to very young children might seem intuitive to some, but it’s not always easy. Here are five tips for turning read-aloud time into interactive conversation time with the infants and toddlers in your life. These aren’t directly backed up by any of the rigorous data LENA is known for compiling, but they’re definitely worth a shot! After all, one thing our research does tell us is that most adults tend to overestimate how much they talk with children. Is it possible we overestimate how effectively we turn books into conversation starters as well?

Connect the book’s subject matter to something you’ve experienced together within the last day or two.

If you’re reading “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” ask the child whether they remember the dog they saw on the street earlier.

“Was it as big as Clifford?” “It wasn’t red like Clifford, was it?” “It looked like a really friendly dog to me.” “Do you think the dog sleeps outside in a doghouse like Clifford does, or do you think it sleeps inside?”

Follow the child’s lead, even when it takes you off on a tangent.

If you’re reading “Last Stop on Market Street” and your child points at or says something about Nana’s umbrella at the bus stop, pause and ask them what they like about the umbrella.

“People use umbrellas when it rains, don’t they?” “I like to carry an umbrella so I don’t get wet.” “When was the last time you saw someone using an umbrella?”

Nana’s umbrella is totally inconsequential to the story, but it doesn’t have to be inconsequential to your experience of the book.

Talk about the illustrations.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. While you don’t have to use that many words to describe each picture, it’s certainly possible to use even more! In fact, the possibilities are infinite. Talking about the colors you see, counting the number of a certain object on a page, simply describing the scene, wondering aloud whether or not the illustrator used a computer to draw the picture — these are all great ways to keep the conversation going.

Talk about the words, too.

Even for an infant, pointing out different textual elements like particularly long words or particularly squiggly question marks — they are funny-looking symbols, aren’t they? — can spark conversational turns. Fonts, font sizes, and font colors are all likely to change from one book to the next — or even from one page to the next!

Don’t forget the book as a physical object with a history all its own.

“This book has a lot more pages than most books we read, doesn’t it?” “This book is heavy! I need to use both hands to hold it!” “Uh oh, one of the pages in this book has a little tear. I wonder how that happened!” “You and Daddy got this book together from the library the other day, right?” “This book used to belong to your cousin Rebekah.” “Grandma used to read this book to me, you know. I’ve always loved it so much!”

LENA Team

The LENA Team is a dedicated group of professionals who are passionate about increasing awareness of the importance of early interactive talk. We are statisticians, speech-language pathologists, curriculum specialists, engineers, and linguists.

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