Author: Qing LIU
Assistant Professor, Yew Chung College of Early Childhood Education
In this age of civilization, it is already common knowledge for both parents and teachers that story-reading is critical for the upbringing of babies and toddlers. Almost all parents have heard of the wonders reading with your child could bring. Enhancing language development, practicing self-discipline and executive function, improving parent-child relationship… every modern parent is trying to utilize the first three years of their child’s life, their golden period, to support their child’s intellectual development in this highly competitive world. We know the “why” to reading bedtime stories rather clearly, but when it comes to the “how”, it is very common for parents to feel clueless or confused. As much as bedtime stories are accepted as a ritual in the household, whether we are doing it correctly and effectively remains a source of anxiety that makes parents toss and turn at night.
There are a thousand tutorials online that tells parents to do funny voices, act the content of the book out, or sprinkle in a little singing during bedtime stories. While these are sure-fire ways for one to attract a child’s attention, for parents who simply do not have the theatre spirit in them or are easily flustered, forcing them to act these out unnaturally could do more harm than good, and make it a stressful time for the parent.
In her acclaimed book Thirty Million Words, Professor Dana Suskind explained how parents can improve their communication and reading skills towards their children. One does not need to excel in their high school theatre class or literature class to do it well, one simply needs to observe and react accordingly. Like how a stand-up comedian would adjust their performance on the go according to their audiences’ reaction, what a reading parent needs is a pair of keen eyes that could see their children’s needs and interests, then respond to them.
Prof. Suskind has offered a three-step guide on how to talk to your child and tell a story, which she called the Three-Ts: Tune in, Talk more, and Take turns. To apply this method to telling bedtime stories, parents need to tune in to their child’s expressions and reaction; after observing what interests the child, parents would need to adjust the storytelling process and talk more about what interests the child to keep them engaged; ultimately, it is important for parents and children to take turn speaking, allowing the kids to have a chance to practice what they have learnt as well as feel valued.
The key difference between a successful and a lacklustre storytelling session is the level of the child’s involvement. Let your baby to hold onto the pages and guide their attention by pointing to the content on each page as you go; if they are old enough, allow your kid to pick out what they would like to read and let them attempt to read to you. It should not be an activity dictated by the parents!
It is important for parents to not just read out the words on the page, but also label items in the illustrations on the pages, as well as ask the child questions to involve them in the activity. To label and name objects help the baby establish the connection between real life objects and their 2D visual representations, and thus support the development of their comprehension skills. Having your child to speak instead of being a passive listener also enhances their concentration and develop their confidence at an early age.
After hearing what your child has to say about the story or observing how your baby is reacting to your speech, it would be a good idea to repeat or rephrase your conversation with slightly different words. Not only does this show that you have paid attention to your child, but repetition allows the child to remember the word better, and rephrasing could help your child to clarify their thoughts and add to their existing vocabulary!
It is important to bear in mind that it does not matter if your child does not say the answer that you wish to lead them on, the most important thing would be to keep them talking and engaged. Let their attention guide the storytelling process, even if you are digressing; allowing the topic to deviate is just another form of brainstorming, and through careful prompting, parents could help build their child’s creative thinking too. Therefore, there is no real need to “correct” them right away, or to show your disappointment. And who knows? Perhaps we can get the opportunity to learn from their innocent wisdom as well.
At its core, these techniques can be simmered down to paying attention and spending quality time with your child. It does not demand the parent to change the way they speak, or acquire a degree in education, and yet it is exactly this simple gesture that is going to mean the world to your child and their development. If you demonstrate discipline and pay attention when you are with them, then they will respond with the same level of self-control and interest as well—this is the key to raising a child with wisdom and confidence.
Ultimately, reading bedtime stories should be a way for parents to maintain their spiritual connection and closeness with their children, and everything else comes as the cherry on top. Whether a child can reach their full potential does not depend on the quantity of information they are exposed to. It depends on the quality of their environment, whether it is a place that can interact with them and provide them security or not.