Last summer, the American Academy of Paediatrics issued a new policy statement for its members, recommending that paediatricians advise parents of young children about the importance of breastfeeding, vaccinating and reading aloud.
Until that moment, reading to children was just another fun and enriching educational experience, on par with playing in the park and attending live theatre performances.
When educators extol the virtues of reading to children, parents interpret its importance in terms of language skills and literacy development.
But the academy’s pronouncement shows that the importance of reading goes beyond educational value. Parent-child read-alouds have a vital impact on children’s cognitive, social and emotional development.
A child who is read to, breastfed and vaccinated will have a better chance for good health and brain development. The AAP policy statement also recommends its members to counsel parents on how to read aloud, and what books to read.
To make reading fun, and to cater to the short attention span of infants, parents can start with short nursery rhymes and point-and-name picture books. The readings can be incorporated into a daily routine.
A short story at breakfast, or even on the potty, can take advantage of those precious few minutes when a toddler is your captive audience.
In this way, the “five R’s of early education” – reading, rhyming, routines, rewards and relationships – are strengthened.
As infants grow into toddlers, and progress to kindergarten and primary school, their vocabulary and comprehension advance at a faster rate than their reading ability.
Picture books that celebrate language can help to encourage greater literacy development, and what better way to celebrate language than to go to its source: the ABCs. So here is a selection of alphabet books that can be enjoyed by both growing children and the parents who are reading to them.
Two classics are Dr Seuss’ ABC and Maurice Sendak’s Alligators All Around. Both use alliterative sentences such as “a lazy lion licking a lollipop”, with illustrations in the authors’ signature styles adding to the enjoyment.
For a contemporary take on the ABCs, Steve Fiffer cleverly created a single sentence comprising words that begin with all the letters, in alphabetical order. The result is Arctic Bears Chase, a witty word puzzle with humour-filled illustrations.
Alphabet concept books are experiencing a rebirth, with some recently published picture books that combine the alphabet with beautiful storytelling and art design.
In Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag, artist Maira Kalman presents a quirky alphabetical guide to objects from the Smithsonian Design Museum. Kalman opts for unconventional choices including a ceramic dog, a 13th-century silk thinking cap, and a pair of 19th-century tin slippers.
Elizabeth Schoonmaker brings back her much-loved feline in Square Cat ABC. Her original book Square Cat, introduces Eula the square cat, who bemoans her life in a world of round cats.
In Square Cat ABC, Eula meets a blue mouse, and their tale leads readers from A to Z, as the characters work through everything from the mouse’s fear of porcupines to Eula’s disdain for spinach.
Primary school children will love the short interconnected stories that explore the alphabet in Oliver Jeffers’ Once Upon an Alphabet. The illustrations are droll, dark and slightly odd.
Some of the stories can be morbid, akin to the style of Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket. But in general, they are funny and original, contain rich vocabulary, and push the boundary of our expectations for a children’s picture book.
Dr Pamela High, lead author of the AAP policy statement, writes: “Books are a useful tool, but we also want parents to understand that reading to their children is so powerful because children think their parents are the most important people in their world.”
Annie Ho is chair of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong bringmeabook.org.hk a non-profit organisation advocating family literacy