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Books Without Words May Help Boost Your Child's Language

Traditional vocabulary books may not be the only way to promote early learning.

If you’re a parent, you likely already know how important it is to read to your young child. Countless studies have shown that reading to kids can promote a rich vocabulary, enhanced attention span and concentration, creativity, imagination and even academic success.  It’s all good.

But did you know that reading books without words may actually offer more language benefits than reading traditional vocabulary books?  

In a recent study published in the journal First Language, researchers at the University of Waterloo found that when parents read picture books to their kids, they tend to use more complex language than when they read picture-vocabulary books.

Traditional vocabulary books, which are marketed as educational for young children, tend to display pictures of objects along with descriptive words. When reading to their children, a parent might point to a picture of an apple and say, “This is an apple.” That is certainly one way to build language.

However, when reading picture-only books, parents often communicate in a very different way.

In this study, 25 mothers were given both a wordless picture storybook and a vocabulary book with pictures, and they were asked to read to their toddlers.  The researchers found that parents were much more likely to utilize “complex talk” when reading picture-only books to their child.

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When a page in the picture book showed an animal, for example, a parent was much more likely to talk about that animal rather than simply label it. Researchers observed parents say things like, “Where do you think the squirrel is going to go?” Or “We saw a squirrel this morning in the backyard!”

As children grow and make the transition from home to school, exposure to complex language is especially critical.

Whether you’re reading a wordless book to your child, a vocabulary book, or a storybook with text, there are things you can do to make the most of this experience.

–Elaborate. If you show your child a picture of a car, talk about your car and the places you’ve recently visited while driving in the car together. As your young child’s language grows, encourage him to add to the story by sharing his favorite things to see out of the car window.

–Predict. When you tell a story about a character, ask your child to guess what might happen next. For example, “This boy is looking at a slice of delicious pie. What do you think he’s going to do next?”  If your child doesn’t yet have the language skills to answer, go ahead and ask the question -- and answer it, as well. “I think he’s going to eat it!” As your child’s language grows, he will be eager to make these predictions on his own.

–Tie it together. When you can, make connections between things you see in books and events your child experiences in daily life. This will make the stories more meaningful; and your child will be more likely to want to read more books with you. 

–Mix it up. While there appear to be unique advantages to reading open-ended picture books, be sure to introduce a range of books to your child. Create a home library that includes colorful vocabulary books, stories with text, children’s poetry, and pop-up books. There are so many wonderful ways to encourage your child to enjoy reading - today and as he grows.

Looking for more parenting news you can use? Follow me on Twitter @debbieglasser

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and speaker specializing in parenting and child development. more...

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