Many parents want to read with their children, but they find it too stressful, frustrating, or altogether impossible. A parent named Molly confided to me that reading routines with her 18-month old sweetie, Isabelle, are practically nonexistent. “She just won’t sit and listen to a book.” Molly groaned. “If I try to read to her she squirms and cries, and then she runs away!”
I asked Molly to show me what happens during story time. Reluctantly, Molly pulled a book off of the shelf. “It’s Doc McStuffins.” She said, showing me the cover, “Her favorite character.”

I watched as Molly seated Isabelle on her lap, opened the book and began to read aloud. Sure enough, after less than a minute, Isabelle began to squirm and wriggle. I smiled. “Let her go,” I suggested, “I think I can see what the problem is.”

“There’s a whole lot of text on each page.” I pointed out, “And Isabelle can’t really understand most of it. She’s looking at the picture, but she’s hearing what probably just sounds like a whole lot of gibberish to her. So she loses interest.”

Molly and I developed a strategy for “picture reading” to Isabelle, using very short words, phrases and sounds to describe each picture. We also involved a lot of drama in story time, to keep Isabelle engaged and make reading more fun. For example, if there was a picture of food, Molly would pretend to eat, making loud “yum yum” sounds, and sharing the food with Isabelle. If a story character was laughing or crying, Molly would laugh out loud or pretend to cry. We practiced together, with me role-playing Isabelle. At the end, Molly confessed that although it felt rather foolish at first to behave so playfully while reading a book, she also realized that Isabelle would find this much more fun and engaging!

On our next visit I asked how story time was going. “Great!” Molly replied. She was excited to show me the new rapport that she and Isabelle had developed around story time. When she pulled a book down from the shelf, Isabelle came running over, sat on her lap, and signed “open!” I was thrilled to see this, and Molly grinned at me over the top of her daughter’s head. Molly had chosen a simple picture book with bright photographs of children engaged in daily activities. She pointed at the first picture, said “eat!” and pretended to feed Isabelle. Isabelle pretended to eat, and then reached down to turn the page in the board book. They read the book together, looking at one picture on each page, and saying one word, or making one gesture.

When the book was finished, Molly beamed. “That was great!” I smiled. “It looks like you guys are ready for the next step.”

We knew that in order for Isabelle to benefit further from story time, we needed an additional step and a strategy to make it work. We brainstormed together what the next step might be. Some ideas we came up with were:

  • Isabelle would point to a picture in the book on request
  • Isabelle would imitate some of the sounds from the book
  • Isabelle would attend to each page for a bit longer, and look at two pictures on each page instead of one
  • Isabelle would say a word or make a sign to request the page turn

Molly decided that she would like Isabelle to stay focused on a page for more than one word at a time. The strategy I suggested would be to make her wait a second before turning the page, and then use that time to point out another picture. Molly tried this out with mixed success. For highly interesting pages, Isabelle waited, but much of the time, she grew frustrated and tried to force the pages apart. Molly agreed to give it time, and keep trying over the next few days. We would talk more about it the following week during our session.

“We’ve made a lot of progress already.” I pointed out. “You’ve gotten Isabelle interested and wanting to spend time reading with you.”

“That’s the main thing.” said Molly. Isabelle was beginning to enjoy her reading experiences with Mom, and that was an invaluable treasure.