How Toddlers Benefit From Non-Picture Books

by ParentCo. October 13, 2016

All my life I've been a huge lover of children’s literature. I enjoyed it when I was a child, and have always had the classics on my bookshelf as an adult. So it was only natural for me to enjoy reading those books to my own child when the time came.

We have an enormous collection of children’s books at home, and I plan to cherish these books for many years to come. But since my son was born I've read him picture-less books along with our illustrated favorites.

I've read aloud from such authors as Shakespeare, C. S. Lewis, and Dostoevsky. People often laugh at me a little when I tell them this, thinking the practice to be silly or just plain pointless. I hate coming across that way to friends, but I just won’t give up the habit. I feel so strongly that it's the right decision for us to include those big kid texts in our lives, even at a time when our son isn’t able to focus on them in a substantial way.

The main reason I read picture-less texts to my son is purely selfish: I enjoy big kid books. As I mentioned previously, I'm a huge children’s lit fan, but obviously I am an adult and also enjoy reading books that don’t involve cows mooing and trucks beeping.

One of my all-time favorite things to read is poetry, so picture-less poems are a major part of our reading list much of the time. I also enjoy stories with intricate plots and unique characters. I could read these books silently alone while my son is spending time with my husband, and I do still do that.

But when I read these poems or bits of novels aloud to my son he is able to, instead of remaining in his world of reading picture books, jump into my world of reading the way an adult does. By that I mean chapter books, like some of the authors I just mentioned or bigger kid books, like J. K. Rowling or Madeleine L’Engle.

So then when my son jumps into my world of reading lots of words on the page and lots of different characters talking and learning and interacting, he is able to see reading in a different way. Not as something that I have to do with him, but as something that I enjoy doing for myself.

He may not like these books. He may say, “No, no, no,” and tell me to stop because he doesn’t want to hear it right now (and I will stop reading, if that’s the case), but at least he is able to see that reading is important to me too, and that I want to share my reading with him the same way he does with me.

Everyone agrees that reading with your kid is important, but beyond that reading for your own enjoyment is important too. In Aha! Parenting's piece about how to raise a child who loves to read, the 11th step is: “Read yourself.”

The reason cited is, “if they don’t see you read, why should they?” And that makes total sense. I mean, we know that modeling good habits like eating vegetables and brushing our teeth is so important, so why not reading for our own enjoyment?

Another reason I've been reading picture-less books to my son since he was a baby is because I feel strongly that pictures themselves are a hugely important part of how we learn. I don’t mean the illustrations on the pages. I mean the pictures we make for ourselves in our own minds. So where picture books help show kids what is happening using pictures, books without pictures require that kids create their own images as they read.

Some refer to the images we create in our minds as we read as, “brain movies.” Author Donna Wilson (Smarter Teacher Leadership), explains in her piece for Edutopia, “Learning to create brain movies can help students make sense of complex nonfiction matter and ‘see’ the characters, setting, and action in stories.”

Furthermore, she states that, “more to the point for teachers, guiding your students to visualize as they read is an engaging and enjoyable way to boost comprehension and retention.”

Comprehension is what we want our kids to develop as they grow. We want them to read stories and understand what is happening -- it's the most important step toward actually enjoying them. After all, if we don’t understand what we read, what’s the point in even reading?

Of course, when I read a Robert Frost poem to my son, I am not expecting him to create these movies in his head. I'm not expecting him to fully comprehend. He is a toddler. But I'm introducing him to a very important part of language application, which is the idea that words spoken out loud can be used as information to shape images in our minds. That way, instead of needing to see a dog on a page while I am reading to him about a dog, he can hear the word "dog" and imagine it himself.

It's similar to how we learn language, we point to a cat and say “cat” out loud hundreds of times, so that eventually, when our children hear the word "cat" they have a frame of reference for creating an image, without needing to see an actual cat.

As David Myers, author of “Psychology: Ninth Edition,” states, “Around their first birthday (the exact age varies from child to child), most children enter the one-word stage. They have already learned that sounds carry meaning….”

This happens because we read to our children from those beloved picture books, but also just because of our everyday interactions with them. Talking about things without images to accompany them will help children learn language. The Linguistic Society of America explains, “Although parents or other caretakers don’t teach their children to speak, they do perform an important role by talking to their children. Children who are never spoken to will not acquire language. And the language must be used for interaction with the child; for example, a child who regularly hears language on the TV or radio but nowhere else will not learn to talk.”

The most important part of teaching our children the language is that the language is being spoken directly to them, and in conversation with them.

What better way to interact with your child than by reading in a way that inspires interaction? Instead of reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” for the hundredth time in a monotone voice, try reading a few lines from "Hamlet" to them with excitement and vigor.

Read with your kids, and to your kids. Not just their favorite picture books, but your favorite books as well. Help them develop language, as well as the ability to create brain movies. And model for them that reading is important, not just because it helps them learn, but because it's enjoyable and valuable for adults, too.



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