The best books to support early language development

May 11, 2016

Reading with our children is one of the most powerful things we can do to support their language development. Sharing books with babies and toddlers introduces them to lots of new words. Just as importantly, it fosters loving bonds between children and adults. That feeling of warm attention that a small child enjoys when a parent reads them a story creates the perfect learning environment.

books for language

When we read with our children we create moments of shared interest, where we focus together on the same story, the same pictures and the same ideas. This helps young children to learn new words and new grammar, strengthening their language skills. Reading aloud to young children also prepares them for becoming strong readers themselves in future years.

We’re lucky today to have so many wonderful children books available in libraries or to buy, but where to start? Here are some suggestions for books that enchant children and can work magic in supporting language learning!

100wordsbookBooks with photos

There are many baby board books available with photo illustrations. These are great for the very young, because the images are easy to recognize. Babies and young toddlers can’t always understand the connection between drawings and the things they see around them in daily life. Photos can help with early word learning: simply point the pictures and label them. We loved First 100 Words until it finally fell apart!

 

You Choose and Just Imagine by Pippa Goodheart and Nick Sharratt youchoose

These books are amazing, especially for older toddlers and preschoolers. The pages are crammed with pictures to stimulate conversation. Simple texts ask questions like, ‘If you could go anywhere, where would you go?’ The rich illustrations provide lots of interesting things to spot. As language skills develop the discussion possibilities are endless.

 

 

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

hungry caterpillar

An unmissable classic. I’ve included this book on the list because it was the first one that both my children ‘read’ for themselves, aged two, reciting the text from memory as they touched the pictures.

In fact, my first memory of reading a book independently is of The Very Hungry Caterpillar in school, probably aged 4 or 5. (We start school early in England!) I specifically remember touching the little holes on the pages and looking at the bright pictures. The design of this book seems to draw little children into a very sophisticated engagement with the text. It’s a classic for good reason!

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Goldilocks happens to be my favorite fairy tale for toddlers because it has bears and no one gets eaten! Classic fairy tales are amazing for language because they often include patterns in the story and repeated phrases. These help young children tune into the story and pick up new language skills. For example, I used Goldilocks to encourage my oldest to start using my: ‘Who’s been sitting in MY chair?’ etc. Now we enjoy taking on different roles in the story and putting on silly voices as we read together.

I wrote a whole post on how much we love playing with this story!

Other fairy tales we’ve enjoyed include The Three Billy Goats Gruff, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs and The Gingerbread Man. Actually, it’s only me who minds when someone gets eaten!

Songbooks

Songbooks are huge fun for babies and toddlers, and singing is a wonderful way to support language learning. My little ones would always bring me songbooks to share from as soon as they could crawl to the bookshelf.

We also found songs one of the best ways to encourage our kids to use their second language. My husband and his family are great at singing with them and Hebrew kids’ songs are awesome!

Where’s Spot? by Eric Hill

where's spotIn this lift-the-flap book a mother dog searches for her lost puppy, Spot. Interactive books like this one are good for engaging youngsters with the page. There are quite a few hide-and-seek type books, all of which are great for learning prepositions (under, behind, in etc.). In this book there are lots of different animals hiding around the house, which encourages silly voices and fun, animated reading.

For toddlers, though, Where’s Spot is better with a few adaptations. For example, it doesn’t actually include the words Where’s Spot or any repetition. It’s up to the adult to add that in on every page. Saying ‘Where’s Spot?’ as you turn each page will help bring it to life.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

goodnight moon

This is the perfect bedtime story for a baby or young toddler. There’s not much of a plot, which is actually good because the ability to understand a narrative develops later than first words. It’s highly repetitive and the pictures are very close to a small child’s real experience, showing a bedroom at night.

It can encourage two-word phrases, through the repetition of the ‘Goodnight + noun’ formula. Little ones enjoy spotting the mouse on each page. Thanks to this book, one of my children’s first phrases was ‘Where’s the mouse?’

 

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See by Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle

brown bear

Another book that’s a winner because of its repetitive structure. Very simple pictures with animals and bright colors help little ones understand what the words refer to. Eric Carle works magic: this book was the second my kids ‘read’ independently!

 

From Head to Toe, by Eric Carle

At the risk of my list turning into an Eric Carle-fest, I have to include this one because it’s so fun for young kids. Every page has an animal carrying out an action for the readers to copy, e.g. a monkey says ‘I can wave my arms. Can you?’

Where to begin on how amazing it is for language?

Toddlers don’t always want to sit to read, so action books like this one are a way to engage them with a book while allowing them to move around. The animals and children draw their attention. The repetition develops key grammar, especially pronouns and simple verb phrases: ‘I can… Can you?’ Many picture books are good at teaching nouns (names), but this one is special because it also teaches verbs (action words). It also develops the ability to listen to and follow instructions. Win, win, win and win!

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Helen Oxenbury and Michael Rosen

bear hunt

My oldest found this book rather long when he was smaller, but my youngest has always loved it. It was one of the first he would ask for: ‘Bear Hunt!’ A family goes on a bear hunt and has to get through all sorts of obstacles, only to be chased back home by an angry bear.

These days it’s a firm favorite in our house. It’s good for language because it uses tons of repetition. It’s also great for learning prepositions. The reason we love it, though, is because it’s perfect for acting out. The text is easy to remember and repeat while we chase each other around the room, dodging obstacles.

Goodnight Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann

goodnight gorilla

This book has almost no written words, but huge possibilities for talking about the story as you turn the pages. A little gorilla frees the animals from their cages and they furtively follow the zookeeper home to sleep in his bedroom. There are lovely details to spot and talk about. The animal theme and humor are hits.

As your little one’s language skills progress, wordless picture books like this are a great way to encourage storytelling and confidence interacting with books.

Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman

There’s an abbreviated board book of this first reading classic, for toddlers who find the original version too long. The very simple language is great for children just learning to talk. The repetition also encourages participation (e.g. a toddler can answer the questions: ‘No!’), and helps children to learn new grammar skills including how to form questions (‘Are you my mother?’) and negation (‘not my mother’).

Keep an eye out for first readers that might interest your child: the simple language can be very engaging for them, long before they are ready to learn to read.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by 

mouse cookie

This book is perhaps more suited to preschoolers than toddlers, but I’m including it because I love stories that take place in a child’s familiar world but with just enough fantasy to engage the imagination. Add in the delightful images and the gentle humor, and in this book you’ve got a recipe for picture book perfection. The repeated sentence structure, ‘If… [then]…’ introduces a seriously sophisticated grammar concept (the conditional) effortlessly and entertainingly.

We read the story together a lot, and love all the extras in this omnibus, which includes songs, recipes and activities. The series is great for prompting storytelling: my three-year-old loves hearing me make up spin-offs from this series, using his own name, when he sits down to a snack. ‘If you give R an apple, he’s going to find the seeds in the middle. He’ll want to plant an apple tree…’ And on and on… See where it takes you!

 

As you can see, I love books so much and believe so strongly in reading with little children I could talk about them all day. This selection is just for starters, but I’ll have stop before this post gets even more epic! In my book there’s a whole section on using reading to promote language learning, including 50 reading-based activity suggestions.

Please let me know what books you enjoy with your littles in the comments – we’re always looking for new reads. Thanks!

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