• Alex Buxton

Developing language through reading

Whether your child is a toddler or in school, reading with them is common advice given by professionals and education staff- and for good reason. Reading with your child helps to expand their knowledge of the world, bring their imagination alive and learn/practice lots new words and sentences. For children with communication needs, we might ask- how can we use reading to further their language development?

Reading is more than simply looking at a word and repeating it aloud. It’s a joint experience between you and your child. This joint experience is so important that a recent study highlighted that the more engaged your child is in conversation with you during reading, the more the ‘language’ part of their brain comes alive (Romeo et al., 2018). It’s about a meaningful back and forth interaction between two humans, who are both engaged and interested in the book they are sharing together. However, it is all to easy to take this vital ingredient out of book reading.

So how can we make reading meaningful?

Follow your child’s lead

If we follow the child’s lead during reading, they will be more attentive and attuned to the language we use with them. Take some time to pause and observe your child with the book- what are they looking at? when do they show interest by making sounds or using /words? Are they pointing or gesturing towards a specific part of the picture? Go with this. It may not be what you expect. However, in this moment this is what your child wants to talk to you about.

It’s not just about the written words

Books for younger children may not have many words in at all. Even books for older children may place more emphasis on pictures. This is ok! you and your child can have a language enriched conversation by using the pictures, noises or textures that the book provides as a basis for conversation. This is particularly important for younger children who need a little something extra to capture their attention.

Balancing comments and questions

It is easy to slip into asking questions which ‘test’ a child’s knowledge but have no real communicative purpose. This does not expose them to a wide range of vocabulary. More importantly, it can take the joy out of the activity. By hearing you comment on what they are interested in your child is building up an internal dictionary of words- even if they are not using them yet. This isn’t to say you should never use questions; try to get a balance by using four comments for every question you ask.

Consider your child’s level

For those occasions when asking a question will add to your conversation, consider the type of question you are asking. Some questions are easier than others. For example, those where the answer can be found visually, such as “who is he playing with?” (whilst looking at the picture of two children playing). Questions outside of the ‘here and now’ are much trickier; for example, “how do you think they will solve this problem?”. It is important to adjust your questioning according to your child’s age/language levels, as they may soon lose interest if the question asked is too difficult for them.

How you model language to your child will also depend on what level their language is at. For a child using single words you might use very short phrases that are just one ‘step up’. For example, if the child comments ‘cat’- the adult might say ‘big cat!’. However, if the child is using sentences, but still struggles with their grammar/vocabulary, the adult might simply refine their sentence. For example, if the child says “he jumping on the puddle” they can model back “he is jumping in the puddle”.

And the most important part…..

Have fun!

Following your child’s lead and responding to what they want to talk about creates an environment in which they are primed learn language from you. The initial purpose of reading is to have fun. Second, to develop language…. as the second rarely happens without the first.


Romeo, R. R., Leonard, J. A., Robinson, S. T., West, M. R., Mackey, A. P., Rowe, M. L., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2018). Beyond the 30-million-word gap: Children’s conversational exposure is associated with language-related brain function. Psychological Science, 29(5), 700-710. doi:10.1177/0956797617742725

Lucy Rodgers

Specialist SLT and NIHR intern


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