Ci4 Panel Takes on Literacy Development for Babies and Toddlers

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Last month’s ABC Children’s Institute panel “Literacy Development for Babies and Toddlers” featured three booksellers and an early childhood education specialist discussing how bookstore staff can better help customers select appropriate books for children at different stages of development.

Moderated by Dane Ferguson, owner of Ferguson Books & More in Grand Forks, North Dakota, the June 22 panel included Kathleen Carey, manager of The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, New York; Anne Turlington, a children’s bookseller at Pomegranate Books in Wilmington, North Carolina; and Deirdre Englehart, an associate lecturer at the School of Teaching, Learning, and Leadership at the University of Central Florida.

The hour-long educational session offered a basic understanding of language development and phonological awareness to help booksellers understand the right ages at which to introduce different types of books, and to be better able to share with customers and staff the fundamentals of how children learn to read.

“Hands down, the single best thing we can do with our very young children is read to them,” said Englehart, who has a doctorate degree in education. “It helps us develop a connection with children, and it helps the family to connect. As children learn the language, they enjoy that connection that they have, but it also sets the foundation for a love of reading that is essential as children get older. So to have those positive feelings when children are infants and toddlers, that is something that sets the stage for future reading development.”

Carey said she has encountered a sense of doubt from some customers when it comes to the value of introducing children as young as two months old to literature, especially coming from those buying a book for a very young child for the first time.

“We can’t underestimate the importance of reading to children from the moment they are born,” Carey said. “As a bookseller, I just say to those parents or grandparents or well-meaning friends, the sooner you start to read to them, the more you expose them to a large vocabulary and, at the very least, a great love for books.”

When helping a customer who seems to be at a loss to choose a book, Carey said it is helpful to ask what the child is interested in or what books the child has recently read that they liked. If this fails to help, she suggests asking the adult what they used to like when they were children.

Turlington, whose background is in early childhood development, suggested actually opening up the book and reading it to the adult to show them how they can use their own voice and excitement to bring the book to life for the child. “There are ways you can make it magical,” she said.

“Having rhythm and beautiful language that you enjoy is a benefit because when you are expressing it and enjoying it, that just fosters the [child’s] ear,” added Englehart. “It also supports later phonemic awareness and phonic skills, which are, again, part of the foundation of children learning to read.”

And beginning the process of learning to read very early on is extremely important, especially since children who are not read to can acquire a significant word deficit, according to Englehart.

“Many parents think kids start preschool and that is when everything happens, but it’s really the things we’re doing at home that matter,” she said. There are a surprising number of parents who don’t know the impact of reading aloud, she said, but if parents read to their children, the rhyming and predictability of these books, as well as the language patterns and the repetition, can help kids develop their language skills and their vocabulary well before they get to school.

The first stage of learning to read is the sensory stage, in which children explore books with their hands and their mouths. At this stage, cloth and board books that allow children to have tactile interactions are great. Later on, in the preschool years, children will be introduced to fluency, comprehension, vocabulary, and phonemic awareness as they listen to the sounds of the language, and to phonics, and as they actually connect the sounds of the language to the printed letters on the page.

“With memorization of a book, there is the self-confidence that comes along with that and with picking up a book,” Ferguson added. “If they think they can read a book because they have memorized it, that is just a next step to actually being able to literally read.”

The booksellers on the panel also discussed the different ways they choose to display books for very early readers in each of their stores. Carey, a former second-grade teacher, said she has found that the most successful way to sell these books is displaying titles face out.

“We all know face-outs are preferable,” said Carey. “I try to do as many face-outs as I can, especially the ones that I can hand-sell. We do staff recommendation cards. I also have a big dedicated board book section and a dedicated touch-and-feel section,” which includes wordless picture books and the tactile books That’s Not My Puppy and That’s Not My Dragon from U.K. publisher Usborne.

To make her store’s early readers section more appealing to babies and toddlers, Turlington said she has set up a hands-on flannel board with stickers, while Ferguson said his store features both a kids’ play area and kids’ reading area.

Turlington, who shared an infographic from on the value of early reading, said that reading to very young children creates a special experience for them, even at the very earliest ages. When a child sits on an adult’s lap and they read together, there is warmth and there is touch, said Turlington, and these positive associations carry over as children grow older.

“They are seeing pages turning, they are hearing words, they are seeing pictures, they are hearing the rhythm of your voice,” said Turlington. “There is so much even at that age that they just slowly pick up.”