Home Speech-Language Pathology Types of Picture Books to Improve Your Toddler’s Language

Types of Picture Books to Improve Your Toddler’s Language

by Kimberly Scanlon
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Scratch and Sniff Book from Gran

Photo by bryan anthony

You’re at the book store wondering what books to buy your darling two year-old. You think to yourself:

“Well, last time Hannah really liked the Dr. Seuss book, but she tore the pages within seconds.”

“As a child, I really liked Mr. Pine’s Purple House, but when I read it to little Danny he kept moving about and wouldn’t stay still.”

“All Suzy wants me to read is that predictable and redundant Eric Carle book, there’s gotta be other books out there!”

“Oh, I’ll just buy some books on sale. What does it really matter anyway?”

“Hmmm…Jake doesn’t seem to like books at all. Maybe he’s just too young?”

As we all know, sometimes toddlers can be unpredictable and somewhat perplexing (“Why does he do that?”). If you’re unsure about the type of book to buy or how to read to your toddler, allow me to help.

First off, you must know what types of books are age-appropriate. Simply stated:

Anything they can touch or pull!

Technically, such books are called moveable books and tactile books. Moveable books consist of lift the flap, pop up, and pull the tab books. Tactile books, also known as touch and feel books, are books that engage the tactile senses by allowing children to touch various types of textures (e.g. soft, bumpy, rough).

If you’re interested in getting a book that tells a short story or explains a concept like potty training or manners make sure it’s a board book.  As an experienced speech and language pathologist, I’ve met very few toddlers who can read paper picture books without tearing pages.  For this reason, I highly recommend board books, whose pages are thick paperboards as opposed to paper sheets.

Now let’s move onto the content. Toddlers aren’t known for having amazing attention spans (nor are they expected to!). For this reason, stay away from books that have multiple sentences on each page. Or, if they do, don’t read EVERY word on the page. Doing so, can be BORING and they can become easily distracted. You can tell your child’s losing interest if he or she keeps trying to turn the page (They’re hoping that the book gets more interesting!). Choose a book that has about one sentence or less on each page. One word per page is even sufficient depending on the book. The writing should be simple, straightforward, and easy to understand. The words should also describe and complement the pictures. If the story talks about a happy cat, then there should be a picture of a happy cat. Avoid complicated, superfluous language and abstract concepts. Toddlers like to read about what they know (animals, toys, cars, babies, trucks, feelings, mommy and daddy) or something that is part of their routine (driving in the car, saying hi and bye, eating a meal, going potty!). They get very excited when they can relate to content and make connections between their lives and the book.

In my opinion, colorful, clean and somewhat basic illustrations are usually best received by toddlers. Identifying the part from the whole is sometimes challenging for this age group. Therefore, really complex illustrations may be overlooked or even confusing to some. Also, there are some books out there that make sounds and light up. I haven’t had too much luck with these books. Many times “the bells and the whistles” can be distracting to toddlers. They may become more interested in watching something light up or make a sound that they no longer pay attention to the content or follow along with the story. Of course, this defeats the whole purpose.

Lastly, Eric Carle is a bestselling author for many reasons. Most children I know LOVE his books! His books are delightful and smart, yet simple, repetitive and predictable.  His book Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See  repeats the same phrase throughout the book. Toddlers particularly love redundancy demonstrated in a fun and rhythmic manner because it gives them a chance to anticipate what comes next. And, when they know what comes next, they’re more likely to participate !

Summary of Tips:

  • Moveable books – lift the flap or pop-up books
  • Tactile books  – touch and feel books
  • Board books – thick pages
  • Text should be limited to a few words for each page
  • Language should be simple and easy to understand
  • Simple and straightforward illustrations
  • Not too overwhelming or over stimulating
  • Words, phrases, or sentences that repeat throughout the book

Kimberly Scanlon, M.A. CCC-SLP, is a speech language pathologist practicing in Bergen County, NJ. She provides home based speech therapy for children and adults through her private practice Scanlon Speech Therapy, LLC.  To learn more about Kimberly visit www.scanlonspeech.com

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maybe not your audience? December 15, 2011 - 6:10 pm

wow, i couldn’t disagree more! i think that reading books with beautiful illustrations and actual stories can help build attention-span, from a very early age. They’re also really great in place of TV.

Sarah December 16, 2011 - 12:07 pm

While I generally agree, I also believe it’s extremely important to expose them to books with a storyline. In addition, I greatly disagree with the idea to NOT read every word on the page! If a child cannot sit for it or attend, then stop and choose a shorter book. It’s important from the very beginning to draw attention to the fact that the writing forms words and that those words are what you are reading! My brother read early, at age 3. If the emphasis on the words was not there, he would not have been able to make the connection.

Obviously, it depends on the child as well as their ability to attend to a story at any given time. I just had to state that I strongly disagree with the idea of not reading every word on a page!

Kimberly Scanlon December 16, 2011 - 2:41 pm

Thanks so much for your comments. Wow, I wasn’t expecting such reactions! I don’t think we’re actually disagreeing on anything here. It all comes down to what you are targeting or hoping to achieve with the child. When I wrote this article I was focused on expressive language development in toddlers, not literacy. Although they go hand-in-hand, there are different strategies to encourage literacy development, which I did not mention. Also, I am not opposed to reading toddlers books with storylines and never stated so. I apologize for any confusion. Sarah, I agree that reading words and pointing to them is very important for word recognition and I’m very impressed with your brother being able to read at such a young age! However, I also believe that wordless picture books are great for developing a toddler’s communication skills, particularly if she or she is delayed or late in talking. In the future, I’ll be better at clearly stating my specific focus. Thanks again for reading my post and I appreciate the dialogue!

Kids Games for Speech Therapy December 16, 2011 - 6:47 pm

Hi Kimberley, Thanks for your article. I’m a Speechie and Mom to an 18 month old boy who loves books and I read your article and thought “Wow, what a good summary – I must print this for a couple of families I’m working with right now”.

It was really interesting to read the other perspectives though. My own little boy just adores “reading” stories and they are very much a part of our special time together. He very quickly loses interest though if I try to read every word of some of his favorite books. If I didn’t use the technique you describe and talk about the pictures instead then he would miss out on a lot of great pre-reading experience.

I look forward to the time he can listen to me read the story and it is not too far away but I sure am glad he has such a great foundation of associating special time with stories.

Kimberly Scanlon December 17, 2011 - 7:31 pm

I’m so happy that you found my post helpful! Thanks so much for your positive feedback!

Lucy Windevoxhel December 19, 2011 - 10:06 am

Hi Kimberly! Loved your post and will be sharing it on my Facebook page! I’m also an SLP and mom to an almost 4 year old daughter. I also thought it was interesting to see the other readers’ points of view and it made me think about my own experience as a mom and sure my daughter was one of the exceptions. She talked very early on and had an amazing attention span and wanted to listen to a story line at a very young age, and even now the types of books I choose for her are different from the books I normally choose for children her age. However, as you said toddlers typically have short attention spans and those first years are key to develop a love of books and reading. I do a lot of early intervention so I’ll be so happy to share with with the parents of my little ones! Thanks!!!

Kimberly Scanlon December 19, 2011 - 9:25 pm

Thanks so much Lucy!!

Candace Rapking January 10, 2012 - 10:15 am

I agree with both points of view! It just depends on the child’s attention span. As a grandmother to a 3 year old, he loves to look at the pictures, pull the tabs and read simple sentences. Our 1 year old granddaughter is picking up cards and books and “reading” by looking at the picture and babbling. In working with toddlers, some work well with wordless picture books, and others work well with books that have story content to develop their literacy and print knowledge. All students should be looked at on a continuum. Working with parents to spend time reading rather than looking at apps on the Ipad should be a real focus of SLPs, since I have seen more and more parents letting students work on the Ipad rather than reading to them.

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