Skip to content
Free Shipping on $75+
Free Shipping on $75+
5 kids lining up standing and holding books. Children books, toddler activities, kids reading, reading activities, baby activities

5 Effective Strategies to Engage Your Toddler in Reading

Becca Thiemann, PhD, is a literacy expert who helps parents navigate early childhood literacy through tutoring, storytimes, and education. 

I think we can all agree, when we imagined ourselves reading to our children before becoming a parent, our vision looked quite different from what would actually happen. If you’re like me, you pictured yourself cuddled up with your child or children, reading one book at a time all the way through, and your children just listening without moving. As a parent, the reality is so drastically different it’s comical. It’s the classic expectations versus reality—but despite the realistic experience of a short attention span, books can still grab and keep their attention.

Toddlers need to move, and their focus is dependent on their interest level. They don’t always have the same level of motivation to finish a book as we do. Their ability to stick with reading a book is dependent on how tired they are, if they need another snack, and whatever way the wind has blown their mood.

BUT despite the expectation versus reality of reading with our children and the hiccups of toddlerhood we encounter, reading with your children is still a daily must. Reading with your toddler just 20 minutes a day offers an incredible amount of developmental benefits, including improved comprehension, language, and critical thinking skills. And there are many ways to enhance engagement that are deeper and more meaningful than simply reading cover to cover. Reading has the power to be a catalyst for bonding and connecting with your child, while also exposing them to new vocabulary, unique stories, songs and music, and more.

A mom is posing with a book with her kid. Children books, toddler activities, kids reading, reading activities, baby activities

Here are FIVE early literacy tips for toddlers that encourage reading in a rich and engaging way…

1) Face your child

    There is something to be said for snuggling up next to your child and reading a book together, but if you need or want to mix things up, try facing them. This is especially engaging for young babies and toddlers who are learning language, emotional expression, and figuring out and absorbing every aspect of their world. They want to see the movements your mouth makes and watch your facial expressions as you read. Inside a book so much is happening, but it is much more meaningful for them when they see it come alive through you. 

    The other benefit of facing your child is your ability to see their reactions. You can see what parts of the book really interest them. You can figure out where to slow down, when to get silly, and what parts confuse them. Facing your child lends itself to a much more interactive, back-and-forth experience. While it may not be cuddling and closeness, it is a chance to get to know your child in a different and deeper way.

    2) Expect movement

    In my experience, the movement piece is where the expectation versus reality really hits hard for parents. For some reason, we believe our children can sit perfectly still, but in reality, they rarely slow down enough to be still. Shifting our expectations to expect movement instead of being surprised by how much they move, makes all the difference. 

    One of my favorite things to do when my oldest was little was to read to him while he was building or playing. Like we enjoy listening to a podcast or an audiobook while driving or cleaning, kids often enjoy listening while they move and play. In fact, I found he would attend to the story even better because his hands and body were busy and his mind could focus on the story. 

    If you can let go of controlling the pace and adapt your reading, your child can turn the pages and engage with the story in a meaningful way. It gives them a role in the reading process and it adds in a little movement. Turning pages is one of the foundational skills of understanding book reading. We want little ones to understand the concept of turning pages as we read, and to encourage them to turn the pages themselves. Little bits of engagement like this pull children into reading in a new way.

    Now let’s see how creative you can be! One thing I have worked on myself as I have read to my own children, is adding natural movement into our reading. If we have read the book a time or two and I am familiar with it, I might choose a repeated word and add a movement to it. For example, we have a book about worms and the word wiggle is repeated throughout. Before we start, I tell my readers to wiggle their whole body when they hear the word wiggle. This practices a few different things. It helps children tune into the words and listen for something specific. It engages them in the reading and gets them excited to move while reading. It gives their movement purpose. When they hear the word and they get to add in the coordinating movement they love it!

    3) Use the time to connect

    “In a culture that’s undergoing what’s been called ‘the big disconnect,’ many of us are grappling with the effects of screens and devices, machines that enhance our lives and at the same time make it harder to concentrate and to retain what we’ve seen and read, and alarmingly easy to be only half present even with the people we love most. In this distracted age, we need to change our understanding of what reading aloud is, and what it can do. It is not just a simple, cozy, nostalgic pastime that can be taken up or dropped without consequence. It needs to be recognized as the dazzlingly transformative and even countercultural act that it is.”

    Meghan Cox Gurdon, The Enchanted Hour

    Gurdon says it well. We are living in an age with every distraction at our fingertips. The pull to look at our phone or check email is real. I encourage you to use this time with your child to disconnect from the distractions and plug into time together. I have found that I have learned more about my child while reading with them, than pretty much any other time. They open up and settle into the time together differently when the world of distraction fades away and it is just us.

    Books have a magical way of starting conversations, piquing children’s curiosities, and encouraging them to share their thoughts. Children only open up like this when they know we are fully tuned in. It is a vulnerable feeling for them to engage this way, and when we are tuned in and show how interested we can be, they share their innermost thoughts and questions. This time of deep connection can grow your relationship and expand their world.

    4) Add in songs and music

    A fun, early literacy tip for parents: children are truly enchanted by music. I haven’t met a toddler who does not start wiggling their little body when music comes on. I do not know a child who doesn’t smile or engage when their caregiver sings to them. Afterall, lullabies exist for a reason. They have a special way of relaxing children and putting them to sleep. They are so soothing and rooted in connection. Music, afterall, is a universal language. 

    The latest research has shown that babies learn language best when their caregiver uses rhythmic language such as nursery rhymes and a sing-song voice. Babies and children make connections with language and music in this way.

    But what if you don’t like to sing? Or it makes you uncomfortable? There are books to support you and make it easy. Cali’s Books are perfect for this. Children are drawn to the beautiful illustrations and fun topics and the musical buttons keep them there and wanting more. You can choose to sing along or let the books do the work for you. In my experience, these will quickly become favorites and be pulled out again and again.

    With a growing library of books to choose from, my favorite sound books from Cali’s Books are classic nursery rhymes for a nostalgic way to teach kids about topics like the alphabet, animals, and colors. Studies show that multi-sensory learning, or reading alongside other sensory stimulators like listening to music and touching fun buttons for example, can help kids learn faster and retain information longer. Patty Cake helps refine toddlers’ motor skills with hand-clapping and baking games, and Humpty Dumpty gets kids moving with songs and dancing. New titles are added regularly, and you can browse the collection at your own pace. 

    5) Select engaging books

    Lastly, selecting engaging books to read with your child is key. For babies, there are a few different books they are often drawn to early on. Lift-the-flap books, especially ones with felt flaps are also appealing. Babies love to lift the flaps themselves over and over. Books with mirrors for little ones to examine themselves within the story add an extra element of fun too. Stories with silly, rhythmic language that beg to be read again and again are also engaging for babies as well as toddlers.

    Not only do toddlers love silly books and musical books, but as toddlers grow they yearn for more depth in the stories they hear. Their listening stamina has grown and they can attend to longer stories. This does not mean they won’t still need a lot of movement, but they can listen and follow a longer storyline. They are also drawn to series of familiar characters. Toddlers like and are drawn to repetition, routine, and familiarity. Follow their lead and their interests and you are sure to find books that will delight them.

    Grow your reader

    Two kids are sitting in the middle of books scattered on the floor. Children books, toddler activities, kids reading, reading activities, baby activities

    When you combine all of the above, it can seem like a lot and perhaps even a bit overwhelming. Just pick one thing to try at a time. I don’t do all five things every time I read to my child, but I definitely try to do one or two of them. Maybe you are going to add movement to a musical book. Or perhaps you will face your child and sing a silly song book. Or what about picking a new stack of books to read and let all distractions and interruptions wait. 

    Hopefully, these early literacy tips will leave you energized to try something new or at least laugh at the expectations versus reality. Embrace the wiggly, silly, fun reality of reading with babies and toddlers and relish in what you find in those moments together.

    Previous article Top Spanish-English Bilingual Books for Your Little Polyglot
    Next article The Ultimate Book Gift for The Baby’s First Birthday
    Hi! I'm Cali, Founder of Cali's Books

    Hi! I'm Cali, Founder of Cali's Books

    “I’ve loved books since childhood and wanted to transmit this enthusiasm to my children”

    I'm a mom of two young children who trained as an engineer and worked in investment banking and at Disney. A French of Caribbean origin (Martinique to be precise!), I grew up in Paris. Los Angeles is now the place I call home!

    Check out Cali's Books

    Read more from Cali's Blog