Using books to help your child’s language development

How can I get the most out of story time with my children?

Reading stories to children is a wonderful way to teach them how our language works. When children listen to adults telling stories, they learn new words and also how to put words together into sentences to express ideas. Children love looking at the pictures and this helps them to focus their attention on the words and sentences that you are saying when you read.

It’s great for you and your little one to snuggle down with a book and read the words as they are written, but you don’t need to stop there! Adding in other comments and thoughts as we read is easy, costs nothing, and is a very effective way of teaching young children new words and how to put words together in sentences. If you plan ahead, you can think of different ways to model new words and correct grammar by finding different ways to repeat them. This shows children how the words and grammar are used correctly in English.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Do you have “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle at home? Next time you are reading it, you can emphasise and repeat new words like the days of the week, different foods, and counting to five to increase your child’s vocabulary. You can also use this book to teach some tricky verbs (doing words) like

  • “eat” and “ate”, e.g., “He ate the apple, he ate the pears, he ate the plums, and he ate the strawberries … what will he eat next?”
  • “feel” and “felt”, e.g., “He felt okay with the oranges, but, oh dear! He felt sick when he ate too much party food! How do you feel when you eat too much party food? How do you feel when you eat oranges?”
Where Is The Green Sheep

“Where is the green sheep?” by Mem Fox is another favourite for Australian families. This is a great book for stimulating vocabulary like describing words (blue, red, scared, brave, near, far, etc.) Take time over each page to describe what unfamiliar words mean, e.g., “’Here is the near sheep.’ Look how close he is! He is very near to us, I think we could give him a kiss! *kiss!* But look at this sheep, he is not near! He is far! So far away. Too far to give him a kiss!”

This book is a great one to teach children how to use that little word “is”, which is a tricky part of English grammar children learn to master at about 3½ to 4 years of age. Here is an example of how you could help your child understand and produce “is” correctly using this book:

  • “’Where is our green sheep?’ (Oh no, we don’t know where he is!) ‘Turn the page quietly, let’s take a peep…’ (do you think he is here? Oh, look! There he is!) ‘Here’s our green sheep, fast asleep!’ Look! There he is!”

There are six examples of how to use “is” in that conversation, including the contraction “here’s” to mean “here is”. This repetition helps young children learn how the word “is” works in different sentences.

Who Sank The Boat

You’ll find “Who Sank the Boat?” by Pamela Allen on many Australian kids’ bookshelves. This is a great book for teaching new words like float, sink, heavy, big, tiny, first, next, last, wet and dry. You can ask your child questions about the animals by giving clues, e.g., “Which animal is big and woolly?” “Which animal has horns?” and “Which animal is the smallest?” You can also try teaching some new ways of saying verbs (doing words) using this book like:

  • Past tense verbs with “-ed” on the end like “They all walked along the path. Can you see where they walked? Then they rowed out into the bay. That’s where they rowed.”
  • Present tense verbs with “-s” on the end like “The cow gets in … there, in she gets. Then the horse hops in, ooh, the boat rocks a bit! And then who jumps in next? That’s right. The sheep thinks, ‘It’s my turn now.”

The final page shows the animals walking back home, and it’s fun to look at the picture and see which animals are wet, and which one is still dry!

We encourage you to grab a book and snuggle down in a comfy spot to read with your little one. You could try one of these three books, find something different from your bookshelf at home or your local library, or even try a wordless book and make up your own story! Feel free to talk about what you see on the page as much as the text itself, showing your little one how words work and teaching them more about our language.

Happy Reading!
Kate Jutsum, speech pathologist


The books mentioned in this article:

  • Carle, E. (1987). The Very Hungry Caterpillar. New York, NY: Philomel Books
  • Fox, M., & Horacek, J. (2004).Where is the green sheep? Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin Books Australia.
  • Allen, P. (2007).Who sank the boat? Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin Group (Australia).

Further information on this book-reading strategy: