The Reality of Reading to Toddlers

Toddler holding a book
Category: Bookbug

Every time I choose a book to share with my toddler, I envisage a calm, serene situation. I imagine lots of cuddles, laughter, in-depth conversations (appropriate to his age) and his undivided attention over beautifully illustrated pictures.

And then, the reality hits.

As much as my 18-month-old loves books, he loves them on his terms and conditions. In the beginning, I struggled because I thought I wasn’t doing a great job of reading to him. But truthfully, he’s just being an active, independent toddler. Over time, we’ve developed strategies to ensure that we both get enjoyment from this special time together. And although he may not always sit very well, there’s no doubt that he loves books and looks forward to sharing them together.

As much as my 18-month-old loves books, he loves them on his terms and conditions

So, from my house to yours, I bring you our reading reality, and some of the tactics I’ve used to get the most out of our story times.

1. The reality: favourite page.

Have you ever noticed how fixated a toddler can become on just one page? They bring you a favourite book to read – but insist on looking at one particular page. Nothing else will do.

My tactic: We read the one page as many times as he likes. I tend to talk about what happened before, and what happens next. Occasionally, if I’m feeling brave, I try to turn the page to show what happens next. On rare occasions this works. Typically, though, he removes my hands from the book and returns to his favourite page.

2. The reality: what’s that?

This is his favourite question. Instead of reading the book word for word, he would much rather point at the pictures and ask 'what’s that?'.

My tactic: Instead of trying to read the story as it is, we try to create our own stories from his questions. I ask him to point things out to me – 'Can you show me the car?' Every time he asks what something is, I expand on it. For example, it’s a car. It’s a blue car. It’s a blue car with a woman driving. Where do you think she’s going in her car? He loves this game.

3. The reality: location, location, location

I always thought reading would take place curled up on a nice, comfy seat. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sometimes he likes to sit next to me on the sofa, or on my lap. Sometimes he’ll start on my lap, but run away halfway through.

My tactic: I keep reading. In fact, if I stop after he wanders off, he looks back as if to remind me that I have a duty to finish the story. He’s listening, but he’s doing what toddlers need to do: move. He’s getting better at sitting still, but how long he sits will totally depend on his mood.

We rarely read a book cover to cover. But I’ve learned to give him the control and independence he’s looking for.

4. The reality: again and again

On the odd occasion we make it to the end of the story, he looks at me and asks me to read it again. And no matter how I try to distract him with a new book, it’s the one we've just finished that he wants to read.

My tactic: Read it again. Each time we read it, he’s learning something new. And I think it’s a good thing when I find a book that he likes so much he wants to read it again. Repetition is really important for the development of children's in-depth understanding. The familiarity also helps children feel safe and secure.

5. The reality: all by myself

Frequently, my toddler chooses a book, takes my hand and leads me to where he’d like to sit. It quickly becomes apparent that he intends to read on his own, but wants me to stay close nearby.

My tactic: This is great. I watch him closely and I sit near enough to join in, if requested. He chatters in different tones and turns the pages at his own speed. Then I get it - he wants to read me a story.


Reading with my toddler might not look like what I thought it would. We rarely read a book cover to cover. His choices and favourite books might be ones that I am less keen on. But what I’ve learned through all of this is to give him the control and independence he’s looking for. I let him choose (though I still try to persuade and interest him in books I like). I let him turn the pages, I let him read to me. He loves it. And most importantly, he’s developing a love of books.