We know that when parents read aloud with their children regularly, children’s vocabulary increases and they are more prepared for kindergarten. But for children with special needs or disabilities, reading together is not always so simple. The type of story, its illustrations, how the pages feel, or the way the story is told make a big difference.
To ensure children with special needs enjoy books and the positive experience reading with an adult brings, Ange Burnett, the Coordinator of the Contra Costa Child Care Council Inclusion Project, offers these tips:
1. Not all books are appropriate for all children. When you choose books to adapt, consider every part of that book, from color to content. Pay attention to the story theme and the illustrations. Look at the print size, book size, and even the texture of the cover or pages.
2. Choose books with simple themes. Look for books with repetitive or predictable text that are about relationships, families or friends, social skills or self-help skills, or that feature the alphabet, counting, or animals.
3. Be mindful of attention span. A typical developing four-year-old usually can listen for about 12 minutes, while a five-year-old may enjoy up to 20 minutes. A child with delays will likely have a shorter attention span and may take longer to process the story. You can also simplify sentences for babies and toddlers to keep their attention.
4. Use props to help children focus. Give the child an object to hold that is similar to one in the story. For example, if the story is about a bear, try having her hold a teddy bear. This helps her keep focused on the story and gives her something tactile to hold onto.
5. Glue objects onto the books. Create “page turners” – popsicle sticks glued onto each page at varying levels – or glue soft pompoms to each page to make it easier for children to grasp and turn the pages. This helps to develop fine motor skills. Felt letters or numbers that are glued onto pages can create a more calming reading experience for children who are more tactile. For children with visual impairments, enlarge the text and glue it to the book.
6. Select stories with rhymes or repetition. Children with speech or language delays benefit most from stories that include repetition or rhymes. Look for books with animal sounds or other sounds that represent the actions in the story. The cat says “meow, meow” or the sound in the water goes “splish, splash.” This encourages children to make the sound and talk.
7. For children with visual or hearing impairments, choose books with simple uncluttered pictures. Other senses are heightened when children have visual or hearing impairments. Select books with clear contrast and bright bold colors and with photos of real objects (children on the Spectrum also prefer this). Large format books help children see the characters better. Try using color transparencies laid over the pages of the book to make reading easier (different colors may be needed depending on the individual).
8. Vary pitch and tone while reading. Mixing it up makes it interesting for all kids when they’re being read to, but especially children with a hearing impairment. Use body language and gestures while you read, and if possible, add sounds by using a recordable chip.
9. Ask questions as you read. Children learn more when they are actively involved, and asking questions promotes back and forth conversation. Read part of the story and ask your child to finish the story or tell you what happens next.