"A way to provide opportunity for language development is to read simple stories to your baby," says Burton L. White, one of America's foremost experts in childhood education. "Beginning at about eight months of age and continuing thereafter, children begin to show genuine interest in picture books."

While there may be some controversy about parents getting involved in early reading instruction for example, using phonics or not there is certainly no debate about reading to children very early in life. Correlational results in research indicate a link between being read to and success in language competencies. And that means starting early, at a few months of age.Many basic skills can be learned with books before the child's first birthday. For example, through listening to stories the basic need of security is met; repetition makes language very predictable and secure. There is pleasure in hearing and seeing the `familiar.' To the adult who has to respond to "Read it again . . .!" this may be a trial, but the child needs the recurrence of character, language and action.

Through illustrated books, the child begins to make meaning out of pictures, learning to distinguish between objects, sizes, colors and relationships. Listening skills are developed as they detect differences between sounds and the nuances of dialogue and description.

Often after hearing a book read aloud, pre-readers will `read' the book, taking on character voices, responding to action from the pictures by recalling the story line.

Reading aloud gives a sense of togetherness, something special to share with the parent or group such as a joke, favorite object, special new book friends. A young reader soon learns to vicariously relate to a person that is "just like me!" or an object that says, "I think I can!"

As children interact with books, they learn to turn pages, become aware of back-to-front and beginning of story, all skills valuable for `ready-to-read.'

The report of the Commission on Reading, "Becoming a Nation of Readers," says, "The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children. This is especially so during the preschool years."

Libraries capitalize on the benefit of children and books together by providing early experiences; Preschool Storytime (4- and 5-year-olds), and toddler time, (for 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-year-olds.) And if parents can't meet the during-the-day schedule, there is a pajama storytime schedule in the evening for children to come with favorite toy, ready for bed.

"Sometimes, the story time may be the first group experience for kids," says Marsha LeClair-Marzolf, coordinator of youth programs, Whitmore Library, Salt Lake County Systems. "At first they just watch and that is the reason to have the parent close; for security. Also, the parent helps the child interact with the participation activities, they can take the small hand and make it go `creepy, crawly' or sing along until the child can do it on their own."

Parent involvement also affords the adult to take away ideas for later reading (even the 2-year-olds carry away a book!) and copies of the activities for later use.

These groups are small, no more than six or eight children, so that interaction is assured.

In Preschool Storytime (3 1/2- to 5-year-olds) up to 20 children attend the read aloud session. Because of their longer attention span, themes are often used to string stories together such as birthdays, holidays or seasons.

"Story time is a service for children like the reference and research service we provide for adults," admits LeClair-Marzolf. "In this case their reference is their immediate needs _ practice in listening, involvement with others and above all a love of books and eventually reading on their own."

Throughout the state, Preschool Storytime is available for children 2 and up, but each child must be registered to participate (to assure space and materials). Check with the local branch for times, locations and age groups.

-- Marilou Sorensen is an associate professor of education at the University of Utah specializing in children's literature.

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