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Language & Learning

How to Read the Same Book to Two Kids

Streamline your bedtime routine with these surprising multitasking tips

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Bedtime quandary: How do you read to two (or more) kids of different ages without turning the whole endeavor into an hour-long task? And can you possibly even read them the same book? Yes, you can.

1. Don't assume a big kid is too old for picture books.
"Even a child who has moved on to early chapter books can benefit from their rich vocabulary and imagery-and enjoy them," says Christine McNamara, cofounder, with Amanda Close, of Brightly, a Penguin Random House initiative that gives reading tips to parents. You can also ask an older child questions about characters, themes or images.

2. But, don't be afraid to ask a smaller kid to stretch for chapter books. True story: My 4-year-old sat through all nine books of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series when I read them to my 7-year-old over the last year. Did he get all of the nuances? Nope. Was he still riveted when Pa hunted for a bear? You betcha. With the right approach, says Brightly's Close, "a younger child can enjoy early chapter books that are somewhat above their reading level if they're brought to life by a parent's lively reading. Use different voices, exaggerate your tone, and act out scenes to make a too-hard book accessible."

3. Go off script! No one's going to scold you for ad-libbing some of your lines. If themes get too complicated for a little sib, adapt on the fly. "There is nothing wrong with simplifying the story to bring it to a neutral level if the older child is okay with it," says Michelle Friedson Feld, OTR/L, a pediatric occupational therapist in the Washington, D.C. metro area who works with emerging readers. Skip the scary scenes and shorten long chunks of the story to get to the next picture faster.

4. Turn reading into a sensory experience. McNamara and Close are big fans of what they call "setting the scene" during reading. "Engage any child by taking the reading experience off the page," says Close. "Adventure tales call for forts made out of blankets, and holiday stories need twinkly lights and hot chocolate."

5. Pause for questions. Experts agree that comprehension is the secret to raising engaged readers. Tailor your questions for each child. Feld gives these for-instances: "A toddler, you may ask to point to a picture, a three-year-old you may ask, why is Bunny feeling sad? Or Where did the baby bird go? For a five or six-year-old, you may ask a question about the plot of the book."

6. Keep hands busy If you have a wiggler, or if you're reading a more more mature book to a toddler, "let them do something with their hands while you read aloud," suggests Close. "This can really help younger children who may not be able to follow a longer book or sit still. Let them play with their stuffed animal or blocks while you read. You'll be surprised by how much they pick up."

7. Help emerging readers...emerge! "Reading to a younger sibling is great practice for a child who is learning to read," says McNamara, who notes that, "younger siblings aren't likely to be critical of their older sibling's reading abilities, so this is a great place to test them out." If you're the one reading aloud, point to the words with your fingertip, advises Feld. "Pause and point to sight words and CVC words-consonant, vowel, consonant, like DOG, CAT, HAT, MAT-and have the child sound them out."

8. And: Include the baby! My kids have shared a room from the beginning, and I remember feeling kind of terrible for the baby, sitting there in his sleep sack as my 3-year-old and I read on his big-boy bed. Solution: your lap. No baby is too young for stories. "Reading to infants contributes to development of their growing brains and is a full sensory experience," explains Close. "Story time enables infants to process sounds and make connections between what you say and the images on the page. Infants are learning as they listen to you read, hear the inflection in your voice, as they turn pages, lift flaps, and even chew on board books."

Lauren Smith Brody is the founder of The Fifth Trimester and author of the upcoming book, The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby (Doubleday, April 2017.)