I’ve received a query from a parent: “I heard reading to children is good for them. Is it true that it helps language development? How early should I start reading to my baby and how long should I go on reading to her?–Parenting Neophyte…”
It is a good question and one I get often and love getting. It is always worthy of an answer.
Dear Parenting Neophyte,
The facts are clear: Reading to kids is great. Introducing children to books is important for language development, listening skills, later literacy, and general cognitive potential. Stories expand vocabulary, increase imagination, teach social skills, improve narrative. Reading to your children is good parenting and a good investment in their education and future.
As to how early one is supposed to start reading to children and how long one goes on doing that–the simple answer is: “as early as possible and for as long as kids would let you …”
The more detailed reply is that even newborns find interest in clear patterns and drawings, in contrasting colors, in faces (especially in faces), and pictures of familiar objects. They listen. They pay attention. They track. They make connections between sounds and experience. Unfold an accordion book when the baby is playing on the mat. In the stroller. In the playpen. Give them a soft-book to hold in the stroller or to reach for when they loll on the floor during some ‘tummy time’ (check for lead-free paints and non-toxic materials, of course–babies put everything in their mouth!). Certainly introduce picture books as part of every night routine. Talk about the pictures with your infant, point to familiar animals and items. It is not about testing how much they understand or what words they can say or point to. Rather, it is about having reading books become a link in the nightly ritual of cuddling and comfort, connection, familiarity, language, narrative, and stories.
Babies who are read to often gravitate toward books as playing objects, they leaf through, turn pages, pause, look, and ponder, even as they mouth the corners and tear out what they manage to … (all great motor and visual spatial skills, by the way). They also learn to point, to wait, and to associate pictures with words and sounds. They learn to anticipate the next picture, to predict what’s to come. They learn to trust their memory. They rarely tire of adoring the confirmation of seeing the same picture appear as it did the day prior.
For sure, the repetition can be tedious (you’ll know what I mean when your toddler asks for the same book in the two-thousandth time, and wants to read it “again” and “again” and “more time!”), but it is part of children’s normal development during infancy and toddlerhood to like things repeat. So take a deep breath and even as you introduce new books once in a while, and expand the child’s repertoire of stories, do cave in and read “goodnight moon” one more time …
As for the question of “how long to keep reading to children?” The answer truly is to do so for as long as possible. Many professionals recommend reading to children straight through middle school, and certainly throughout the elementary school years.
It tends to surprise parents when I recommend that. Very often they tell me that they’d stopped reading to the child when he or she learned how to read independently–sometimes during the first or second grade. They thought that the move to independent reading marked the end of “needing to be read to” and in fact often had reading time revert into the time of day when the child read to them … It was almost a rite of passage. A mark of moving into the reading world.
Granted, there’s still plenty of bonding potential in cuddling with your child and witnessing their reading progress. It certainly feels good to the parent to measure their child’s progress … and to a child to know their efforts are appreciated. However, being read to is a very different task than reading aloud as decoding practice. The two have very different goals and encompass very different language levels. The books children read are often matched with their decoding ability, rather than their language level. Also, even in later elementary grades, when reading skills allow children to decode most common words, books are chosen with the child’s comprehension level in mind, not necessarily their exposure to higher linguistic material.
Reading TO children is a whole other world of learning opportunity. It is primarily a listening task and allows the child to relax into the story and delve into language while losing oneself in it. Being read to opens space for a child to draw inferences about connections, context clues, idioms, character descriptions, sequence, cause and effect. It is a time for a child to consider possible outcomes, predict to himself what might happen next, check a hypothesis, internalize some of the story characters, discern who they like and who they don’t, who they may want to be, where, how, why. It opens an opportunity for discussion that is very different than the ‘reading comprehension testing’ that happens with school books or those the child reads independently. The books you read to your child become fodder for conversation and self-discovery: what did they like about the book? what did you? why did so and so do this or that? would you so the same? what is your favorite character? which is mine? how come?
Children who are read to through 8th grade, have larger vocabularies than children who are good readers but are not being read to (and we are talking vocabularies that are larger by tens of thousands of words–not just by a small margin!). As a group, they have better listening skills, better auditory processing and auditory memory skills. They have better narrative skills. They use a more varied lexicon in their own writing. They have bigger cache of idioms and expressions that they can infer meaning about. They can converse better and show wider world-knowledge.
Children who are read to tend to enjoy books better than kids who are not read to. They tend to love reading more. They choose a wider variety of books and have a wider foundation in classical literature (read: the books you read to them may not be books they’d otherwise pick up to read themselves … but having listened to them, they may get the ‘book bug’ to look for more classic literature on their own). Want another bonus? Reading to children improves connection with parents and allows children to feel comfortable talking to their parents more, and about more topics (not to mention that stories often bring up issues that they may otherwise not talk about …)
In some families, reading to each other continues as part of family time well into high-school, with teenagers taking turn in reading aloud. Sure, it may seem odd to consider teens today being gung ho about spending an hour “reading boring books aloud” and being commanded to have their thumbs idle (no music, no chat, no texting). However, for families who started early this is often a natural continuation. In families starting a little later (and it is never too late, actually), the benefits are real even if they are grudgingly (or perhaps never verbally) acknowledged. Having your undivided attention is a precious commodity (yes, you have to put down that phone, too …). Knowing you are listening is priceless. It opens yours even as you raise your child to have a more open mind.
Reading to your children builds your relationship with them while also building their relationship with themselves, their inner worlds, the world around them, and their academic and cognitive abilities. It is truly a ‘one size fits all’ intervention. There are no downsides, other than extra cuddle time, honest conversations, and the distinct possibility of difficult questions about life that literature inevitably brings up.
The only warning necessary is … that reading to your child can damage their ignorance …