Most of us know the classic quote from Dr Seuss, ‘The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you’ll go.’ But how many of us truly understand the importance of sitting down to read with our children, every day, from birth?
The fact is, reading aloud to your children is the single most important thing parents can do to encourage language development and, perhaps even more importantly, a lifelong love of reading.
Sadly, however, recent Australian research into parents’ understanding of the importance of reading to very young children has revealed that more than a quarter of parents are not aware of the positive impact of reading aloud.
Reading and positive learning outcomes
Study after study has shown that sharing books with young children before they go to school greatly improves not only their development of literacy skills, but also language growth, and cognitive skills. Furthermore, Australian research shows that the frequency of reading to children at a young age has a direct effect on their learning outcomes, with those who are read to every day performing better in terms of language, literacy, numeracy and cognition later in life. Put simply, children who are read to more frequently at an early age enter school with larger vocabularies and more advanced comprehension skills.
Reading from birth
So why is reading aloud with your children so important from such a young age? Firstly, it’s important to understand that, before a child can learn to read, they need to master a number of emergent literacy skills. As well as understanding how a book works (you read from left to right, then turn the page), research has identified five early reading skills, all of which are essential.
These include building a vocabulary in order to effectively communicate; being able to hear and identify different sounds in spoken words (phenomic awareness); and being able to connect the letters of written language with the sounds of the spoken word (phonics). Reading comprehension and fluency complete the five early reading skills.
A baby’s brain is able to make and create new pathways extremely quickly – they are primed for learning – much faster than an older child or adult, for example. Reading aloud to children every day from a very young age (the American Academy of Paediatrics recommends from age six months) therefore facilitates the early development of these emergent literacy skills.
Benefits other than language development
But it’s not all about doing well at school. Sharing stories together will also spark a child’s imagination and curiosity, with illustrations often providing a talking point between parent and child. As Emilie Buchwald famously said, ‘Children are made readers on the laps of their parents,’ and it’s during this time, too, that bonding can occur between parent and child.
Books and storytime have also been used by parents as a safe means of confronting strong or difficult emotions and scenarios that a child may be struggling with or finding frightening. Welcoming a brother or sister, learning to use the toilet, or starting out at daycare are all examples.
The role we play as parents
Ultimately, a parent plays a huge role in encouraging a child to read, but also in a child’s enjoyment of reading. So what can we do to help our children foster a lifelong love of reading.
- Visit the library together: Make a weekly or monthly commitment to visit the library and enjoy choosing new books together. Take a library bag, allow your child to post the old books back through the shoot.
- Turn off the TV Ensure you have some rules set around screen time in your home. Turning off the TV and encouraging your child to play with their toys and books has multiple benefits.
- Make reading part of your bedtime routine: As parents we all know the importance of a bedtime (and nap-time) routine. Make sure reading aloud to your child is part of this routine. Mem Fox recommends reading for at least 10 minutes each day, which can easily be fitted in after bath time and before bed. It doesn’t matter if it’s the same book or books, every day.
- Give the gift of reading: Subscription box services such as BookWormz (bookwormz.com.au) deliver boxes of books to children around Australia every month. Containing age-appropriate, expertly picked new releases, this is a great way to channel the excitement of receiving a gift into a love of reading, and the boxes even come with a parent card designed to help you make the most of each new book. If you’re a busy parent or grandparent, it’s also a good way to discover new classics.
- Pay attention to how you read: It’s not just about how often you read, but about how you read to your child – the more engaged they are with the story, the more benefits they will get from the experience. So read with animation and real enjoyment, have fun and laugh along with your child.