Sunday, January 18, 2009

The importance of reading to & with your children

This post is based partly on an earlier post (here) but I've updated it and added a second section on reading with your child. When parents ask what they can do to help their children at home, my most common first response is "Read to and with them". I've added the second part to this post because while it seems almost self evident that reading to your children is helpful, the second part is probably not done as well.

1. Why reading to your children is important?

While people are often looking for more complex answers to "How can I help my child with reading?" there is no more fundamental way to support literacy. There are two related reasons for this:

First, time on task is important for success in anything. One of the most basic insights from literacy research in the 1960s and 1970s was the repeated observation by researchers like the late Dame Marie Clay in New Zealand and Richard Allington in the USA that struggling readers read less than successful readers. In fact they found that they read less books and only about one third of the words. This doesn't seem too startling, but think about it. If a child is struggling with reading, how do they catch up to other children by doing less reading? The answer is that they don't! The gap gets wider.

Second, being read to and with an adult offers many opportunities for learning. Mem Fox talks about children needing to be read at least 1,000 books before the age of five to be successful readers. While we could quibble over the precise number, the principle is clear. Being read to can teach much about language (vocabulary, how language works at the sentence and text levels, the sounds and rhythms of language and so on, concepts of print and how it works). It also teaches much about knowledge of the world and a positive experience with books is one of the key factors in children growing up as active readers.

Reading should be enjoyable and the child needs to feel successful. I'll offer some basic principles and tips for reading with and to your child.

Much of this advice can be found in my book written with Lynne Munsie, titled Beyond Tokenism: Parents as partners in literacy. Note that this book is meant for teachers who want to help parents to support their children and was an outcome of our research on family literacy. It is not written for parents.

2. Reading to..

  • Read early - at least from birth (yes some parents even read when their child is in the womb).
  • Read often - at least daily.
  • Make it special - treat books as if they are precious, anticipate reading as if it's the most special time of the day and make the text an extension of a warm and loving relationship.
  • Choose books carefully - think about the things your children like, talk to other parents about books that kids like, consult lists like my list of 250 Great books.
  • If you can, read the book before you read it to your children - reading out loud is a performance.
  • Try to read the book with emotion, with invented sound effects, with different voices for characters and the narrator, changes in voice volume and tone.
  • Be physically engaged - point to pictures (or parts of pictures) as you read, point to text devices and features.
  • Make connections as you read with other books, experiences, TV etc (don't overdo this) - "This is a bit like the story....", "Remember when Daddy did.....", "This sounds like...".
  • Talk after you finish the book - again don't overdo it, it's all about response and reflection, it's not a comprehension test. "Did you like...?" "Don't you think this was like...?"
3. Read with....

As I said at the outset, while many parents read to their children, the step in between children moving from non-readers to independent readers is often left out or done badly. To leave this out (or do it badly) is a bit like expecting a child to move from not being able to play football, to being a good player who is part of a successful team, without doing lots of coaching. This coaching will mean more than just teaching him/her how to kick a ball. So too with reading.

Moving from simply reading to them to involving them in the reading process is a gradual and long-term process. Here's a general sequence showing how it might occur.
  • From the beginning involve your children in reading. Move from holding the book to getting them to hold the book, turn the pages etc. Direct their attention to parts of the book. Point to the pictures, encourage them to predict the words in predictable books and say the words from memory, get them lifting flaps in 'lift the flap books', encourage them to point to the pictures at key points etc.
  • As they move towards being readers allow them to contribute part of the reading - show them the large print word on the page that says BANG! and get them to point to it and 'read' it.
  • When they are reading simple words encourage them to see and read these words as you read along. They will naturally spot words they know and point them - encourage this.
  • When they are reading, read part of the book with them to ease the load and burden that reading can be for the beginning reader.
  • As they seek out new books help them to read a slightly more difficult one by reading large bits of it for them. They might even contribute less than you. You're easing them into the book and demonstrating much about language.
  • Have fun reading together - take turns, read different characters voices, perhaps read the bits that are the narrator with your child being some of the characters, make lots of noise, dramatise the events by moving your hands, making actions etc.
  • As they grow in reading proficiency help them to choose new books - try for increased variation in genre, author, theme etc.
  • Regularly talk about the language of the book, the content of the story - add depth to their reading experience by sharing a little bit of knowledge about events in the story, settings, the author etc.
  • Even as your child moves towards independence this doesn't mean you shouldn't read with them. There are lots of good reasons to keep reading with children aged 10-12 years. For example, it strengthens your relationship with them, it helps to build common ground, you can help them to move to new authors, genres etc. You can help them to tackle more difficult books that perhaps they wouldn't have attempted (read chapter by chapter, or page by page to ease the load of reading more demanding texts). Get them into poetry, non-fiction, plays, graphic novels and so on.
4. Summing up

The above comments are written with parents of young children (0-6 years) in mind, but the principles are pretty much the same for children of all ages. You can read to your children until at least 10-12 years of age, and with them well into the teenage years. I can recall wonderful sessions of shared reading with one of my daughters in late high school when we read Shakespeare together. Obviously reading to and with children will be less regular with older children and it is likely that you'll share the reading rather than just reading to them. But the basics are still the same:
  • Read regularly and often
  • Making it special
  • Choose books carefully and with your child in mind (or help them to choose)
  • Read as well as you can
  • Make reading exciting with physical movement, action, sound and emotion
  • Make connections with other books and experiences
  • Read with them in varied ways to support their growth as readers
  • Encourage response and active engagement
5. Some related links
  • The importance of literature (here)
  • Introducing children to varied themes in literature (here)
  • How to listen to your child reading (here)
  • Supporting comprehension (here)
  • Helping children to choose books (here)


Michelle said...

Hi Trevor,

I've been wondering recently if audiobooks provide any of the benefits that reading to a child would? My daughter is 3.5 and loves audiobooks. She enjoys listening to Beatrix Potter, Arnold Lobel, Rudyard Kipling and a little Julia Donaldson.

I do read to my daughter as well but I do sometimes wonder if I should make even more of an effort to read to her. She's a bright little button, speaking in 15 word sentences (for the past year) and uses a vocabulary well beyond her years. There would be some days we don't read together but we would definitely read 5 out of 7 days a week. And then there's the audiobook listening, which is daily for at least ten minutes.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Michelle, yes there is benefit in audiobooks. While your child won't have the direct parent to child emotional connection, nor the shared experience, it is a viable alternative when you can't actually sit with her and read. If you're reading 5 days a week that's a great start. Sounds like she's developing well whatever you are doing. Thanks for your comment.

little_stranger said...

Hi Trevor,

Thanks for the article. I have been using your ideas to give advice to parents about the importance of reading to children.

I was trying to follow the link to the 250 Great Books that you mention in this article, however, the link appears broken. Could you supply the correct link? Thanks

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comment. I've fixed the link to my list of 250 Great Books.

Unknown said...

my son is 4 years old, i am trying to teach him to read but he seems to be very reluctant and does not enjoy it although i can see that he is learning and progressing. In your opinion when is the right age to teach a child to read? Do you think i am pushing him too much ?

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comment. I don't think you're asking the right question. There isn't a 'right' age to start teaching your child to read. In one sense we start from birth as we sing to them (helping with memory, attention, aural development etc), and as we interact with them. As we spend time with our toddlers teaching them rhymes, matching games, showing them letters and numbers, giving them pencils and crayons and so on, we are beginning their preparation for reading. As we read to them we will point to words, tell them about letters and sounds etc. So we begin to teach them from birth. But I think that you're asking "when do I start to teach my child more formally?" By this I suspect you mean teaching them to identify and sound letters, form words, read some words from memory & sight etc. Many parents begin this incidentally at any age from 3 years on. But most don't try to do anything formal before the age of 4. Even at 4 many children aren't ready for formal reading instruction. As a parent keep reading to and with them, get them interested in letters and words in their world and give them lots of experience with books and your child will be well on the way to reading by the time they get to school.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for your reply. I am so glad i have found your blog.