Why is Reading to Children So Important?
by Susan Bennett-Armistead, Ph.D. and Gabriel Civiello, M.D. (excerpted from ‘Building Brains by Making Connections,’ published in Parent & Family, March 2, 2016)
Research tells us that reading aloud to children makes a big difference in their brain development; it serves a critical role in giving them language to identify things in the world around them and the ability to make connections between life experiences. It also helps them create important pathways they will use later in life to learn vital skills and information.
Here are a few suggestions to help you maximize your child’s language and literacy learning at any age:
Talk, talk, and talk some more.
Before your little ones were born, all they heard was your voice. That’s the most special sound in the world to them. Keep talking! Talk about what you’re doing, what he’s wearing, what you’re reading. Your words will be in his head until he can make his own words. By the way, talking near them, like when you’re on the phone, isn’t the same as talking WITH them. Put down the phone and make eye contact. Engage. It’s important that your child knows he’s your focus. Even if you’re just repeating his babbling, doing it together strengthens your connection and he’ll work harder to engage with you moving forward.
Make a small cozy space.
Make reading time a safe, snuggling quiet time. Children will learn to link that safe loving feeling with the voice of the reader and the pleasure of being read to. At the earliest stages, you’re helping wire your little one’s brain to want reading to be part of her life.
Even when they wiggle, you can still read!
Many parents complain that their little ones don’t want to sit still for a story. That’s ok! Keep reading while they move around. They’re still being exposed to language and they’re retaining a lot more than you might think. You might also choose books that have actions in them such as Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes or Hop a Little, Jump A Little. Move together and read together!
Choose books based on their passion.
As children grow, they can become passionate (or fixated!) about a particular thing like trains, dinosaurs, princesses, etc. That interest can be a way to get your child to be similarly excited about reading. Find all the books at the library on dinosaurs (story books AND fact books!), bring them home and declare a Book Picnic in your yard or living room. Spread out the blankets and feast on knowledge as you snuggle and read your way through your pile of books. Repeat as needed!
Make connections between books and activities you’ve done.
We need to keep in mind that the purpose of reading is not to sound out words but to make meaning out of what we’re reading. By helping children make connections to the text through talking about something you’ve read previously, watched on TV, or experienced together, you help your child build his knowledge bank for later. For example, while reading Jan Brett’s book The Gingerbread Baby, you might ask, “Do you remember when we made gingerbread at Grandma’s house? I wonder if the Gingerbread Baby smells like that.“ That simple remark invites your child to think about both Grandma and his previous knowledge of baking, and get inside the story that you’re reading at the same time. Here’s a go-to question you can ask to help your child make connections: What does this book remind you of? To answer, your child has to connect the book’s story or information to something in a previous book you’ve shared, something he talked about at school, or some other life experience.
Don’t quit reading!
Even when your child can read on her own, she still benefits from the connections you help her make when you read together. Susan read aloud to her children well into their teen years. The Harry Potter series offered wonderful conversations about writing, ethics, and connections to experiences the teenagers were having in school.
Do whatever works for your family to keep reading fun and engaging. As your children grow up, you still have a powerful role to play in how they feel about reading and learning. If you associate reading with good times, your child (and teen!) will, too. Have a grand time raising your reader!
For great ideas about what to read and activities you can do with books, check out the Raising Readers website at raisingreaders.org. You can also join us on Facebook for inspiration and ideas.
Susan’s book, Beyond Bedtime Stories, 2nd. Edition: A Parent’s Guide to Promoting Reading Writing, and Other Literacy Skills from Birth to 5, (2014) published by Scholastic, also offers a wide range of suggestions for encouraging literacy in your youngest learners.