A number of years ago, I was sitting in the stands watching one of my sons play Little League Baseball when another father and I got into a lively discussion about reading. He was a very attentive dad, present at all of his son’s games, and you could tell that he cared very deeply for his 7-year-old son. Unfortunately, the boy was struggling to read and wasn’t doing well in school.
The dad knew that I was a publisher so he started asking me about children’s books and eventually we got around to the topic of reading aloud to children. I was surprised to learn that he and his wife had never read aloud to their son at home. They never read to him on the couch after school or at bedtime. Reading aloud was simply an idea that had never crossed their minds. I was a little shocked so I shared what I knew about the importance of reading aloud to young children as well as my own experience. Although both parents were well educated, successful professionals and were obviously concerned about their son, neither of them had ever thought about the importance of reading aloud
with their young son.
At the next game, my friend told me that he had taken his son to the bookstore and found some books his son liked and had started reading to him at home. By the end of the season, the boy seemed happier and more confident, but I lost track of the family after that summer so I’ll never know if they continued reading with him or if there was a longer-term impact going forward.
Fortunately, over the last few years, there has been a much greater effort made by pre-school programs, kindergartens, head start programs, schools, and even pediatricians to build awareness among parents that reading aloud to young children is one of the most important activities that parents can do with their children. As a result, there seems to be much greater awareness by parents now than even ten or fifteen years ago.
There has also been much more research to support the effectiveness that reading aloud to young children has on the development of language and reading skills. In August of this year, The Journal of the American Academy of Pediatricians published a recent study that investigated how reading aloud at home activated the brains of young pre-school children age 3-5 years of age. The researchers looked at blood oxygen level-dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging fMRI tests to see how listening to stories would impact the left hemisphere or the parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex, the area of the brain that scientist believe processes meaning and is activated when older children read to themselves.
Dr. John S. Hutton, the lead researcher of this study and a clinical research fellow at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center pointed out that, “When kids are hearing stories, they’re imagining in their mind’s eye when they hear the story.” His research suggests that the increased levels of brain activation may indicate that children who listen to stories develop stronger reading skills which, as Dr. Hutton points out, “will help them later be better readers because they’ve developed that part of the brain that helps them see what is going on in the story.”
Another recent study published in Psychological Science, The Journal of the Association of Psychological Science in August, looked at how the diverse vocabulary used in picture books might enhance the linguistic skills of young children who are read to by their caregivers. The scientists reported that, “Overall, the picture books contained more unique word types than the child-directed speech. Further, individual picture books generally contained more unique word types than length-matched, child-directed conversations. The text of picture books may be an important source of vocabulary for young children, and these findings suggest a mechanism that underlies the language benefits associated with reading to children.” This study along with earlier research affirms the impact that listening to stories has on developing stronger vocabulary and language skills.
Additional research from Reach Out and Read, a non-profit organization of medical providers who promote literacy and give books to low-income, high risk families provides a number of research studies on their website. Their summary of relevant research demonstrates the efficacy of reading to children, particularly in the development of expressive language skills and early literacy skills. They also found that families who participated in their reading programs, reported reading aloud to their children as one of their favorite family activities.
Not only does this research suggest that reading aloud contributes to a child’s development of language skills, it also seems that reading aloud with children can provide a valuable bonding experience between parents and their children. When my sons were young, I wasn’t aware of the research or the neuroscience that validated the value of reading aloud to children, I just enjoyed sharing the experience of reading together. Frankly, the highpoint of my day was when they
would run (or crawl) to greet me as I walked in the door. Then we would pick out a few books and settle onto the couch to read together. It was a nice way to transition from the workplace to home life and a way for me to connect with my sons.
In fact, as they grew older, I continued to read to both sons at bedtime until they were in Middle School. Over the years, we migrated from picture books by Margaret Read MacDonald or Heather Forest to Curious George stories to Maynard Moose tales to classic Roald Dahl stories and finally to novels by Michael Creighton. Although the experience changed and they asked more questions, especially as they got older, the goal remained the same: to share the unique experience of reading great stories together.
A byproduct of continuing to read to each of my sons as they got older was that it provided a way to stay connected through books and it provided a bridge for conversations that never would have happened without this shared experiences. Another benefit for me was that later my sons turned me onto authors they enjoyed like John Green, David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, and Jonathan Franzen. Now I’m benefiting from their reading experiences and my reading habits have broadened as they discovered and shared new authors.
I was fortunate to spend this very special time reading to my boys, but little did I know that I was also helping them activate their brains or that they were practicing pre-language skills that would prove so valuable later as they learned to read. I hope that my friend’s son discovered a life-long love of reading as his father began reading to him. The last time I saw them, they had just purchased Diary of a Wimpy Kid, so I’m guessing there were many more books that followed.