What happens when you read to children?
It hardly seems possible that something so low-tech, so enjoyable, could actually boost children’s grades, test scores and lifetime achievement. But it does. When you simply enjoy books with the children in your life, a lot of things happen:
1. Children learn new words and ideas.
Without even realizing it, children of any age absorb great new words and more understanding of the world around them. Then, when they read on their own, whether for school or for fun, children recognize words they encounter, and the text has meaning. That’s why it is important to start reading to children from birth.
TIP: Prolong conversations with children, even small ones. Engage them in describing what they see or what they have done in a day. Books are great for this.
LINK: Make yours a read aloud home — 10 things parents should know.
2. Children increase their own reading comprehension.
Reading is more than sounding out words and pronouncing them quickly, like items on a shopping list. The words in each sentence relate to all the others to produce meaning and sensation. Some children – even those who can look at tough new words and pronounce them correctly – do not readily draw meaning from the text. You see this when children know all the words in a story, and they’re paying attention, but they don’t get the joke, or they don’t sense when the end of a story is near. Children who regularly listen to stories they enjoy tend to develop good reading comprehension.
TIP: Pause to discuss when your child wants to talk about the action in a story. Encourage children to predict what will happen next, but don’t quiz. This reading time is just for fun.
LINK: More about reading comprehension from Reading Rockets.
3. You share your passion with children.
We talk about reading stories, and that often means fiction – novels, chapter books, many picture books. But any kind of reading that you can enjoy with a child will work. If you love basketball or history or travel, non-fiction (true) books may be your best friend. Magazine or newspasper articles and biographies that you enjoyed are all good choices to share. Read what interests you and the child. Children’s author Jon Scieszka (rhymes with fresca) has observed that boys in particular respond to funny books, disgusting imagery and stories about real people.
TIP: If you have trouble getting a child interested in books, go to the library and ask for books about anything that interests you both — bugs, Star Wars, horses, basketball, Egyptian mummies. Browsing the pictures and reading what interests you counts.
LINK: Jon Scieszka’s Guys Read website is full of recommendations for all ages.
4. Children become readers themselves.
Parents find that if they make time for just 20 minutes of read aloud most days of the week, children grow to like it so much they ask for more. Then they ask to read the book on their own, or they want to look for other books. Children who read for fun do better in school and have higher test scores than children who do not read for pleasure. They also write better, have better vocabularies, know grammar, spell better, read faster, know more about literature, know more about science and social studies, have more cultural literacy, have more practical knowledge, get better grades in writing classes and have less anxiety about writing. Students who read regularly also do better on the Test of English as a Foreign Language.
TIP: Make a regular trip to your public library to check out and return books. Whether once a week or once a month, the habit will pay off.
LINKS: The National Assessment for Educational Progress (this one is from 2011) surveyed students and found higher test scores were associated with children who reported reading for pleasure more frequently.
“The Power of Reading” by Stephen D. Krashen documents other benefits of reading aloud with children.
5. You share your values with children.
While sharing stories, even funny or silly stories, sometimes children raise questions. These questions can lead to discussions of right and wrong, sportsmanship, courtesy, friendship, discrimination or other weighty subjects. Children – even older children – naturally look to parents and then to other adults around them for their opinions and judgment. It may not be obvious in the moment, but reading aloud regularly creates opportunities for parents to stay informed and be influential in a child’s life.
6. You nurture children’s health and well-being into adulthood.
Children who read for fun generally read better on their own and do better in school and on tests than children who do not read for pleasure. Children who thrive in school tend to go further, not only to finish high school, but to college or other post-secondary education and beyond. More education is associated with better employment opportunities and higher earnings throughout life. People of higher income tend to enjoy healthier lives. People who read well are better able to look after their health needs.
7. You give yourself a welcome interlude in the day.
Reading has been shown to cause relaxation and may help you fall asleep. Older people who continue to read show less memory loss and suffer fewer effects of dementia. When adults make time to read to children for the children’s benefit, adults often discover that they themselves feel richer and stimulated by the experience, and they miss it when their reading time is interrupted.