Reading to Your Child — A Really Big Deal!

While still adjusting to retirement, I was watching the 2016 Summer Olympics one recent evening when I was struck by a television ad. It was selling audible books, not just for adults, but also for kids — a father and his two children “transported to an imaginary world” as they sat side-by-side in bed listening to a narration of a book. All I could think was “Nooooo!”

I’m exaggerating a bit, of course, but no device will ever be a suitable substitute for the simple pleasure of a parent and child (or children!) reading together. Let me see if I can sell you on the idea of daily, from birth, reading to your child from a book. By “book” I mean what one author calls a “book-book.” Something printed on paper, that emits no internal sounds.

So much is going on when we read to our child, it’s hard to know where to begin. First, we are sowing the seeds to create a love of reading. Reading is an exceedingly complex task of deciphering symbols to generate words, and then stringing those words together to produce an image or thought. Children who have been read to from a very early age develop an insatiable desire for “more books,” even as early as 9 months old. Over the years, this acquired taste for books will drive their effort to do whatever it takes to read.

For the past few years of my practice, it was my great joy to walk into each well-child check-up from 6 months to 5 years with a Reach Out and Read book to hand to my young patient. At the 6 month visit I could easily distinguish which children had been read to often from those who hadn’t. The “reader’s” eyes would light up with delight when I showed them the book, whereas the “non-readers” would glance briefly at the book, then change focus to something else.

Second, regularly reading books exposes your child to a much richer array of language than she typically hears from our conversations, which produces a larger vocabulary, and ultimately allows her to more easily visualize and extract meaning from the stories she’s hearing. No wonder a 3-year old who has been read to daily finds such delight in stories (“I’m really there, I can see it, taste it, touch it”), while one rarely read to is bored out of his mind, and starts looking for his video game.

Third, this is a shared activity! What a marvelous thing. One study showed that while parents and children exchange significantly more words playing with traditional toys than with electronic devices, they used the most words when reading books together. Further, reading aloud, with active participation of the child (asking “What’s that? What’s this? Who is she? What’s he doing?” and so on, you know the drill), provides significantly more benefit to your child’s future reading capability than if he’s just the passive listener.

Fourth, because a book has no auditory bells and whistles, no “electronic light show” to captivate, it demands the collaborative participation of both parties —parent and child. I love this quote from Dr. Perri Klass, MD, a fellow pediatrician, who is the Medical Director of Reach Out and Read, “Part of what makes paper a brilliant technology may be, in fact, that it offers us just so much and no more. A small child cannot tap the duck and elicit a quack; for that, the child needs to turn to a parent. And when you cannot tap the picture of the horse and watch it gallop across the page, you learn that your brain can make the horse move as fast as you want it to, just as later on it will show you the young wizards on their broomsticks, and even sneak you in among them.”

The stakes are huge. According to a recent article in the journal Pediatrics, “two-thirds of children each year in the United States and 80% of those living below the poverty threshold fail to develop reading proficiency by the end of the third grade.” Why is that crucial? Because children are supposed to use the first three grades to learn to read, so that from then on they can read to learn.

Based on national surveys, all of us have significant room for improvement. Just 60% of middle-class children birth to 5 years of age are read to daily. For disadvantaged children in the same group, the number is only 34%.

If you feel frustrated with yourself and overwhelmed at this point, I apologize, because that is not my intent. Rather, give yourself some grace, acknowledge there is room for improvement, and don’t look back. Consider committing initially to 5 minutes a day reading to your children. Ignore the Joneses, who read “30 minutes every day to every child,” because for you, that may simply not be realistic. You can always increase the time as you and your daughter begin to realize how much you enjoy it.

Books can come from all kinds of sources; the Reach Out and Read books handed out at the check-ups and the books Grandma or Uncle Billy gave them on their birthday are a great place to start. The children’s section at Salem Public Library also has a huge variety of books to help you explore new types of stories with your children.

Finally, consider matching your children’s time limit for electronic devices with similar amounts spent on books. Don’t be afraid to tell all the relatives before each birthday that Samuel LOVES books as gifts.

Happy Reading!