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Experts in reading tell anyone who listens that choosing to read aloud to young children – even newborns – is a critical component in helping them learn to read later in life. In fact, many reading experts highly recommend that young children have a minimum of 1,000 books read to them before beginning kindergarten.
Don’t let that number frighten you! There are 365 days in every year – so if you read aloud every night for 3 years, you and your child will hit that mark. Considering that most children begin kindergarten at the age of 5, and you can see that you have plenty of time – if you start early.
And those numbers – 365 books in a year – mean reading only one book a day. However, as a parent, teacher, and grandmother, I can testify that most children don’t want to stop at only one book! If you make the leap to reading three books a day – an easy feat to accomplish – you can almost effortlessly rack up 1,000 books in one year!
Why You Should Read Aloud to Young Children
But why? Why make the effort to read aloud to your child daily? Why do reading experts make such a big deal of this early reading habit?
Wiring the Brain
First, reading together wires the brain for learning to read later in life. An infant’s brain is only partially developed at birth, yet the connections that will support the child’s lifelong learning are mostly formed by age one. Yes, you read that correctly – age one!
To help those connections grow healthy and strong – and be prepared for the hard work of learning to read – babies need frequent exposure to thousands of words – words that are found in books, but not always in everyday conversation. For example, how often do you use the words horse, pig, or cow in conversation? But if you’re reading a farm animals book, and re-reading it multiple times for the enjoyment of your child, how many times will they be exposed to those words?
Building a Foundation for Thinking
A second reason for reading aloud is that this activity provides the perfect opportunity to have conversations with your child. Conversation is the foundation of thinking – so if you want your child to know how to think, then you must have many conversations together.
For example, when my children were in their tween and teen years, I used to often have them defend their requests for one privilege or another to me. They had to come up with good reasons for the privilege and be able to state their position clearly. The foundation for this thinking skill was laid in early conversations around books.
If you want your child to be able to think independently – and not be lured by the easy crowd-following nature of most teens and twenty-somethings – then engaging in conversations early in life, and continuing throughout the growing-up years, is vitally important.
Building Listening – and Learning – Stamina
Reading aloud to children also helps them to develop the ability to concentrate on one task for an extended period of time. This habit of concentration is sorely lacking in children today. As a teacher, I see an ever-increasing number of students unable or unwilling to be still, concentrate on a single task, and focus on learning – in reading, math, or anything else. To prevent this from developing, read aloud daily to your child from birth.
One obvious reason for this inability to focus and concentrate is that children are being entertained by screens instead of books. I have only been teaching for 16 years, yet in that time I have seen a marked increase in ADHD diagnosis and medicated children. These children do not have the stamina they need to learn, many of them do not possess the desire to learn, nor do they enjoy reading. On top of that, reading aloud in schools is sharply declining due to other pressures (a topic for another day).
Building Strong Emotional Bonds
A fourth reason for making a habit of reading aloud is that this habit nurtures the bond between parent and child. Interacting around books and having fun while reading will create strong feelings of emotional closeness. Your child will know, in a deep-seated way, that she matters enough to you that you will give undivided attention to her. Children thirst for this knowledge in ways we can barely comprehend. Taking even fifteen minutes every day to read aloud together will cement her feelings that she is the most important part of your world.
Additionally, those strong positive emotions will be transferred to the idea and practice of reading. That is because your child enjoys the closeness he has with you while reading, those positive feelings are automatically associated with reading – and give him a decided advantage in learning to read and liking to read.
I agree with Mark Twain, who famously stated that “He who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” If your child learns early to associate reading with pleasant feelings, not only will learning to read be easier but wanting to read will be more natural.
Finally, “if every parent understood the huge educational benefits and intense happiness brought about by reading aloud to their children, and if every parent – and every adult caring for a child – read aloud a minimum of three stories a day to the children in their lives, we could probably wipe out illiteracy within one generation” (Mem Fox). Be the person who inoculates the children in your life against illiteracy by reading aloud to them.
How to Read Aloud to Young Children
I mentioned earlier that if you read three books a day to your child, you’d hit the 1,000-book goal within a year. Does it matter which three books you read? Yes and no.
Yes, it matters, because you want books that will entertain and enthrall your child. You want books with rhythm and rhyme, with strong vocabulary and interesting storylines. You want books that will drive your child to clamor for ‘just one more,’ or demand a favorite book for the umpteenth time.
And no, it doesn’t matter, because your child will ‘weed out’ the books that don’t measure up by never requesting them. She will repeatedly ask for favorites and you can cheerfully agree, knowing that reading and rereading favorite books builds the pathways in her brain that prepare her for learning to read for herself.
While there is no need to constantly be introducing new books – or else how will something become a favorite? – you will want to strive to have a wide variety of books that you read. A good rule of thumb might be to aim for three books a day: a favorite, a new or relatively new book (this week’s library books, for example), and one that fits comfortably in-between: familiar, but not a must-read-every-day favorite.
It is more important, however, that you read the books correctly than that you read the perfect mix of new and old books. Reading books aloud will almost never be a straight-forward, front-to-back, word-for-word process – especially with toddlers and preschoolers.
Instead, you must take the time on every page to point out the pictures, naming objects, animals, and people. You should ask your child to identify these items once you’ve built up her vocabulary.
Also, take the time to ask questions about the story – even if you answer them yourself if, for example, you’re reading to an infant. However, allow your child to answer your questions in her own way. Remember, part of the magic of reading aloud is the power of conversation. So, converse even if your child is not yet talking.
Be prepared to read forward and backward, to teach your child to turn one page at a time, but also to read the page he’s on, to show him how to hold a book, where the front of the book is, and in which direction the print goes.
As for what questions to ask, avoid questions that can be answered with a yes or no. Instead, try questions such as these:
- How does this picture make you feel?
- What do you think will happen?
- Who do you like most in this story?
- What was your favorite part?
- What part of the story does the picture show?
What to Read Aloud to Young Children
Do yourself a favor and get a book of suggested books to read to children. I recommend The Read-Aloud Handbook, by Jim Trelease (now in its 7th edition) and Honey for a Child’s Heart, by Gladys Hunt (4th edition). That said, I’ll be posting my own list of suggested books to read for preschoolers later this week. Be looking for it!