The Seven Mistakes Parents Make When Reading to Children

Parents play a critical role in developing their children’s language and vocabulary.  Although parents can promote children’s language in various ways, it is generally accepted that reading to a child at home is the single most important literacy activity. Reading aloud develops children thinking skills, lexical and conceptual knowledge, attention and comprehension skills.  Simply, parents who read to their children frequently give them a huge head-start in life.

Seemingly, reading to a child appears to be a very simple activity which does not require much skills, thinking and preparation. However, exactly the opposite is true. To read aloud effectively, parents need to have well-developed practical teaching skills, sound understanding of children’s vocabulary development and literacy and finally familiarity with books they want to read to their children.

Many parents make rather simple mistakes when they read aloud to their children. Here is the list of the most frequent:

1. Parents read too little to their children

Many parents know that daily reading to a child accelerate his/her cognitive development and language. They read to children consistently, 6-7 times a week. In a consequence, when their children enter school, they might be a year ahead of children whose parents don’t read at all and half a year ahead of children whose parents read every second day. That gap might be actually bigger in the case of parents who can read in a way which effectively develops children’s vocabulary, knowledge and thinking. Nevertheless, it is obvious that quantity of reading matters!

2. Parents start to read their children too late

Parents might think that their little baby is too small to be read aloud. OK,  at this age reading aloud is more about cuddling and children listening to parents’ voice rather than about teaching children new words. It is  simply bonding time. Nevertheless, research is conclusive and shows that early-life efforts are usually the most effective for children’s development. So, don’t wait until your child seems to be developmentally ready to be read aloud. Start reading when the child is born, slowly increase frequency of reading. Enjoy it together. Keep reading and  don’t stop until your child is a very proficient, independent reader. That leads us to the next point.

3. Parent tend to stop reading to their children too early

Many parents stop reading to their children when they are 6-7 years old. At this age children become independent readers and parents might think that reading aloud makes little sense at this stage. On the contrary, research demonstrates that reading aloud to already reading children is highly beneficial for their language and vocabulary. Why is that? Most children who have just become readers still don’t have skills to read more challenging books with more advanced vocabulary, complex narrative structure and grammar. Reading aloud to older children (6-11) expose them to language and vocabulary children need for school success. Parents when read, more challenging book can scaffold texts, simplify the structure and explain new words. At the same time children should be encouraged to read  independently. This two-pronged approach will help to transform children in avid readers.

4. Parent read either too easy or too difficult books

When parents read to their children, children need to understand what they are read to.  If parents choose simple books, children’s comprehend texts without any problems. However, the question arises whether they actually learn new things from easy texts. Probably not.  It doesn’t mean that parents should dismiss easy and fun books. Just let use them in moderation. On the other hand, when parents read demanding books with too many novel words and complex ideas, children might not be able to follow the story and might feel overwhelmed. The obvious problem is finding   ‘the just right book’ for a child. Neither too easy, nor too difficult. Parents should look for graded books which gradually increase complexity of text and density of vocabulary. Also parents might read books in series. For instance, if ‘Horrid Henry’ is on the right level for your child and he/she likes the book, why not to read several books from the series before moving to the next level? Alternatively, parents might either increase or decrease difficulty of  books on the go, while they read. This requires from parents excellent language skills, familiarity with a book and good pedagogical skills. Parents of bilingual children, often second-language learners themselves  might find it hard to provide children with synonyms and explanations of more challenging words while they read.

5. Parent read books only in a passive way

In other words,  parents read books and their children listen. In this method of reading, interactions and conversations between parents and children are limited. Again research shows that it is not an optimal method of developing children’s language and cognitive skills. When parents read to a child and ask open questions, ask for predictions, child’s engagement in reading increases. Also child is ‘forced’ to think and produce language. The question such as ‘what would you do if  you were in Tom’s shoes?’ check child’s comprehension of the text, develop his/her oral language (child is expected to answer the question), introduce new vocabulary (somebody’s shoes).Such a way of reading is sometimes called ‘dialogic reading’. It is particularly effective for language development and reading comprehension. It doesn’t mean that parents should abandon passive reading completely. Passive Story reading before bedtime calms children and helps them to get a good night’s sleep. Also some parents read dialogically in an excessive way. They bombard their children with several questions per page. A rule of a thumb is that questions should be asked judiciously, they shouldn’t interrupt the flow of the reading too much.  Simply parents should observe their child, follow his/her interest and ask question when they have doubts whether the child understood the passage. Also, don’t be afraid to break the rules. Read also passively when your child enjoys and clearly understands the book.

6. Parents read to children only one genre of books

Many parent read only narrative storybooks such as ‘Harry Potter’. They ignore informational books about nature, science, technology etc. Also informational books seem to be read more frequently to boys than to girls.
Yet, children should be exposed to a variety of books. Why? Different books develop different language skills and different types of knowledge. Informational texts are great for promoting conceptual knowledge and vocabulary. Narrative books are amazing for developing grammar, syntax and reading comprehension.  Children need to have a vast experience with a variety of  books to become proficient readers and writers.

7. Parents don’t read books in a fun way

Parents’ long-term goal should be changing and inspiring children to become independent and enthusiastic readers. In other words, we want our children to read a lot for pleasure. In this way children’s learning might become a by-product of their reading. I know, it is easier said than done. Those who tried to persuade a reluctant reader to read more know what I am taking about.  If we want our children to read for pleasure, we need to make sure that early reading experiences are pleasant for a child too. Of course, reading should teach children. But before that it must be fun. If reading aloud is a pleasant activity for a child, he/she will want their parents to read more. She will also more frequently initiate reading activities. Parents need to choose books their children are likely to like.  Parents need to read them in an engaging way. For instance, parents need to learn how to bring stories and words to life. It can be done by connecting the text to children experiences and knowledge, emphasising interesting words, using your voice and face to their full potential.

Happy reading!
Kalb, G., & Van Ours, J. C. (2014). Reading to young children: A head-start in life?. Economics of Education Review40, 1-24.