Most of parents know that reading aloud has multiple benefits for young children since it promotes:
- cognitive development
- language in general
- vocabulary in particular
- conceptual knowledge
- school readiness
- attention span
- phonological awareness
- relationships between parents and children love of reading
Yet, despite these clear advantages many parents don’t read to their children at all.
In fact, reading to a child might be a set routine in only about 1/3 of households in the UK. In general, frequency of reading aloud at home is related to socioeconomic status of parents, mother education, parental educational beliefs, home literacy environment and migrant status.
In simpler words, parents might not read to their children because:
- they don’t read books themselves
- they don’t have time for reading
- they don’t have access to books (e.g. migrant parents might have few books in a home language)
- fathers don’t participate actively in reading activities
- they don’t have skills needed to read to a child in an effective way
- they cannot read books in English due to their own low English proficiency
- proliferation of technology (smartphones and tablets) replaces traditional storybook reading
It is also possible that some parents don’t understand the importance of reading for their children. Simply, parents might not know what reading aloud actually does for their children’s minds. This blogposts attempts to explain why reading aloud to a child is crucial for child’s vocabulary, reading comprehension, independent reading and academic attainment.
Low quality of oral language
Parents are children’s first teachers. Some parents might be better teachers than the others. For instance, parents differ in quantity and quality of talk, conversations and interactions they provide to their children. It is often reflected by differences in children’s vocabulary at age 3. More advantageous children might know at this age 1200 words, whereas disadvantaged children only about 400 words.
Although, it would be easy to brandish these early vocabulary gaps as the result of bad parenting, the issue is more complicated than that. Many hard working parents don’t have time to talk to their children. Parents who are introvert and generally speak less might find it difficult to dramatically increase quantity of their conversations with their children too. Also parents who themselves did not receive the gift of good education are not likely to naturally increase the quality of their oral language. In many families 99% of maternal verbal input consists of the 3,000 most common words. It means that children have few opportunities to learn more advanced vocabulary even if their parents talk to children a lot!
Simply, parents cannot from one day to another become more eloquent, fluent or increase complexity of grammatical structure they use with their children. Although middle-SES parents might use less informal language at home, they should never take it for granted. Even oral speech of college graduate consists of only 17 rare words per 1000 words.
Fortunately, reading aloud to children can easily override lower quality of oral language many parents naturally produce. Children’s books on average consist of 31 rare words per 1000 words. They expose children to rarer, more sophisticated, abstract words. Also, parents can increase saliency of novel words in storybooks by appropriate use of intonation, pauses and gestures. For instance, parents can stop reading aloud to ensure that the child understands a novel word. Parents can also provide explanations or instructional extensions beyond book content. Since children like to listen to the same storybook on repeated occasions, storybooks provide children with multiple exposures and an enjoyable method of developing knowledge of words by increments.
Parents cannot do the same when they talk to their children. At least, it is often more challenging. Even if parents do use a rarer word in a conversation with a child, they might not be aware of it. They also have less time for extended explanations during oral exchanges. Parents might never use the same word in the presence of the child again, therefore the child might be devoid of multiple exposures necessary to internalise the word knowledge. This explains why storybooks/informational texts are the best source of lexical development for small children.
Why to develop children’s vocabulary?
Yet, it still does not explain, why parents need to develop children’s word knowledge in the first place.
As I previously mentioned, there are expansive gaps in vocabulary among children at age 3. Unfortunately, these early gaps widen with time and schools contribute little to narrowing these disparities. Children with less developed vocabulary in P2 might know only 4000 words, whereas children with better lexical repertoires almost 8000 words. It does not matter that much in P1-P3 when children still learn decoding skills or in other words ‘learn to read’. However, it matters a lot later. Between P4-P5 children are expected to master the mechanics of reading and progress to a more challenging stage, namely ‘read to learn’. At this stage children are exposed to lexically challenging reading materials rich in advanced vocabulary they might have never encountered. At this stage school performance of many children who were doing brilliantly in P1-P3 suddenly drops. It is known in research as the ‘fourth year slump’.
Why does ‘fourth year slump’ actually happen?
Simply, children with well-developed vocabulary are usually better equipped to derive word meanings from challenging written contexts, they can probably tolerate larger number of unknown words in text. Since well-developed vocabulary is frequently correlated with more reading and print-related experiences at home, such children tend to have excellent decoding skills, well-developed conceptual knowledge and good grasp of complex grammar.
The merging picture suggest that cumulative reading experiences at home predict cognitive development and reading comprehension success in later grades. Children good at reading and comprehending read more, with more pleasure. They are not afraid to tackle more challenging books. Thus, they learn more vocabulary, they further develop spelling skills and knowledge. It is reflected by their good academic performance. For good comprehenders, it is clearly a virtuous circle.
For children will less developed vocabulary is the other way round. Firstly, they cannot understand what they read. Children can tolerate only between 3-5% of unknown words in text. If there are more unknown words in text, reading becomes a boring chore and frustrating activity. Therefore, children read less. It creates a vicious circle.
The rich in vocabulary children become richer, the poor children become poorer. It is widely known in literacy research as the ‘Mathew Effect’ The early mastery experiences of ‘rich children’ change them in life-long readers, their independent reading contributes further to vocabulary knowledge and academic performance. In line with the Mathew Effect reading volumes differ between children. Independently reading children read 200 times more than children who read little! In other words, avid readers read 2 million words per year at home, in comparison to poor readers who read only 8,000 words per year. This has a dramatic consequences for further vocabulary development, knowledge acquisition and attainment. An average college graduate knows 40, 000 words. Bulk of these words is acquired by independent reading.
As we can see reading aloud provides children with skills and knowledge needed to become an independent readers and in fact successful learner. Some parents might of course say, that what I have described is an exaggeration and provide anecdotal examples of children who become avid readers without parental engagement. Unfortunately, such children are only the exception to the rule. Reading aloud forms the bridge between everyday language we use at home and academic language children need to understand books and succeed at schools. Early reading aloud has also clear neurological benefits for a child. Reading aloud stimulates brain in its critical stage of development. Although humans are able to learn new things all life, early childhood is the time where plasticity of brain is the biggest. Age-appropriate brain stimulation allows form new connections between neurons. It is a of window opportunity no parent should waste.
Some parents might question the sense of developing rare and sophisticated vocabulary among young children. I heard parents saying: ‘He is a child, I don’t want him to speak like an adult’, ‘My daughter (4 years old) is too young to learn such difficult words’, ‘She will learn these words at school anyway’. However, children learn vocabulary on the basis of their experiences. Age is less important. Of course we cannot explain to a four-years- old child the meaning of democracy by providing him/her with this definition: ‘a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives’. Instead, parents can focus on ‘rule of the majority’ and organise a family voting to introduce the new concept in a child-friendly way. Parents can and indeed should teach difficult words to young children if they know how to to it in an age-appropriate way.
- reading aloud develops children language, vocabulary and reading comprehension
- start reading aloud as early as possible
- continue reading aloud even if your child has already learnt to read (however, encourage your child to read short, interesting texts independently)
- read everyday, makes sure it is a daily routine
Cunningham, A. E. (2005). Vocabulary growth through independent reading and reading aloud to children. Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice, 45-68.
Newberger, J. J. (1997). New brain development research-A wonderful window of opportunity to build public support for early childhood education!. Young Children, 52, 4-9.
Stanovich, K. E., & Cunningham, A. E. (1998). What reading does for the mind. American Education Journal.