Parents are constantly told that it’s important to read to their young children.
That is only part of the message, however, because experts now say the time to begin reading to little ones isn’t before they are about to enter preschool, but years earlier during pregnancy.
“Interestingly enough, since hearing is one of the first senses to develop, even before birth there is learning going on when a pregnant mother reads to her unborn child,” said Joan Kaderavek, distinguished university professor in the department of early childhood, physical, and special education at the University of Toledo. “The unborn baby learns the voice of intonation patterns associated with book reading.”
Marcia Rybczynski, assistant professor in the school of teaching and learning at Bowling Green State University, stressed that it’s vital for parents to read daily to their children when they are infants and toddlers. She added that doing so contributes to their social and cognitive development.
Clockwise from bottom left: sisters Alice and Sophie Rainey, 4, Isaac Proulx, 3, preschool teacher Dave Proulx and Adam Proulx, 5, read together at Mr. Proulx's classroom inside Bowling Green University's Jordan Family Development building.
“Reading says to the child that it’s fun,” Ms. Rybczynski said. “It’s a bonding time for parents. There is something about having a child sit on your lap and point to the pictures and talk and laugh.”
Ms. Rybczynski said the simple exercise of reading to a child daily serves as the basis for more formal instruction in the school years, and it doesn’t matter if it’s “the one thousandth time” a parent has read a book to a child. “It’s a learning time.”
That includes learning how to operate a book, such as understanding that the words go from left to right, Ms. Rybczynski said. Ms. Kaderavek said the book-handling skills come when children are read to frequently.
These are “skills that include turning the book the right way, turning the pages from [right to left], and that we read the print instead of the pictures,” Ms. Kaderavek stated in an email. “Early reading during the toddler and preschool years is a valuable tool for teaching new vocabulary and fostering a child’s language development.”
Today, March 1, is the start of a monthlong campaign called “Read Aloud 15 Minutes” sponsored by a Michigan nonprofit. It aims to persuade parents to understand that “If you wait, it’s too late.”
Bob Robbins of ReadAloud.org based in Alden, Mich., said children whose parents read to them from books are “so far advanced. By the third grade, children have to learn to read well enough to read to learn. We know that children who start kindergarten behind rarely catch up. Ours is a simple message: Read from the day they are born for 15 minutes a day.”
Reading with a child is also a time for parents to ask questions to ensure that children understand that reading is supposed to make sense, Ms. Rybczynski added.
“We can show children that there are different reasons for reading,” she noted.
That’s why reading various types of books is important: story and teaching books, books with rhymes, poetry, and books with color and graphics. Focus on simple, short stories, as children can’t be expected to sit for long periods and are sometimes quick to climb out of mom’s or dad’s lap.
“For young children, you might start with board books with a shorter number of pages.” Ms. Rybczynski said. This gives children the sense that books are important. “Any kind of rhyming text is also appealing to children. They appreciate the fun of two words that rhyme.”
All of these principles help children gain insight about reading before they learn to associate letters with sounds, Ms. Kaderavek said.
“We used to think that kindergarten to third grade was about ‘learning to read’ and fourth grade and beyond was about ‘reading to learn,’ but now we believe that learning to read and reading to learn should be happening at the same time, even from infancy,” Ms. Kaderavek said. “Reading to learn is understanding and thinking deeply about what we are reading. Adults and children can begin to talk about what they are reading together, well before the child’s first birthday.”
Additionally, reading helps to build vocabulary.
“Children who come to school with more words to speak and understand have an easier start at learning to read. ... The more words they use and understand, the more success they have with their reading,” Ms. Rybczynski said. “That oral language skill is a critical part. It’s hard to teach you to read a word if you haven’t already heard the word.”
Ms. Kaderavek added that reading with children also helps them learn problem-solving skills.
“We really help children understand stories when we make connections between the story and events in the child’s life, when we look carefully at illustrations and talk about what is happening in the story, when we talk about new words that the child might not know, and when we ask the child ‘what do you think will happen next in this story?’ ” Ms. Kaderavek said. “Also, sometimes it is fun to just ignore the print, and talk and make up our own stories as we go along. Every bit of positive book exposure helps children grow and develop.”
In this era of reading books on electronic devices, Ms. Kaderavek conceded that youngsters must learn to be skilled with various technology. However, “Research has shown that there are unique learning opportunities that occur when a child and adult read a ‘real’ book together,” she said.
Bottom line: reading sets the foundation for life.
“No matter what you do you are going to be using reading as a tool,” Ms. Rybczynski said. “It’s very important that all children have that opportunity to be successful in school and later in life. And besides, it’s enjoyable. Those who like to read find satisfaction in it.”
Contact Rose Russell at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6178.
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