What’s the importance of early reading for children?
Angela is passionate about the importance of reading for children. Not only is literacy, she argues, the foundational skill for high educational attainment, a love of reading also leads to a whole other set of positive outcomes. Research tells us that students who reach for a book rather than the Xbox enjoy lower stress levels. They also develop sensitivity and empathy, becoming more in tune with how others feel. Overall, children who learn to love reading early develop a skill set that helps them better understand themselves and their place in the world.
Amongst its many benefits, early reading cultivates the foundations of language through phonemic (hearing) skills and contributes to the development of memory and other aspects of cognitive development. It helps children become imaginative, understand sequencing (cause and effect), and learn how to turn abstract ideas into more concrete ones. Even for very young babies, reading to them is an invaluable use of a parent’s time. The soothing sound of your voice will help them relax, while deepening your bond. It establishes that you are a figure they can come to for help and learning, setting the tone for when they have homework later in life and building up a sense of routine. Alongside this, it helps them develop stronger eye muscles and practice concentration as they look at the book with you.
But how to go about cultivating readers for life beyond these first steps?
How to read a book to your child
Studies on children’s reading are unanimous on one thing: one of the most important predictors of reading achievement is how much parents read to their child. Therefore, you should read to your child early and read to them often.
When reading to a child, Angela is keen to reassure parents not to worry too much about what you’re reading with your child. Even if your child has a favourite book that they come back to again and again (which might feel of limited usefulness after a while), it’s still a positive experience that’s developing a love of reading. The important thing instead, she advises, is to make the experience an active one. Discuss every aspect of the book with them: the cover, the pictures, rhyming words, what they think might happen next, ask them to tell the story back to you, or get them to tell you what they think of the characters. Focus on their ‘favourites’ in particular - favourite characters, stories, or moments - to get them really enthusiastic and invested in reading.
For younger children, encourage them to behave like a reader, even if they can’t read yet. Holding books, pointing at things, reading back to an adult (even if just from memory) - all of these are incredibly important signs of a child gaining confidence with books and nurturing an image of themselves as a ‘reader’. Angela has a host of other tips for reading to children - keep reading to children even as they get older (you can change the dynamic of this as they age), let them take the lead in choosing books, make sure dads are involved - but the key message is clear. Read to your children and talk to them about reading.
Raising confident readers
What about children reading for themselves, or reading back to you? How do you get them to this point, and how do you make the most of this process?
To get started, children will need to know the sound of each letter: the 44 different phonemes (distinct sounds) that make up spoken English. From there, they will have to deal with two different types of words: phonic words, where they can put the sounds together themselves (e.g., ‘d-o-g’), and high-frequency sight words, which they’ll learn to recognise as they reoccur (e.g. ‘the’).
From this point, they’ll be able to read to you as much as you read to them. Angela has lots of tips for parents on how to be read to by your child. She stresses making sure that the time is fun, so that reading becomes a pleasure. Do this by appreciating the humour of the stories and encouraging expression. Importantly, she emphasises not insisting the child read if they really aren’t in the mood and ending reading sessions on high points. Again, she wants to reassure parents not to be fussy about their child’s reading: picture cues aren’t cheating, for example.
Do this right and the result is confident readers. Angela also emphasises how important positivity is. Try to avoid using the word ‘no’. Instead, offer praise and encouragement wherever possible. Frame criticism around ‘Why don’t you try again?’ style questions. Make feedback personal with ‘I like the way you…’ phrases to boost confidence. Within all this, it’s important to set the tone for your child and lead by example. If you are passionate about reading, they, too, will pick up on that passion and your child can become a reader for life.