What’s the point of reading with babies and pre-schoolers?
Early engagement with books in young children supports attachment, enjoyment and attainment, yet the evidence-base for teaching phonics to even younger children is contentious.
As a teacher, a parent and now as a researcher, I have always championed the importance of parents reading with their children. But what are the benefits of reading with children from birth and why should schools support and encourage this? Research from the BookTrust charity (1) shows that 38 per cent of parents read daily to under 1s but around 30 per cent never read at all to their baby.
By age 3, 68 per cent of parents report reading daily with their child with only 2 per cent never reading with them. Since the Rose Review (2) in 2006, the formal teaching of reading (especially of phonics) has been focussed earlier and earlier in a child’s school experience, with many nursery classes now teaching discrete phonics sessions.
The evidence-base for teaching phonics to even younger children is contentious. For example, reading outcomes at 11 are broadly similar for children in systems that start at 5 and those that start at 7. However, reading isn’t just about decoding text – the sharing and telling of stories and developing book habits are key to nurturing a life-long love of books. Shared reading between parents and their children has many benefits from birth and can start well before decoding text is developmentally appropriate.
5 reasons to read with the under 5s
This is a research-based guide to why schools should support and encourage early shared reading experiences.
Children’s books include vocabulary which takes children outside their immediate experiences and settings. From the ‘Commotion in the Ocean’ to ‘Meg on the Moon‘ via ‘Where the Wild Things Are‘, books for pre-schoolers have more unusual words than television programmes aimed at the same age range (3).
Modelling diverse grammar
When adults share books with children, they often use more grammatically diverse speech than at other times of the day, exposing children to richer sentence construction and linguistic models (4, 5).
Reinforcing secure attachment
Book-sharing between parents and children seems to positively reinforce secure attachments and is often a pleasurable activity for both participants with physical and emotional connections being made during the reading session (6).
Frequent book-sharing in the pre-school years is correlated with higher school on- entry attainment scores. This continues after starting school with children who engage in pleasurable reading experiences remaining more engaged in their learning and reading more books than those who experience predominantly direct instruction in reading (7).
For the child, reading for enjoyment is a more important indicator of attainment than the family’s socio-economic status or the mother’s educational level (8). Those parents who see reading as primarily a pleasurable activity provide more opportunities for their child to read than those who see it as academic development (9).
And one thing to avoid?
Be cautious of starting formal teaching of reading too soon. The age formal instruction starts doesn’t affect reading levels by age 11 (10, 11), but starting too early may be damaging to children’s future engagement with reading (12).
Children who are routinely read to, day in and day out—and immersed in rich talk about books and the various activities in which they are engaged—thrive (13).
- Eliot, S. V., L 2014. Reading with children – Findings from a nationwide survey on the reading frequency of Mums and Dads. Booktrust.
- Rose, J., 2006. Independent review of the teaching of early reading. Department for Education and Skills.
- Raikes, H., Alexander Pan, B., Luze, G., Tamis-Lemonda, C. S., Brooks-Gunn, J., Constantine, J., Banks Tarullo, L., Abigail Raikes, H. & Rodriguez, E. T. 2006. Mother-Child Bookreading in Low-Income Families: Correlates and Outcomes During the First Three Years of Life. 77, 924-953.
- Ninio, A. & Bruner, J. 1978. The achievement and antecedents of labelling. Journal of Child Language, 5, 1-15.
- Hoff‐Ginsberg, E. 1991. Mother‐child conversation in different social classes and communicative settings. Child development, 62, 782-796.
- Bus, A. G., Belsky, J., Van Ijzendoom, M. H. & Crnic, K. 1997. Attachment and bookreading patterns: A study of mothers, fathers, and their toddlers. 12, 81-98.
- Wade, B. & Moore, M. 2000. A Sure Start with Books. Early Years, 20, 39-46.
- Kirsch, I., De Jong J., LaFontaine, D., McQueen, J., Mendelovits, J. & Monseur, C. 2003. Reading for change: Performance and engagement across countries: Results of PISA 2000.
- Sonnenschein, S. 1996. Strands of Emergent Literacy and Their Antecedents in the Home: Urban Preschoolers’ Early Literacy Development. Reading Research Report No. 48.
- Suggate, S. 2007. Research into early reading instruction and luke effects in the development of reading. Journal for Waldorf/R. Steiner Education, 11, 17.
- Schweinhart, L. J. 2005. Lifetime effects: the High/Scope Perry Preschool study through age 40, High/Scope Foundation.
- Adams, S., Alexander, E., Drummond, M. J. & Moyles, J. 2004. Inside the Foundation Stage. Recreating the reception year. ATL.
- Bridges, L. 2014. The joy and power of reading: A summary of research and expert opinion. New York, NY: Scholastic.
Caroline Zwierzchowska-Dod is a doctoral researcher with Swansea University and was previously a primary school headteacher. She is researching the benefits of reading with the under 5s as part of a PhD funded by Swansea University and The Dollywood Foundation, whose Imagination Library book-gifting programme supports 40,000 children in the UK.