How to Raise Kids Who Read

By: Dr Justin Coulson

There’s a reason that experts make a big deal about telling parents to read to their children. Reading to kids (not using devices but using real books) is one of the best things we can do to help them develop positively.

For infants and toddlers it familiarises them with sounds and words. For pre-school children reading to them can stimulate curiosity, expand their vocabulary, and help them with literacy.

The science shows kids increase their academic ability, listening skills, reading comprehension, and literacy when we read to them. They regulate their emotions and behaviour, have the opportunity to discover new ideas (and work through challenging ones), and build their brain. Readers are leaders! They do better in school, and their social and emotional development is increased as they learn empathy and perspective.

And  other Aussie research  highlights that the more we read, the more we help our children thrive.   Children aged between four and five years old whose parents read to them three to five times a week read as well as kids six months older (who are read to only twice or less a week). If we read daily, they end up with about a 12-month advantage compared with kids who are not being read to. The study even found reading boosts numeracy skills!

I’m concerned, however, that parents aren’t reading to their children enough. A late-2017 survey of 2600 Victorian parents by the  Parenting Research Council  showed that 52% of 0-2 year-old children aren’t being read to daily, and 46% of 3-5 year-old kids are also not being read to each day. Even more concerning,  research  by Margaret Kristin Merga from Murdoch University found nearly 60% of kids in Grade 4-6 aren’t being read to at home.

With the powerful, well-documented positive developmental outcomes for children who read, those numbers need to be higher! So how do we raise kids who read?

It starts with you. If you want to raise a reader, be a reader. Beyond that, there are several other things we can do.

Start at the start

Even while they’re babies, read to them. The way you do it matters. Slow is good. Expression is great. Eye contact is engaging. Interaction is the best. Your baby is going to love reading because your baby loves you and loves the closeness that reading together will bring.

Often parents read fast, a little monotone, and with no engagement with their child. But kids need to hear parents come alive, create a fun rhythm and cadence to their reading, and get them talking too. If they can touch the pages, feel different textures, and enjoy vibrant illustrations, so much the better.

Toddlers & Preschoolers

Toddlers respond to reading in magical ways. It stimulates their brain, their relationships, their social capacity, and their emotional development. They learn words, counting, feelings, colours, shapes, animals, and the fascinating sounds that come out of our mouths as we read to them. And they crave the closeness that only reading promotes as they sit on our lap, hear our voice, feel our breath, and see our love for them.

Have fun with your reading to toddlers. Play with voices. Stop reading and initiate conversations – especially about feelings characters may have, or emotions your child is feeling as you read. Start opening up their world to new ideas, art, culture, race, and whatever else might be curious to them. Let them have their favourites, but play with new ideas wherever you can.

Let kids read to you as well – even though they can’t read. Pick a time during the day for stories (perhaps just before a nap), and read at night before bed. It’s calming (usually), and can be a loved part of the routine.

New Readers

This is where it is supposed to be exciting, but it can actually become painful and confusing. Your child will want to read – but they struggle. It’s slow. They make mistakes, ignore punctuation, and insist that they can when they often can’t. They’ll usually have sight-words from school, and will also have home-readers, reading wheels or logs (to colour in as a monitoring mechanism), and other reading assignments. So here’s what to do:

Keep reading to them! Sit them on your lap. Engage with them. Make sure they LOVE the different things you read to them. Keep it slow. Be patient. Let them try and make mistakes, and then try again.

Most importantly, don’t set reading as an assignment. Don’t tell them “15 minutes of reading” or they’ll watch the clock. Don’t tell them “15 pages of reading” or they’ll choose a book with big words and lots of pictures.

Reading shouldn’t be stressful – and it’s not a race. Finnish kids learn to read around age 6-7 years. Studies show learning to read later has no impact on academic outcomes – so long as they read lots and love it.

Established Readers

Keep reading to your children until they ask you not to. Even when they’re up to chapter books, keep reading. Even if they’re in high school, keep reading. If they enjoy it, keep it up.

What matters is that they love what they read. You may want to get them reading Harry Potter or something cultured (like Shakespeare) or whatever is trending. They may prefer Captain Underpants of the 97-Storey Treehouse. They might like comics, or Rugby League Weekly or Mechanic Monthly (if they’re even things). As long as they’re reading, learning, and enjoying having their head in a book, encourage it.

Don’t bribe though. Kids will find ways to rort the system. In our home, the reward for reading a book is to get another book to read.

Ultimately, reading is as much about “reading” as it is about the relationship. Children love to read because they love to be close to us. Our focus should be about instilling a love for books. This will inspire curiosity, creativity, and will usually be accompanied by the positive outcomes I described earlier.

A few other tips: have books everywhere. Too many homes don’t have books at all, or they are only in a certain place. Too many homes don’t allow kids to be into the bookshelves. More books usually leads to more reading. Avoid e-readers and reading on devices. Research suggests we comprehend and recall more when we read from a real book.

And always encourage your kids to read the book (with you) before you see the movie. The book is better every time.

Article supplied with thanks to Happy Families.

About the Author: A sought after public speaker and author, and former radio broadcaster, Justin has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland and a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong.

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