“Just one more book please!”
As parents, how many times have we heard this phrase? You have had a tiring day, you have managed to juggle the after-school hunger, completed homework, navigated tired and emotional children, cooked dinner (that may or may not have been gratefully eaten!) and it is finally time for bed. You happily flop onto your child’s bed and have one (or more) children draped around you as you read their bedtime story. You are about to pray with them and turn off the light, when one of them looks at you with pleading desperation “Please, just one more book!”
The mountain of washing, tidying, relaxing or Netflix watching waiting for you is enough to make you refuse their request. Yet often, you concede, and you switch on your animated, interested voice to read yet another book about a frog, or a crayon, or a dog that thinks it is a ballerina. You can tell by the way their bodies relax into you that this one extra book means so much to your little one, and (usually!) this makes it worthwhile. Research reveals that this act of reading together is such a valuable and critical part of our child’s development. As a Christian school who promotes and values the integral role of parents at home, we encourage you to be reminded of the wonderful value that reading aloud to your children can have.
Numerous studies champion the neurological and emotional benefits of reading with and to children. In particular, Dr John Hutton of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital has conducted 20 years of research into how reading is a critical aspect of child health and development. Combining his original background as a bookstore owner, Dr Hutton now uses his skills to apply MRI studies to help understand exactly what happens in a child’s brain when they are read to. His research found that the part of the brain that is activated during shared reading experiences was responsible for processing visual associations. This ability to imagine and see what they are hearing is fundamental for them to develop into independent readers as they grow.
Reading together is relational. It is an emotive experience. With my background in English teaching, I am probably biased when valuing the place of books and shared reading. Reading aloud to my Year 12 classes has always been just as necessary and valuable as reading to my own little children. There is something distinctively different about a shared reading experience compared to a solo reading experience. Perhaps it harks back to our traditions of oral storytelling. Incredibly though, in God’s divine wisdom, there’s a deeper, biological reason why reading with our children is such a rich experience. Studies show that listening to speech is more spontaneously comprehensible and more linked to our emotional brain centre than reading. Therefore, the simple act of being close to our child and their hearing the rhythms and sound of our voices as we help construct mindscapes of words, carries far greater potential than we first realise.
To read with our children is to gift them with a glimpse into our world. A world in which they learn about God’s creation, people, differences, hardships and beauty - where grand Biblical narratives can frame each story we share. A child who is read to before the age of 5 is exposed to a far wider scope of language than those who are not read to, culminating in the child being exposed to approximately 1.4 million words before they enter kindergarten. This broad vocabulary is not the only benefit. By introducing your child to the various themes and experiences in the books, you are helping to guide your child’s response to navigating the complexities of life.
Dialogic reading is an approach that most of us would adopt when reading aloud to our children. It involves actively inviting and engaging a child into the reading process and allows for a dynamic and active collaboration. As we read, we can ask them questions, we can pose “I wonder” statements, we can build on a child’s prior knowledge and gently challenge them to consider new ideas. In fact, the pedagogy behind dialogic reading with my 4-year-old is not too dissimilar to how I would approach shared reading with a Year 12 class. Reading aloud and in this interactive manner with our children (or our students) is fundamentally modelling for them ways to access, make meaning of and critique texts. As our children watch our mouth shape certain sounds and as we turn pages and engage with the text, they are being provided with the tools to access the empowering potential of literacy and literature. We are literally making visible the mysterious and often invisible act of reading.
Words matter. They can empower or disempower, enable or inhibit. They can proclaim truth, or they can selectively construct narratives. They can reinforce dominant discourses, or they can challenge and interrogate unquestioned beliefs. By ensuring children are read aloud to, we can use the inflections and tone of our voice to introduce our children to the nuances of words. We can help them begin to understand that it is often what is unsaid, or the implicit inferences around words that carry great meaning.
An insightful, international survey is conducted annually by Scholastic called the Kids and Family Report. It provides information on the attitudes of children and their families about reading. Some noteworthy observations from the latest Australian survey include:
- Across ages, the overwhelming majority of children (86%) say they love(d) being read books aloud at home or like(d) it a lot—the main reason being because it is a special time with parents.
- More than half of children aged 0–5 (57%) are read aloud to at home 5–7 days a week. This frequency declines to four in 10 kids aged 6–8 (41%), and continues to decrease with age.
- Of those children aged 6–8 whose parents no longer read books aloud at home, half (51%) did not want their parents to stop.
These statistics are of particular interest in light of the fact that evidence continues to show that being read aloud to is a key indicator of whether a child will grow up to be a frequent, independent reader. The crucial role that a parent can play is highlighted in the following findings:
- There are three dynamics that are among the most powerful predictors of reading frequency for children aged 6–17:
- How often a child is read books aloud
- A child’s reading enjoyment
- A child’s knowledge of their reading level
- For children aged 6–11, additional predictors of reading frequency include where they read books for fun, parental involvement in encouraging reading, and how early they started being read books aloud.
- For children aged 12–17, additional predictors of reading frequency include having parents who are frequent readers, the belief that reading books for fun is important, and in-school opportunities to talk about, find and read books.
As a parent and a teacher, I know too well the way that ‘life’ gets in the way of our good intentions. Yet, as I am sure we all know, these times with our children are precious. I encourage you to continue to know the value of what you are investing into your children when you read aloud to them. As teachers, we can continue the process of reading aloud to our students in the classroom, but we know that our time and influence is limited. The true potential and foundations begin in your homes. Those quiet moments shared reading the same favourite books over and over has the ability to provoke wonder. What a tremendous gift to be given - to embark on this imaginative journey with our children.
Mrs Natalie Bluhdorn
Head of Teaching Practice