Updated: Nov 4
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Reading is one of the most powerful ways to prepare your child for success. Not only does it help develop their language and literacy skills, but it also provides children with countless cognitive and psychological benefits.
This article will explore why reading to children is so important and discuss various strategies that can help make it a fun and rewarding activity for both parent and child.
In this article:
The many benefits of reading to kids
Regular reading with a child is such a simple activity, but it has countless benefits for their language, cognitive, and emotional development.
1. Builds communication skills
Exposing your child to new words is an important part of building their communication skills. Although children hear many new words in everyday interactions with parents or caregivers, reading to them from a young age is also critical--it exposes them to new vocabulary and grammar that they wouldn't normally hear in everyday conversations.
Numerous studies conducted since the 1960s have examined the gap in the number of words heard by children who are read to versus children who are not read to. The findings of some of these studies have been hotly debated, but it is undeniable that reading is an essential way to expose your child to new words.
Story books aren't the only source of new vocabulary. Read magazines, nonfiction books, comics--a variety of reading material will expose your child to a wider range of words!
Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds in words and is a vital skill for learning how to read and write.
Reading to your child is an important part of developing their phonemic awareness. It exposes them to a wide variety of words and sounds and helps them learn to differentiate between sounds.
Reading stories that involve repetition of words and phrases can be particularly helpful in reinforcing phonemic awareness skills.
Book that feature rhymes, alliteration, and other word play can also teach phonemic awareness by highlighting similar and different sounds.
Great books for developing phonemic awareness include:
Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See, by Eric Carle
Moo Baa La La La, by Sandra Boynton
Chika Chika Boom Boom, by Bill Martin Jr and John Archambault
The Llama, Llama series, by Anna Dewdney
As a child listens to a story being read, they pick up on the patterns, rhythms, and intonations of the language being spoken. They hear the cadence of sentences and learn how words fit together to create meaning. They will learn to communicate effectively by imitating what they hear.
Reading books also ensures that children are hearing correct grammar usage.
Listening and comprehension skills
When you read to a child, they must pay close attention in order to follow the storyline and comprehend the meaning. This develops listening skills that will be crucial both academically and socially.
Additionally, as children hear--and independently read--more and more books, they become familiar with different writing styles, sentence structures, and vocabulary words. This will build their reading comprehension and allow them to understand and enjoy increasingly complicated stories, as well as succeed in school and on standardized tests.
You can also encourage reading comprehension through fostering discussions around what you and your child read.
Engaging in conversation can help children better understand the text. Giving them the opportunity to ask questions and share their own ideas can build confidence in their reading comprehension skills.
Through frequent exposure to written language, children develop a better understanding of sentence structure, grammar, and vocabulary--all skills essential to their own future writing.
By hearing different writing styles and language patterns, they gain a sense of rhythm that they can later use to develop their own writing style.
Moreover, listening to stories introduces a child to narrative structures such as characters, setting, and plot. As they grow older, they will begin to understand the elements of a story and how they fit into a structure.
Finally, reading sparks a child's imagination and creativity, giving them new ideas and inspiration for their own stories.
2. Boosts brain power
When you read to your child, their brain cells start firing. The act of listening strengthens existing connections between brain cells and even builds new connections.
This increased brain connectivity--the ability of different regions in the brain to better communicate with each other--leads to stronger language skills, improved attention span, and even greater creativity.
Critical thinking skills
Books expose children to different stories, characters, and situations that they may not encounter in their regular lives. This opens up their minds to new ideas and perspectives and encourages them to ask questions and think critically about what they are hearing.
By encouraging them to ask questions about the story, predict what will happen next, and analyze the plot and characters, parents teach children valuable analytical techniques that they will use throughout their academic and personal lives.
Great books for developing critical thinking include:
The Mitten, by Jan Brett
A Color of His Own, by Leo Lionni
Opposites, by Sandra Boynton
Reading to a child is an opportunity to teach valuable problem-solving skills. As you read to your child, talk to them about the problems and obstacles that different characters face and ask about potential creative solutions to help the characters overcome them.
By engaging a child in discussions about characters’ choices, thoughts, and actions, you can teach them how to solve problems, consider alternative solutions, and make informed decisions in their own life.
Part of the magic of books is their ability to draw readers and listeners into the story. When a child becomes truly absorbed, their attention is engaged and they will continue to focus on what they are hearing.
Over time, this is like a workout for their attention span, strengthening it little by little each time you read.
As they listen to a story, a child's brain is actively processing and remembering details from the storyline. This helps to improve their working memory, a type of short-term memory that is required to comprehend and process information and complete tasks.
Reading also builds a child's memory capacity and enhances their ability to recall information later on.
Children are curious creatures, and books provide endless opportunities to explore and learn about the world around them.
You'll be amazed at all of the knowledge that your child can acquire by reading and listening to books on topics that interest them!
Reading to your child, especially reading fiction, ignites their imagination, encouraging them to picture what's happening in the story.
As their mind grows and develops, their imagination will so too. Eventually, they will be dreaming up whole new worlds of their own!
Great books to encourage imagination include:
The Wizard of Oz (board book version), by L. Frank Baum and Carly Gledhill
Beautiful Oops!, by Barney Saltzberg
Little Cloud, by Eric Carle
3. Emotional and mental health benefits
Parent-child bonding time
Reading to a child provides an opportunity to slow down and spend time together after a busy day and can be a wonderful bonding experience for both parent and child.
It provides an opportunity for both of you to be present in the moment, free from distractions, and can create a sense of closeness and intimacy that is hard to replicate in other activities. What could be cozier than cuddling up together with a book?
Great books for parent-child bonding include:
Love You Head to Toe, by Ashley Barron
The Wonderful Things You Will Be, by Emily Winfeild Martin
The Going to Bed Book, by Sandra Boynton
Reading is also an incredible way to spark conversations and encourage interaction with your little one. As you read together, ask your child about their opinions and predictions: What is the character feeling? What will happen next? You can also share your own thoughts about the story.
When a child is read to, they experience a feeling of safety, comfort, and security. As they listen to the soothing sound of their caregiver's voice and immerse themselves in the story, their blood pressure begins to decrease, which can reduce stress levels.
Reduced stress levels contribute to improved sleep and better physical and mental health overall.
Empathy and emotional intelligence
Reading can teach kids to understand and process their own emotions in a healthy way. When they read books about characters experiencing worry, sadness, or anger, they see that it's normal to feel this way and can learn ways of handling their own big feelings.
As a parent, you can even choose books specifically to spark conversations about what is happening in your child's life and how they are feeling. It may be easier for your child to discuss an issue or emotion within the context of a book.
Great books to encourage children to share their feelings include:
Waiting is Not Easy, by Mo Willems
Jabari Jumps, by Gaia Cornwall
Bear Feels Scared, by Karma Wilson
Grumpy Monkey, by Suzanne Lang
Books can also help children learn empathy. As a child listens to a story and connects with a character, they begin to relate to the characters’ feelings and experiences. This ability to step into someone else's shoes and understand their perspective is the foundation of empathy.
Fiction, in particular, often explores complex human relationships and cultural, social, and political issues. Reading diverse stories with your child can help them broaden their understanding of other people's life experiences and ultimately become more compassionate, empathetic individuals.
Great books to promote empathy and emotional intelligence include:
All Are Welcome, by Alexandra Penfold
Giraffes Can't Dance, by Giles Andrae
In Every House, On Every Street, by Jess Hitchman
Love Makes a Family, by Sophie Beer
Your Name Is a Song, by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow
4. Lays the foundation for a lifetime of benefits from reading
Reading together creates a positive association with books and reading that can last a lifetime. As children grow up, the reading habits that they acquired at a young age will continue to have important and long-lasting benefits for their physical and mental health.
For example, regularly reading books can help prevent cognitive decline in older adults. By challenging our brains through reading, we can maintain and even improve cognitive function, such as memory, attention, and problem-solving skills.
And as discussed above, reading also reduces stress and promotes better sleep, which are both important factors in maintaining good cognitive health.
Just think, reading with your child now will contribute to a lifetime of both health and enjoyment from books!
Unlocking the benefits of reading
Schedule reading time
You should try to read to your child for at least a few minutes every day. Make it a regular part of your routine, whether you read once a day before bedtime or a few times throughout the day.
Daily reading does not have to involve a long, complicated story--even a few pages can make a significant impact.
Tips for reading with kids
1. Read together from a young age. Even before your child understands what you are reading, you can look at books and read stories together to encourage their love of books.
2. Make reading books part of your everyday life. Set aside a time during the day for regular reading and be consistent.
3. Create a comfortable spot in your home where you can read together and your child can read independently.
4. Collect an assortment of books that are appropriate for your child's age and development (either purchased or borrowed from the library). Your child may be bored by books that are too simple or too advanced for them.
5. Within the above parameters, let your child choose a book to read. They may want to read the same book over and over and that's okay! Don't insist on finishing a book if your child isn't enjoying it.
6. Help your child engage with the story as you read. Ask them questions about what is happening and ask them to predict what will happen next.
7. Keep reading aloud to your child even after they can read independently. Together, you can explore books that might be a bit beyond your child's reading ability. Plus, reading together and discussing what you read can continue to be a wonderful bonding time with your child.
When children learn to read
Most children learn to read around 6 to 7 years old. However, independent reading does not happen spontaneously, but is rather the culmination of a series of accomplishments beginning in the early months of a child's life.
Before your child can read, they will be able to do a variety of skills such as:
Naming objects in a book
Understanding that written words have meaning
Identifying some letters
Recognizing and attempting to write certain familiar words
Identifying new words by matching letters and sounds
Children learn and develop at their own pace, so they may not acquire all of these skills at the same age or in the same way.
If you have any concerns about your child's development of communication or early reading skills, you should consult with their doctor or teacher. There are many interventions that can help children with language or reading challenges.
Encouraging early reading skills
There are many ways that you can foster a love of reading in your child and set them up for success in reading independently. These include:
1. Choose appealing books: Provide your child with books that suit their interests, from dinosaurs to princesses to space. For younger kids, choose books with colorful and interesting pictures.
2. Visit the library: Go to the library on a regular basis and allow your child to pick books that interest them.
3. Be a role model: Show your child that you love to read too! Let them see you reading and discuss what you read with them.
4. Limit screen time: To ensure time and motivation for reading, set limits on screen time. If you use educational apps/websites or e-books, choose them carefully.
5. Incorporate letter and word recognition into your daily life: When you're out with your child, ask them to identify letters and simple words that you see, for example on signs or food packaging at the store.
6. Have your child "read" a familiar book to you: Your child probably has a favorite book memorized. When they "read" it to you, they can make connections between the words on the page and the words they remember.
7. Play letter and language games: Play board or card games that involve identifying letters or sounding out words. When you're on the go you can play rhyming games. Keep these activities natural and fun, though--there's no need to drill your child on letters.
8. Keep it fun: You want your child to see reading as a fun activity, not a chore. Don't make your child read a book that doesn't interest them. Make sure that you do not pressure your child to learn to read before they are ready or compare their progress to other children.
9. Keep it positive: Be patient as your child learns to sound out words and let them try before you jump in to help. Praise your child for their hard work and successes--positive reinforcement will encourage them to keep trying!
Reading daily with your child is one of the most beneficial and rewarding activities that you can do for them. It cultivates an early appreciation for reading, fosters a deeper connection between you and your child, and helps develop their communication skills, cognitive abilities, and overall emotional well-being.
All of these benefits of reading will stay with them for years beyond childhood.
Logan JAR, Justice LM, Yumuş M, Chaparro-Moreno LJ. When Children Are Not Read to at Home: The Million Word Gap. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2019 Jun;40(5):383-386. doi: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000657.