Early years Consultant
April seems to be the time to think about reading, with Hans Christian Andersen's birthday marking international book day on the 2nd and ‘Drop everything and read’, where families are encouraged to put 30 minutes aside and enjoy books together, on the 16th.
So why is reading for pleasure from a young age so important?
The OECD survey of adult skills published in 2013 showed that England came in at a disappointing 47th out of 65 counties on the measure of the number of young adults that read for enjoyment. The survey also found that the difference in reading ability between those who never read for enjoyment or pleasure, compared to those that read for half an hour a day (because they are told to), was the equivalent to a whole year of schooling. This lack of reading for pleasure has the potential to have a large impact on the literacy skills of our young people which can also impact their future prospects with regards to further education and employment. If encouraging our children and young people to read more can have a positive influence on this, why wouldn’t we encourage it?
I have always encouraged parents or carers to read to their children as often as possible. I would even go as far as to say start reading from birth; Dr John S Hutton suggests that reading to children from birth will help with later readiness to read. While young babies and children might not be able to fully understand every word you say, they will be able to pick up the different rhythms and tones in your voice, which will enhance their communication, language and literacy development. If you carefully watch babbling babies or talkative toddlers you will notice that they are exploring the different tones that we use when speaking and they will start to mimic these. They will also be starting to understand social etiquette, like taking turns within a conversation for example young toddlers will ‘babble’ at you, then stop for your reaction.
When we share books with children we use a broader vocabulary than we would use in everyday talk. Reading a range of materials will use different types of language such as persuasive, instructive, emotive and factual, exposing children to a wide and varied vocabulary. The National Literacy Trust’s annual findings showed that children who were read to daily are more than likely to have higher vocabulary then those who weren’t. In general, children would have an above average vocabulary attainment if they looked at or read from printed stories, or stories on touchscreen devices, daily.
But it isn’t just about reading and literacy skills; reading to children, with them and encouraging them to read for pleasure can offer them so much more. Reading with children of all ages can have huge benefits, from strengthening your relationships with them, teaching them basic language and logical thinking skills. It can open them up to new experiences and a different way of looking at certain situations, showing them a different world other than their own, whether this is through their imagination in the fictional world of Peppa Pig, or the factual history of what happened to dinosaurs. Finding the time to read to children (not just at bed time, although this is a great part of the bedtime routine), can be a lovely way to strengthen the bond between parents and children and show them how enjoyable reading and stories can be.
Reading to children can help with cognitive development, the ability to process information. A study conducted by Dr John S Hutton (Aug 2015) suggested that reading aloud to children from a young age was a great and easy way to stimulate the part of the brain that is responsible for language, memory, intelligence and reasoning in the home environment. MRI scans conducted on the children in the study showed that while children are listening to stories there is a change to the flow of oxygen-rich blood in the brain, not only affecting the parietal lobes, responsible for extracting meaning and language, but also the occipital lobes, which are used for visualization. This stimulation can help children develop lifelong skills like problem solving and creativity.
Children who read for pleasure also tend to develop better personal and social skills, as highlighted by Clark and Rumbold (2006) increasing their sense of identity and improving empathy to others.
Finally, the The Reading Agency published a literature review in 2015 on the effects of reading for pleasure and found that there was a relationship between regularly reading for pleasure and well-being. People who read for pleasure are at a lower risk of stress and depression. Engaging children in reading from a young age can also have an impact on their wellbeing throughout their lives.
Remember, reading should be enjoyable, not always a chore
It is fair to say that the studies and research above clearly show that reading for pleasure is extremely important. However we need to emphasise the ‘for pleasure’ part. More and more children are no longer reading just because they enjoy it. As children get older we can sometimes make the mistake of making story time into a reading lesson. Although we mean well we can end up asking too many questions, pushing children that are too young to learn to read because we want our children to achieve. Reading should be a fun activity, it should spark imagination, conversations, questions and ideas – it shouldn’t just be about learning to read. It also doesn’t always need to be story books that you read, it could be comic books, magazines or newspapers etc. As the National Literacy Trust found , what you read also doesn’t have to be printed, it can be digital as well.
How can we encourage children to read for pleasure?
How do we encourage children to have a love of reading, particularly when it seems that the motivation to read decreases with age?
- Firstly we need to make sure that children have access to books within the home environment from as young an age as possible - children who have access to books are twice as likely to read outside of school and for pleasure. This doesn’t mean buying lots of books, you can visit the local library, which can be a fun adventure for the children as well.
- If children see reading as valued within the home this will encourage them to read more. Set incentives, rewards or reading challenges that children can take part in such as the Summer Reading Challenge .
- Give children time outside of activities and school work to spend time reading just for fun.
- If you are a nanny or early years practitioner, think about your learning journals - these are similar to a life story book for your charges, it documents where they have been, what they have done, when they have reached important milestones. Why not get the children more involved in the story of their lives?
- Try keeping up to date with the latest literature that is being published, knowing what the latest trends in books are can help you to spark children’s interest to read through following their peers.
- Before seeing the latest book to film adaptations, encourage teenagers to read the book first, even setting them a challenge, can they read the book before a certain date when you will see the film?