Following on from Book Council CEO Catriona Ferguson's comments on Radio New Zealand’s Upbeat programme about the importance of reading to children – it’s easy, fun and free – children's book author and Book Council Reading Doctor, Kate De Goldi, shares her thoughts on why reading to children is invaluable (for the grown-ups too!).
My belief in the benefits of reading aloud to one’s children (or other people’s children, for that matter) is so entrenched I seldom examine it. The act of reading is something I live by – and the reading aloud I experienced as both a child and a parent was the foundation for that way of life. It’s good to have the opportunity to think again about why I believe it’s so important.
The educational and developmental advantages for the child who is read to are very clear.
Habitually reading nursery rhymes, poetry, and stories is – along with talking to your child – the preeminent way of developing their capacity for language and thought. When you read to your child they are experiencing over and over the astonishment of language: the sounds and shapes of words, the satisfactions of rhythm and rhyme, the exhilaration of being able to name what they know and feel, to compare and contrast, to connect.Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’When you read to your child consistently their word bank grows exponentially; the greater their word bank the better their capacity to navigate and understand the world rushing into view.
When you read to your child they are deeply and happily engaged in learning. They are learning the shape and structure of story (and therefore, as Bruno Bettelheim pointed out, learning, in a profound way, the structure of human life: beginning, middle and end). They are learning about human motive and behaviour. About relationships. About places. About a great cavalcade of things, little and big. They are learning that a book is a mirror and a window: a book reflects their life back to them (see, an apple, a dog, a sister, a bus) – an affirming and comforting experience; and a book opens out onto worlds that are new (see, different skins, foods, clothes, behaviour, deserts, snowy lands, infinity and beyond) – a thrilling and challenging experience.
The child who has been read to regularly begins school with a terrifically well-stocked head and heart.
The read-to child is also more likely to become the reading child; they have learnt early and well that when you have a book you are never alone. They have learnt that story and poetry can provide adventure, escape, enlightenment and solace.
It is good to know that reading to your child is edifying and educational, of course, but it seems to me just as important to know that reading together is deeply pleasurable, for both the listening (and looking) child and – importantly – for the reader, too. There are great pluses for a parent or caregiver in this two-way activity. There may be studies monitoring the release of pleasure-enhancing chemicals during reading-aloud time – I don’t know – but it is certainly true that the reader can experience an enhanced state-of-being as much as the child being read to.
You drop everything else in the middle of your demanding day – or evening – and for a period of time it is just you, the absorbed child, and the enchantment of story and language.
It is a chance to be still and thoughtful.
It is a chance for you and your child to be physically close – which makes it an especially good thing to do with an older child who is moving a little away (as they must) from the ready cuddle. Maybe your child is on your knee, or leaning in as you read to them on the couch, or in bed. There is such sensory pleasure and comfort to be had by both of you – your child listening to your voice, feeling your warmth and your familiar smell, knowing they’re safe (whatever is happening in the story or has happened in their day) – and for you, of course, in all the same ways. It is a fundamental way of nurturing the connection between the two of you, of building your relationship.
Listening to story and looking at pictures is far from a passive act. So reading to your child gives you the chance to experience their responses to story and language, to witness their growing understanding of the world unfolding around them, to see them connecting, little by little, the component parts of that world. From the first moment they learn how to turn a page, through to finishing sentences in a well-loved text, to their observation of something in a story or picture that you haven’t noticed, reading together offers myriad examples of your child’s developing acuteness, insight and empathy. And together you build a shared experience of stories and characters and words and places and events – something that deepens your connection and can be called on down the years.
Reading to your child means the chance to be surprised and amused and revived and comforted by the child’s-eye view of the world – bestowed by both the books and the child beside you, responding to your reading. Amidst the demands and clutter of a busy adult life it is good to regularly re-enter the world of children’s stories and poetry, to be reacquainted with wonder and ways of seeing that you may have forgotten about.
I like to think that there are some immensely practical benefits to reading aloud to your children too. For one, it’s a leisure activity that costs very little. It’s great for a child to be able to own books, of course, particularly their favourites (re-reading being an essential part of a rich reading life). But not everyone can afford to buy books. Everyone can have a library card, though – and thanks to the superb children’s collections in our public libraries, reading-aloud material is potentially endless.
Lastly – but importantly! – I think of reading aloud as the ultimate trouble-shooter or pacifier. When disorder or conflict reigns at home, when everyone (including the adult) is beyond reason or can’t be mollified, sitting down with a book or two is the very best time-out. Everyone has a chance to calm down, to gather their resources and be gloriously distracted by story and language. When all else fails, sink into a sofa, or sprawl on the floor with your children, and open the nearest book.
Odds are you’ll be as soothed by the sound of your reading voice as they are.
PS: Reading Doctor prescribes Babies Need Books by Dorothy Butler, especially Chapter One, for the most beautifully written and wonderfully informed explanation of why reading to and with your children is so important – you can’t do better.
About Kate De Goldi
Kate De Goldi writes regular reading prescriptions as the Book Council’s resident Reading Doctor. If the children in your life have a reading ailment, ask the Reading Doctor now: firstname.lastname@example.org. De Goldi is an award-winning short story writer, an author of young adult fiction, a children’s book author and a writer of journalism pieces. She won the New Zealand Post Book of the Year Award in 2005 and 2009. She was named an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate for 2001. The 10pm Question (2008) won the Young Adult section of the 2009 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Find out more about Kate De Goldi in her Book Council writers file.
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