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Reading to Preschoolers Falls Short on the Road to Literacy

What matters is reading with your child and doing it often.

Three-quarters of middle-class parents read to their preschool children at least 5 days a week. To many, it’s as important and routine as personal hygiene. Yet many parents need encouragement to keep at it because their children don’t always seem tuned in. Parents believe that regular reading leads to higher reading—and eventually writing—achievement and research supports them, just as it does their belief that it engenders positive attitudes toward reading as an activity, and as a motivator in learning to read.

But being read to is not the same as being read with. Shared reading (sometimes called ‘lap reading’), where the parent and child engage together in a conversation about how to understand and mutually enjoy what is on the printed page with the ultimate goal of turning the printed word into its spoken counterpart, belongs to the larger and more productive world of family literacy where language is taught wherever and whenever it matters. It starts with joint attention to illustrations and leads straight to phonemic awareness of what is in print.

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Here are my favorite reasons to read with your child daily:

  • Literacy promotion. From tactile books to first chapter books, parents can edit and customize the text to fit the child’s interest, mood and curiosity about what is on the page. That is how they support their child’s innate interest in the printed symbols we use to capture meaning and intent in our written communication.
  • Focused social interaction. As the child sits on the parent’s lap, the parent feels the child settle, alert, get bored, back up, lean in—all part of the reciprocal conversation the child and parent have in the moment. This ‘serve and return’ learning is a favorite of the growing brain which prefers it over other kinds of stimulation, because being connected emotionally and synaptically allows the parent to use that information to tune in precisely to what interests his child about what’s on the page
  • Intimacy. The physical and emotional closeness of shared reading/shared attention lowers levels of stress hormones (especially in the adult) and settles both generations down. Can you name a healthier moment of the parent’s day?
  • Entertainment. The delight that comes with the turn of the page, echoing of an intentional sound, desire to repeat a particular page, search for a favorite illustration, or closing the book with a ‘slap!’ (our son’s favorite) all guaranteed shared enjoyment for a few moments of every day.
  • Stimulating cognitive growth. In those first thousand days, the brain grows faster than it ever will again, and regular manageable intellectual stimulation encourages growth of connections between parts of the brain responsible for memory, emotion, problem-solving, thinking and behavior regulation. Shared reading reaches across each of these growth centers, connecting them for good.

Dads, moms, other family members, tablets, eReaders are all credible variations on the shared reading syllabus, and each adds an interesting wrinkle that potentially strengthens these reasons — as long as there is always a lap for the reading.

Dr. Kyle Pruett is a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Educational Advisory Board member for The Goddard School, an early childhood education franchise and leading preschool teaching learning through play (