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A Father's Role(s) in Reading

Why fathers matter to reading development

Source: Freepik

In honor of Father's Day, we're posting today about the many ways that fathers can contribute to their children's reading development. While we have all heard how important it is for parents to read to young children, too often we assume that those "parents" are mostly mothers. And indeed, research shows that mothers do read to their children more often than fathers. But research also tells us that fathers have at least three vital roles to play in their children's literacy development.

When fathers read to young children, they tend to interact differently than mothers do. Studies by Duursma and others have found that while mothers tend to focus more narrowly on the content of the book they are reading, fathers' reading time conversations with children are more wide-ranging and often bring in topics from outside contexts. Similarly, mothers tend to ask children convergent questions about the facts or events in the book they are reading, but fathers pose more abstract questions that challenge children to use their imaginations or connect what they are reading to outside experiences. As a result, while time read to by mothers was correlated with traditional emergent reading behaviors by children, it was time read to by fathers that predicted better language development, which is the foundation of reading comprehension. Interestingly, girls' language development benefited even more than boys' from having their fathers read to them regularly.

Fathers serve as important reading models, especially for boys. When the only people they ever see reading are their mothers and their (usually) female elementary school teachers, boys often begin to see reading as an essentially feminine activity, something "guys" don't do. Watching their fathers read can prevent the development of this detrimental belief; in fact, research done recently in Italy found that children tend to imitate their parents’ reading activities even more closely than we would have guessed. Fathers can also be helpful in broadening children's conceptions of reading. While men are less likely than women to be traditional fiction book readers, fathers can help show children that reading newspapers, reading instructions, reading for information, and even reading sports reports are all legitimate, useful, and rewarding types of reading.

As children get older, a father's influence on reading can still be strong. Fathers who recommend and discuss books with their teenagers have a positive impact on whether and what they read. In fact, studies show that adolescents who read are often motivated to read books their parents are reading or had read in their youth. Fathers can also make sure books and other reading materials remain readily available to their children by going with them to the library and buying books or subscriptions for gifts—or by giving them a gift card to the local bookstore, and then taking them on a Saturday morning expedition, so they can pick out just what they'd like! Real readers love to talk about what they are reading, and fathers can be great listeners and contributors to these conversations; we know that teenage boys who like to read especially value increased sharing and discussion of multiple sorts of reading materials, including informational and Internet-based reading, with their fathers as they get older.

Such reading-centered interactions can benefit fathers just as much as their children. Fathers say that reading to their children at bedtime helps them feel emotionally and physically closer to their kids, especially if they have to be away all day at work. When their sons are older, some fathers report that typically “masculine” reading activities, like looking up sports statistics, offer important opportunities to share time and interests with their sons. Even fathers who initially lack skill or confidence in reading have been shown to gain both through reading with their children.

So this Father’s Day, encourage the fathers you know to spend some time reading to or with their children. If you are a father yourself, know that interacting together around reading—whether it is a repair manual, an online site about some shared interest, or a favorite book from your own childhood—is a win/win situation for you and your kids.

And have a Happy Father's Day!

For fathers (or others ) who want to know more:

  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has put out a great research brief on the benefits of fathers reading to their children, with a lot of embedded resources that focus mainly on reading and doing other literacy activities with younger children.
  • Jon Scieszka's Guys Read site has lots of information specifically on boys and reading and suggestions for things fathers might enjoy reading with somewhat older sons.
  • For those who want to dig deeper, Christina Clark wrote a report for the National Literacy Trust summarizing the research up to 2003 that supports all these benefits, which is available free through ERIC.
More from Paula J. Schwanenflugel, Ph.D., and Nancy Flanagan Knapp, Ph.D.
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