When Kids Read, Kids Thrive

Audrey Vertovec

Megan and TJ's two-year-old, Owen, came sprinting into the room when he heard his parents discussing books with me over Zoom. As I chatted with his parents, he wandered over to a packed bookshelf, pulled out several of his favorites, and insisted that TJ read to him while Megan and I continued our chat. "This is pretty typical,” laughs Megan, a former teacher and reading tutor. And they’re clearly doing something right because their three other children are just as fascinated by books as Owen. 

It's no secret that reading is essential to a child's development and long-term success. So, how can parents encourage a love of reading like Owen’s in their own children when there are so many distractions?  Megan and TJ started by taking their children to the library.

Each of Megan and TJ’s children has their own library card, which garners a sense of independence and accountability. The kids choose their books and are allowed to borrow as many as they like. Megan and TJ also take the children to literary events hosted at the library, such as the author meet and greets. "In meeting the author, they were able to put a face to the creator of the characters they loved and made a deeper connection to the story," says Megan.

How to create a reader

A 2019 study from Ohio State University found that "reading five books a day to your children exposes them to about 1.4 million more words by kindergarten than those who did not have books read to them." Reading out loud to a child, having them read to you, and having plenty of books available is one of the best ways to prepare a child for school and a long term love of reading. 

One of the ways infants bond with their parents is through hearing the sound of their voice. By merely reading a book to them with your voice, no matter the topic, you can plant the seeds of literacy in their heads at an early age.

According to The NY Times, “research has shown that the number of words an infant is exposed to has a direct impact on language development and literacy. But here's the catch: The language has to be live, in-person, and directed at the child. Turning on a television, or even an audiobook, doesn't count."

"Kids who hear more vocabulary words are going to be better prepared to see those words in print when they enter school," says Jessica Logan, member of Ohio State University's Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy. "They are likely to pick up reading skills more quickly and easily."

Parents and teachers alike know it can be tricky to keep kids interested in reading. If your budget allows, keeping your child's bookshelf full of new options, so they don't tire of the same stories, is a great way to engage them differently in reading over time. Accessing your local library and even tiny libraries in your neighborhood can help you keep up with your child's changing interests.

In a study published in Social Science Research, children with home libraries averaging eighty books had surging literacy levels with higher vocabulary and comprehension. The study found a connection between home book collections and both the "ability to use mathematical concepts in everyday life" and "the ability to use digital technology to communicate with others." Purchasing books isn’t feasible for every family, though, and we encourage you to think about other ways to access literature, like the library or even trading books with friends.

Brittany Sundgren, a fourth-grade teacher and former K-12 instructional coach, suggests asking questions aloud as you read books or sharing your thinking about the story as you read to keep things interesting and keep kids focused. "Model making predictions, fixing mistakes you make as you read, and re-reading if you are confused. These skills are learned and will help equip your child to be an independent reader." 

 If you want to make story time the best part of the day, make reading a theatrical event! Children find hilarity in the unexpected and respond well when hearing a parent go outside their familiar voice and behavior. 

In her Ten Read-Aloud Commandments, Mem Fox says, "Read aloud with animation. Listen to your voice, and don't be dull, or flat, or boring. Hang loose and be loud, have fun, and laugh a lot." If you need help finding a few books to help turn you into a stand-up comedian, check out a few of our favorites: 

  • Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak 
  • Hangry by Drew Brockington 
  • Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein 

A lasting interest

Dr. John Burton, who holds a doctorate in Human Development Counseling from Vanderbilt University, says one of the best ways to foster a love of reading at a young age is to find books about topics that children are already interested in. "If a child is already excited about a particular subject, they are naturally drawn to a book that allows them to learn more about a topic they already find interesting. It is a 'pre-paved' road." 

For younger children, Burton suggests finding books with pictures and words, so the child associates one with the other. And if your child would prefer to watch video games instead of reading, you can use this to your advantage by finding books that are often adapted into shows. These types of books can act as an extension of the world they know and love while fostering joy in reading that will follow them through life. 

If they’re still not falling in love with reading, don’t restrict your child to the classic version of a book, consider trying a different format. Comic books and graphic novels foster imagination and excitement with young readers when associating words and pictures. Find virtual "story times" with beloved characters and authors, such as Story Time with Josh Gad, the infamous voice of Olaf the Snowman, or learn to doodle with famous author and illustrator Mo Willems.

And remember, children mirror their parents' actions; if a child sees you reading, they are more likely to want to do so. Nicole Haddad, a fifth-grade teacher, tells her students' parents that if they want their kids to read regularly, they must also do so. "During reading time in the classroom, I always read my book while they read theirs. Kids do what they see; they don't always do what you say." If your child is assigned a book at school, read it along with them, and discuss the book as a family. 

When children love to read they flourish. Everything we do in life requires some level of reading and comprehension. By instilling the value of reading at an early age, children will likely be more successful in all areas of learning. Reading also builds language skills, one of the most critical aspects of success in our daily lives.

So follow the lead of Megan and TJ, and grab a book and put it in the hands of a child in your lap. Pretty soon you’ll have a reader like Owen on your hands.

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