The Benefits Go Far Beyond Literacy
by Hannah Sheldon-Dean
Parents hear it all the time: it’s important to read to your kids. But why exactly is that? And does it matter how – or when, or what – you read to them?
It makes sense that being read to would help kids learn to read themselves, and it’s true that being read to supports that crucial learning process. But the benefits of reading together – for kids and for parents – go far beyond literacy.
From birth, babies are hardwired to develop language skills, and consistent exposure to a wide variety of language patterns is what helps them do exactly that. “Just exposure to words is the single most important thing that you can do to help build the language pathways in your child’s brain,” says Laura Phillips, PsyD, the senior director of the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute. “Reading and exposure to words helps kids maximise their language and cognitive capacity.” Even the tactile experience of holding or touching a book supports babies’ cognitive development.
By reading to your child starting at a young age, even before they’re able to communicate verbally, you help lay the neurological groundwork for effective language use and literacy. That’s partly because books expose children to vocabulary and grammar that they wouldn’t normally hear. “When kids are with caregivers or parents, they’re exposed to the same language, the same vocabulary words, the same patterns of speaking, which is wonderful,” says Dr Phillips. “But books allow them to hear new vocabulary and new ways of putting words together, which expands their ability to make sense of and use language.”
Research has found that young children whose parents read to them daily have been exposed to at least 290,000 more words by the time they enter kindergarten than kids who aren’t read to regularly. And depending on how much daily reading time kids get, that number can go up to over a million words. All that exposure likely makes it easier for kids to expand their vocabularies and understand the variety of texts they’ll need to read as they get older, both inside school and out.
Dr Phillips notes that reading also helps kids build a wide base of background knowledge, which is especially helpful once they start school. Kids learn some of this from the books themselves, and some from talking with their caregivers during reading time (“We saw some of these animals at the zoo, remember?”). With more general knowledge – whether it’s about geography, transportation, nature, or countless other topics – kids have more context for the information they encounter at school and an easier time learning about new topics.
Empathy and emotional awareness
Aside from language and literacy, reading is also an important tool for helping children develop empathy. As kids read books about people whose lives are different from their own (and especially stories told from the perspectives of those people), they gain an appreciation for other people’s feelings, as well as other cultures, lifestyles, and perspectives.
Books can also help kids learn how to handle their own feelings in healthy ways. Seeing characters in books experience big emotions like anger or sadness lets kids know that these feelings are normal – and gives them a chance to talk about their own difficult feelings, too.
Parents can use reading time as an opportunity to foster kids’ emotional awareness and build their toolkits for handling feelings: “Have you ever felt as angry as the girl in this book? What would you do if you did?”
The parent-child bond
Having time to read with a parent or caregiver isn’t just about the activity of reading. It’s about having consistent, focused time together, without other distractions or demands. Even a few minutes of reading together gives both you and your child a chance to slow down, connect with each other, and share an enjoyable activity.
What’s more, that cozy time together has benefits for kids’ cognitive development, especially when they’re younger. The sensory experiences of sitting with a caregiver, hearing that familiar voice, and feeling a book in their hands are all important for kids’ brain development. “Hearing a book read over Alexa just isn’t going to give kids the same holistic benefit,” says Dr Phillips.
When young children’s language capacities are developing, being exposed to words and language at the same time as those meaningful sensory experiences makes that exposure even more valuable. “The physical contact that you get from being held by your parent while you’re reading actually helps to engage neurons in the brain, which make kids more receptive to the language and the cognitive stimulation that they’re getting from that experience,” Dr Phillips says.
What to read
Dr Phillips notes that while being read to is beneficial for kids of all ages, the benefits are somewhat different depending on the child’s developmental stage.
“When you have a newborn, read whatever it is that you want to read, even if that’s the New York Times,” she says. “It’s just about having them hear words and sentences and language.”
As kids get older, content starts to matter more. “Reading books with relatable themes can lead to meaningful conversations about what’s happening in their lives,” Dr Phillips notes. “The book can be a bridge to discussing something that a child might be experiencing themselves, and give you a way to broach a topic without saying, for example, ‘Are you being bullied at school?’”
Of course, reading whatever your child enjoys is just about always a good idea. When kids get the chance to follow their own interests, they internalise that reading is fun and rewarding, and they’re more likely to pursue reading on their own.
This applies even for young kids who want to read the same book on repeat. “It’s very common for toddlers and preschoolers to want to read the same book over and over again,” Dr Phillips notes. “And that repetition is actually part of how they master language.”
And there’s no reason to stop reading to kids once they’re able to read themselves. Kids often enjoy hearing books a bit above their ability level, for example hearing chapter books when they’re still reading picture books on their own. Reading together through elementary school supports their developing literacy and gives you both a chance to stay connected as they grow more independent.
Any and all languages
Dr Phillips emphasises that all of these same benefits apply no matter what language (or languages) you’re reading to your child in. “Sometimes families who speak other languages at home are concerned their child won’t become proficient in English if they read to them in another language,” she says, “but I encourage parents to read to kids in whatever language they feel most comfortable reading in.”
While the vocabulary and background knowledge they learn might vary, any cognitive benefits the child gains in one language will apply to any other languages they speak or read as well.
E-books vs print
Lots of kids’ books are available as e-books, but it’s not clear whether reading together with an e-book has all the same benefits as a physical print book. Some research indicates that parents and kids may interact more meaningfully when reading print books compared to e-books. And some experts contend that it’s harder for kids to slow down and read attentively on a screen, since they (and their parents!) are used to scrolling through digital material quickly.
That said, there’s no reason to swear off e-books entirely, especially if they make it possible for your family to read together when you wouldn’t otherwise manage it. For example, if you’re traveling or otherwise have trouble accessing a variety of print books, e-books can make it much easier to find engaging new material to read together.
The important part is making reading time meaningful, no matter the medium. Taking your time, sitting together, and talking with your child about the book can help them (and you) get a lot of the same benefits that you would from reading a print book together.
Making it work for you
As important as reading together is, it doesn’t have to be a picture-perfect routine. Reading at the same time every day – as part of a bedtime routine, for example – can be comforting and make it easier to build the habit of reading, but anytime your child is hearing language and connecting with you makes a difference.
Dr Phillips notes that kids’ development happens in fits and starts, so kids who are gaining a lot of motor skills quickly might not be excited to sit in your lap and read. When that’s the case, it’s more helpful to meet kids where they are rather than trying to enforce rules that could make reading a less positive experience.
“I have a 9-month-old now and she has zero interest in sitting still in my lap while I’m reading a book,” says Dr Phillips. “But I’ll sit and look at a book myself and then she’ll come over and look with me. I can point to some words, say some words, maybe she’ll take the book from me or maybe she’ll wander away and I’ll keep reading while she’s playing in the same room. Whatever you can do is great.”
Source: Child Mind Institute, reviewed 19 January 2023