Most parents, if not all, want their children to be intelligent. “Dem mus’ bright!” What many parents don’t realise is that they, themselves, have the power to increase their children’s learning potential just by making reading an integral part of their lives, not relegated to being merely a school-time activity. The benefits of reading to your children during their early years extend well beyond cognitive ability and academic achievement, as several studies suggest that this often-neglected family activity may also contribute to children’s socioemotional development.
It’s never too early to begin reading to your child. Children have the capacity to develop literacy skills even before they start talking or reading themselves. According to Noam Chomsky (1968)[i] who developed the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) theory, children are born with the ability to comprehend and produce language through a process that is guided by a language processor called the LAD. Whether or not you agree with Chomsky on the mechanics of language acquisition, there is an abundance of evidence that speak to language learning taking place during early infancy and even during the prenatal period[ii]. Since language development is pivotal to all areas of learning, reading to your young child is one of the most easily accessible means of capitalising on innate learning capabilities and setting a firm foundation for future success.
Reading to children during the early years has been linked to increased interest in reading and learning, as well as greater levels of phonological awareness, reading comprehension, school readiness and performance, regardless of socio-economic status[iii][iv][v]. It is also associated with higher levels of motivation, interest in learning, socio-emotional adjustment and empathy[vi][vii]. When one considers that children with underdeveloped literacy skills are more likely to repeat grades and to become high school dropouts[viii], the importance of investing personal time and energy into this activity becomes even more significant.
READING PATTERNS IN JAMAICA
The results of local surveys, as published in the Jamaica Survey of Living Conditions[ix], give us an idea of the degree to which children, aged zero to nine, are being read to or shown books by their caregivers. The last three rounds of survey reveal that, overall, the percentage of caregivers who read or show books to their children has been hovering around the low 70s, with a slight decline between 2008 and 2012. What is encouraging, however, is that, compared to other child stimulation activities in the home, reading has the highest level of participation.
Differences by sex
Year-after-year, figures consistently show that more girls than boys are read to or shown books by their caregivers. Could this be a primary contributor to local high school dropout rates continuing to be higher among boys?
Differences by age
Reading to children is at its highest within the 3 to under 6 year age range. This trend remains consistent, even where there are incremental increases within other age ranges.
Differences by Economic Status
If book ownership is an indicator of reading behaviour, then it appears that wealthier households are more engaged than poorer households, as 72.7% of children under 5 from the richest quintile have 3 or more books, compared to 34.2% from the poorest[x].
Closer examination of reading behaviour by economic status proved this to be the case, as successive surveys show a larger percentage of children from wealthier households being read to by their caregivers than children from poorer households. Across all wealth quintiles, reading to children is still at its highest within the 3 to 6 age range.
Differences by region
With the exception of the year 2008, a larger proportion of children in the Kingston Metropolitan Area (KMA) are read to or shown books by their caregiver than those in Other Towns or Rural Areas. This pattern remains consistent despite a decline in the KMA between 2010 and 2012.
Let’s take action!
There are some who still think that reading to their young child, even before he/she is able to speak, may be a grand waste of time. Hopefully, the information presented has helped to dispel that belief and provide encouragement for deliberate effort to be made in reading with even very young children. Creating opportunities for your child to blossom academically, socially and emotionally can be as simple as re-arranging your daily itinerary to accommodate a few minutes of reading time with your little one. Academic excellence and life success don’t have to be reserved for the elite. Here are a few tips for reading to your baby or young child[xi]:
- Read one or two pages at a time; gradually increase the number of pages.
- Let your baby turn the pages if he or she is more interested in the book than listening to you read. He or she will still be learning about books and enjoying your company.
- Point to, name, and talk about things in pictures. Describe what’s happening.
- Encourage your child to join in (e.g. moo like a cow or finish a repetitive phrase).
- Stay on a page as long as your child is interested.
- Read the same books again and again, especially if asked by your young child. Re-reading the same stories also helps to develop long-term memory.
- Vary your voice to fit the characters and plot.
- Use puppets and other props related to the story
Let’s start them early, start them right!
[i] Chomsky, N. (1968). Language and mind. New York: Harcourt Brace.
[ii] Behme, C. & Deacon, S.H. (2008). Language learning in infancy: Does the empirical evidence support a domain specific language acquisition device? Philosophical Psychology, 25(5), 641-671.
[iii] Armbruster, B., Lehr, F., & Osborn, J. (2002). Teaching our youngest: A guide for preschool teachers and child care and family providers. Early Childhood Task Force. US Department of Education and the US Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/teachers/how/early/teachingouryoungest/page_pg5.html#aloud
[iv] Hutton, J. S., Horowitz-Kraus, T., Mendelsohn, A. L., DeWitt, T., & Holland, S. K. (2015). Home Reading Environment and Brain Activation in Preschool Children Listening to Stories. Pediatrics, 136(3), 466-478.
[v] Raikes, H., Luze, G., Brooks-Gunn, J., Raikes, H.A., Alexander Pan, B., Tamis-LeMonda, C.S., … Rodriguez, E.T. (2006). Mother-child bookreading in low-income families: Correlates and outcomes during the first three years of life. Child Development, 77(4), 924-953.
[vi] Aram, D. & Aviram, S. (2009). Mother’s storybook reading and kindergarteners’ socioemotional and literacy development. Reading Psychology, 30, 175-194.
[vii] Bardige, B. (2016). Talk to me, baby! How you can support young children’s language development (2nd ed.). Baltimore, Maryland: Brookes Publishing.
[viii] American Psychological Association. (2012). Facing the school dropout dilemma. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/school-dropout-prevention.aspx
[ix] Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) and Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) (2014). Jamaica survey of living conditions 2012. Kingston: PIOJ & STATIN.
[x] STATIN & UNICEF (2013). Jamaica multiple cluster indicator survey 2011: Final report. Kingston: STATIN and UNICEF.
[xi] Koralek, D. (n.d.). Reading aloud with children of all ages. Retrieved from http://www.naeyc.org/files/yc/file/200303/ReadingAloud.pdf