Reading is a fundamental skill that children need to acquire during their childhood. We all know the benefits of reading – it can improve vocabulary, spelling, and writing skills. It can also inspire the imagination and teach children about life.
But if a child does not enjoy reading, the benefits of this fundamental skill will never be fully realised. Children who do not enjoy reading will not have as much exposure to text, they will read less often and won’t gain as many benefits from reading as those that love it.
Here are some hints and tips to help your child to really enjoy the benefits of reading.
Dr Jamie Lingwood, a lecturer in Psychology at Liverpool Hope University, says sitting down to read with your child is crucial when it comes to enhancing their language development.
He says there’s evidence it could also make a significant difference to their future career prospects, too.
Moving away from bedroom reading, picking books with no words, making it a two-way conversation, and using books as a chance to reminisce about past events are just some of the helpful shared reading ‘hacks’ that might foster a child’s inner bookworm. And don’t be disheartened if your child wants to read the same book over and over again, either!
Dr Lingwood, a specialist in how parent-child interactions influence language development, and who was part of the BBC’s recent Tiny Happy People campaign, explains: “Shared reading – when an adult sits down and reads with a child – is incredibly important.
“If you look at the language that parents use during shared book reading, it’s what we call ‘lexically diverse’. It means the vocabulary children hear is very different to what they might hear in everyday conversation.
“It introduces exciting new words and concepts to the child – such as an owl being ‘nocturnal’, for example, and the child’s vocabulary broadens.
“They also hear more complex sentences, or sentences with completely different rhythms, perhaps containing rhymes, which is completely different from how you might chat with a child while they’re simply playing with their toys.
“Psychologists talk a lot about ‘joint attention’ when it comes to shared book reading. You can think of it like a triangle – where you’ve got the child, the adult and the book working in unison. And there’s evidence to suggest that those children who engage in this joint attention have more developed language skills at later ages.”
Dr Lingwood says that when he talks about ‘shared reading’, he’s looking at children up to around six or seven years old, while his own research has focused on four and five year olds.
And here Dr Lingwood – who was part of a recent survey that suggested two thirds of parents thought their children’s language development has been damaged by the pandemic – shares some of his advice:
Make it a conversation:
“Shared reading shouldn’t just involve you looking at the text from start to finish, it should be an interactive experience. It’s about sharing a book with a child or a group of children and creating a conversation around it. The evidence suggests that by doing this, and by asking the child lots of open questions about the book, you foster language development. And we know that this language development is incredibly important, as it’s shown to predict things like reading ages at school. It can even predict how successful you’ll be as an adult in terms of income. Research has also shown how shared reading protects against a lot of language difficulties and delays.”
But don’t be too prescriptive:
“Mum might read a book completely differently to how dad, or grandparents, might read it. The experience can vary a lot – and that’s a good thing. If shared book reading is a bit unfamiliar to a parent, starting by just reading the text together can be a good thing. From there, you can start to make it more interactive.” Reading widely is a good thing, so try all sorts of different books. Different adults will pick out different books to read – it all helps.
Even books with no words can be a good thing:
“There are clearly lots of different genres of book to choose from, and what I’d say is for the parent to be led by the child. If the child has a particular interest in a certain type of book, then that’s great and something to be encouraged. And even picture books with either no or very few words in them can be a good thing. A good example of this is a book called ‘Hug’ by Jez Alborough, which simply repeats the word ‘hug’ on each page. It’s then down to the parent to create a story around this, starting a conversation with the child. It can be challenging for the parent to do this but it’s a great opportunity to introduce this interactive element. And despite not having words on the page, children can still ultimately hear lots of lexically diverse language and complex grammatical structures as long as you talk around it.”
Reading the same book over and over again…
“I hear this a lot from parents – ‘My child wants to read the same book over and over again’. As an adult, what do you do? Do you read the book for the 35th time this week or encourage them to read something else? The good news is that a recent study suggests that by reading the same book repeatedly it can actually help with a child’s memory, in terms of cementing knowledge of particular words. So, it can actually be quite beneficial – although I do sympathise with the parents, as I’ve had this experience with my niece!”
Hardback vs e-books:
“Some parents might worry about whether a child should always have a physical copy of a book in front of them, or whether reading together on a tablet is okay. I’d say that, right now, there’s mixed evidence. Some researchers have suggested that traditional books might be better when it comes to alphabet knowledge but we don’t really know one way or the other as of yet. For me, it’s a question of whether or not a physical book or an e-book is better for your particular child – it comes down to preference. If it’s a child who might be struggling to get into books but is comfortable with electronic devices, reading a book on a tablet is absolutely great. You can try traditional books further down the road.”
Bedroom reading is great – but won’t always work:
“When it comes to shared reading, little and often is the way forward. You don’t have to sit down and read with them for an hour at a time. Five minutes here and there is just as useful, particularly when it comes to keeping them motivated. And fit it around the structure of what works for you and your own lives. It might be that you choose a time towards the end of the day when you’re settling them down for bed. But for a lot of people, that won’t work because by that point the child is too tired to engage properly. Again, it doesn’t have to be prescriptive, where the parent is sitting next to the child in bed. Pick a different point in the day. Or grab five minutes when you’re travelling on the bus together, for example. Find what works for you.”
The ‘re-casting’ technique:
If a child is reading to a parent there might be points where he or she comes across a word they don’t know or struggle to articulate. As a parent, should you let them struggle with it or quickly prompt them?
Dr Lingwood says: “I’d let them have an initial go at it. But one of the things we talk about in language development is the idea of ‘recasting’ and ‘expansion’. If a child says something that’s grammatically wrong, instead of saying, ‘No, that’s incorrect’, you should ‘recast’ it back to them. For example, if they said, ‘The dog jump on the sofa’. You can say, ‘Yes, the dog jumped on the sofa, didn’t he?’ It’s a good strategy to adopt in shared book reading.”
Try ‘elaborative reminiscing’:
“It might sound like a complicated phrase, but all this really involves is getting the child to think about a time that relates to them, prompted by the book. So, if the book’s narrative is about going to the zoo and seeing lots of animals, you can stop reading and ask, ‘Do you remember that time we went to the zoo? Can you remember what animals we saw?’ It gets a conversation going, it relates the story specifically to the child’s own experiences. Again, this process has been shown to boost language development and particularly for memory and vocabulary.”
Shared reading is a good way to talk about Covid-19:
“There are a growing number of books for children that talk about the pandemic. And it’s a great way of talking about something that has had a profound impact on young people. It’s been a confusing, complicated time for them and shared reading is a really nice way of trying to explain what has happened, how it has made people feel, and why it’s okay to have those feelings. Again, by making it interactive it allows the child to speak about their own experiences and relate this overwhelming experience back to them.”
Dr Lingwood says the jury is currently out on how audiobooks might prompt language development, as opposed to more traditional shared reading. It’s something he’ll be researching in the coming months.
But he adds: “There’s evidence to suggest that lots of families started using audiobooks during lockdown, as well as relying more on electronic devices. The landscape of shared reading might have shifted slightly – and that’s really interesting. I want to find out whether audiobooks can foster language development in the same way that traditional books do. And it’s about what parents do when they use audiobooks. Is it something that’s put on so a parent can go about their day, or is it used in a more interactive way? For me, the best way to use an audiobook would be to make it more interactive – where you stop and discuss what’s happening. But it’s different to a book – to stop the device might be quite jarring. It might not be so straightforward. It’ll be interesting to see where this new branch of research takes us.”