When parents come in with their young infants, I at some point ask if they are reading with their baby. Often times I get confused looks, “You mean I should be reading with them already?” It’s true that your 2 week old infant won’t really be paying attention to the book, they may not even be able to see the pictures, and definitely won’t understand a storyline, but they are interested in the sound of your voice and the loving attention that reading affords. Starting the habit of reading early can have a profound effect on a child’s developing brain, particularly in the areas of language development, focus, and attention.
Studies have shown that children who are exposed to reading books at home have stronger activation in the parts of their brain associated with language processing, comprehension, and imagination. These children also enter school with better language and literacy skills, and tend to have stronger parent-child bonds when compared to children who are not read to on a routine basis. Given all of these factors, it should come as no surprise that we as pediatricians encourage reading at an early age. Additionally, The American Academy of Pediatrics, in a 2014 statement recommended that parents start reading with their infants starting shortly after birth.
Language acquisition is an important milestone during a child’s development. Over the first two years, your child’s comprehension and understanding of language really takes off, while expressive communication lags behind. Studies have shown that toddlers who have been read to often have a larger vocabulary than those who have not been read to and may even start talking earlier. As your infant starts making vowel sounds with “coos” and “goos”, followed by consonant sounds and babbling with “bababa” and “mamama”, they are starting to understand the words and sentences that you are speaking to them. They engage in conversations with you, babbling away as you acknowledge their utterances and teach them the back and forth pattern of mature conversations. By the time they can utter 3 to 5 words, they may also be able to follow a simple command such as “wave bye-bye.” What you get with this discrepancy in learning pace is a toddler who can understand what she is hearing, but is unable to communicate her thoughts, wishes, and needs. Once a toddler is able to communicate more effectively with caretakers, they can start to interact with their environment and express their own thoughts.
Exposure to words is vital to both expressive and receptive language development in children. An intensive observational study published in 1995 by Betty Hart and Todd R Risley (The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3, published by the American Federation of Teachers) demonstrated a large gap in the spoken vocabulary of 3 year old toddlers based on the number of words that their child heard daily during those first years. The researchers observed differences amongst three groups of children: those who heard 600 words per hour, those who heard 1250 words per hour, and those who heard 2100 words per hour. Children from the group who heard just 600 words per hour during those first few years spoke only about 600 words at age 3 compared to 750 words in children who heard 1250 words per hour and nearly 1200 words in children who heard 2100 words per hour. What’s more is that ongoing observation found that the gap in a child’s spoken vocabulary only continued to widen as the children got older. Children who had a faster rate of learning new words performed better in elementary school, and had better language skills and reading comprehension by age 10. Based on the observations of the study, the authors hypothesized that a major contributor to this discrepancy was the number of words the child heard during the first 4 years of life. When the researchers extrapolated the words heard per hour over a 4 year period, they came up with a total word-experience of 13 million for children who heard 600 words per hour, 26 million words for children who heard 1250 words per hour, and 45 million for children who heard 2100 words per hour. This created the idea of the 30 million word gap by age 4, which many educators reference today to really highlight the importance of reading with young children. While language development and scholastic achievement are very complex areas that cannot be solely explained by the findings of this study, early exposure to more words can certainly be helpful in your child’s development. What better and easier way to do this than incorporating reading, starting at an early age?
Books are a great, easy way of introducing new words and ideas to young children. When we read with our children, we teach them about new words. Babies won’t start uttering their first words until around their first birthday, and even after that, you can expect to hear about 8 to 10 words by 18 months and roughly 50 words by 2 years. Long before they start speaking, however, your children understand what you are saying and forming their own opinions. For example, my 14 month old daughter only says a few words, but she can carry out a simple command such as “Can you bring me that toy?” or even a more complex set of instructions like “Can you find your bunny and give it to dad?” As your child approaches their first birthday, their attitude towards books may change. Where they may have been uninterested in the bright, colorful pictures and rhythm of The Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson when they were 6 months old, around 12 months old, they may be reaching for that book on the bookshelf and pointing for you to read it over and over and over again. Take this opportunity to invoke different emotions with your voice, use hand gestures to entertain your little one throughout the story, point out different objects in the pictures, and share in a giggle or two with your budding bibliophile.
Be sure to choose age appropriate books with your children. With infants and toddlers, opt for sturdy board books and look for ones that offer fun illustrations or pictures with just a few words per page. Let your baby reach for the book, turn it over in their hands, and chew on it. This is how they learn about their environment at this age, and what better way to teach them a love for books than allowing them to manipulate it as they would their favorite toy? As your toddler grows into a pre-schooler, help them choose more complex books with more of a storyline. Start asking them questions about the story such as what emotions the characters may be experiencing at different points, or why a certain event may have taken place. Once your child has learned to read on their own, encourage personal reading time but don’t neglect to continue to read with them on a routine basis. When reading with your older children, let them choose which books they want to listen to. Help them choose books that are 1 to 2 reading levels beyond what they are capable of. Reading with your older children helps them develop their imagination, and can also have a positive effect on their ability to focus and concentrate. Continue to delve deeper into the meaning of the book, asking your children deeper questions about the plot and events. This will encourage them to think critically about the story and further deepen their reading comprehension abilities.
The benefits of family reading time cannot be praised enough. From exposing children to a larger and wider variety of words, to developing their imagination and creating a love of literacy from an early age, reading certainly has its benefits. Even if family reading time hasn’t been a part of your routine, there’s no reason to not start today. If you’re at a loss for where to start, there are two great resources at your fingertips: your local librarian and your child. Start with either of them, asking for recommendations, and let your journey begin.
Jennifer Menon, MD
Canyon View Pediatrics