Enhance child development through interactive reading.
Words Julie Saetre
As a pediatrician, Dr. Perri Klass has long been attuned to the medical needs of children. So it’s not surprising that when she learned about the important role reading aloud to children plays in their brain development, she found a way to use her area of expertise to help kids develop strong minds as well as healthy bodies.
Klass is national medical director for Reach Out and Read, a nonprofit launched by Boston Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, nearly three decades ago. Reach Out and Read uses pediatric well-visit appointments as a means to ensure that children have access to books and that parents know how to help those books make the most impact.
“One very important part of that,” Klass says, “is to send (children) into preschool and the early grades of school as children who know books, who’ve been read to, who’ve read with adults.”
That’s because reading to a child does far more than provide a way for a busy parent to find a moment of seated peace in the midst of a chaotic day of play. It turns out that reading sessions done early and often give that child a big boost in the skills needed to succeed in school and at life.
“Reading aloud from birth is a critical factor in brain development, helping all children absorb new information, learn new words and hone skills,” says Michael Haggen, chief academic officer for Scholastic Education.
Kids who fall behind often struggle to catch up. According to research organization Child Trends, how a child uses vocabulary at age 3 strongly predicts language skill and reading comprehension at ages 9 and 10. The Children’s Literacy Foundation, a nonprofit working to encourage reading and writing among children in New Hampshire and Vermont, reports that one out of six children who can’t read at age level by the end of third grade won’t graduate from high school.
It’s not just a North American issue. For example, statistics from Better Beginnings, a family literacy project developed by the State Library of Western Australia, show that 44 percent of Australian adults don’t have the literacy skills needed to deal with everyday work and life demands. And the Australian Industry Group found that 75 percent of employers say their business is affected by low levels of literacy and numeracy.
In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics officially advised parents to start reading aloud to their children from birth.
“It enhances, enriches, changes the language environment in which children are growing up,” explains Klass. “It’s one of the ways babies and young children are learning and understanding what language is and its power and how to use it, picking up words and sentences and sentence structures.”
Nicole McDermott is head of school at Pinecrest School in Annandale, Virginia. Her K-Kids club was the first to participate in Kiwanis International’s new Read & Lead program, a partnership with Penguin Random House that combines literacy with service.
“Reading does a lot of things,” she says. “It increases creativity, it increases capability for imagination. It certainly increases vocabulary and exposure to good writing. And it starts with the people you love early on, when you’re really little.”
But if reading aloud is good – and clearly it is – how you read aloud can make its power even greater. In 1988, Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, a leader in education research and policy in the U.S. and internationally, introduced the concept of dialogic reading. Simply put, when using this technique, an adult doesn’t read to a child who passively listens. Rather, the adult encourages the child to engage in the story, making the experience an interactive one.
Whitehurst and some fellow researchers tested dialogic reading with children between the ages of 21 and 35 months and found that those whose families used the technique scored six to 8.5 months ahead on reading development than did kids in a control group.
“It’s incredibly powerful for children as they’re learning to read to be able to participate,” Klass says. “That back and forth can evolve into a child who can actually ask and answer complicated questions or even help you read the story.”
Whitehurst summarized the technique as a PEER sequence:
Prompt the child to say something about the book. (“What is this?” while pointing at a picture of a fire truck.)
Evaluate the child’s response. (If the child says “truck,” the adult responds “Yes, that’s right.”)
Expand the child’s response by rephrasing and adding information. (“That’s a red fire truck.”)
Repeat the prompt to make sure the child has learned the expanded information. (“Can you say ‘fire truck’?”)
Whitehurst advised reading a new book more traditionally the first time, then using the PEER technique in subsequent sessions. It works best, he wrote, when those reading alternate between dialogic and traditional approaches, use a variety of prompts and keep the child’s interests in mind.
Engaging children in a story also involves enthusiasm on the part of the reader, experts say.
“Go ahead – use your silly voice,” advises Klass. “Use your squeaky voice for the mouse and use your very deep voice for the monster. You don’t want it to be serious. You want the kid to be laughing or telling you what’s going to happen or reciting the rhymes along with you. Developmentally, by 18 months, two years, a child who’s been read to will start completing the rhymes.”
Offering a selection of age-appropriate books and letting a child choose which ones to read furthers the impact of the experience. It gives the child a sense of control, ensures the story will be engaging and opens a window on new worlds, something young readers increasingly request.
“Thirty-one percent of children ages six to 17 want books that explore places and worlds they’ve never been,” reports Scholastic’s Haggen, “and 22 percent want books that help them imagine and understand other people’s lives. Kids are seeking opportunities to branch out.”
Providing a diverse selection of books also fosters a sense of inclusion and belonging in children, he says.
“It’s important that all kids, no matter their cultural background, interests or postal code, see themselves in books.”
Unfortunately, not all children have access to books of any kind. According to Scholastic, 46 percent of teachers and principals say that access to fiction and/or nonfiction books at home is not adequately available to their students. For children in high poverty areas, that number increases to 69 percent. And Reach Out and Read reports that families living in poverty are significantly less likely to read aloud to their infants and toddlers.
That translates into lower academic achievement, warns First Book, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that works to create equal access to quality education. The group reports that 79 percent of fourth-graders from low-income households do not read proficiently.
“One of the best things that any caring adult – whether it’s a parent, caregiver or Kiwanian – can do is to help ensure all children have access to books,” says Haggen. “Can you arrange a group trip to a public library, organize free pop-up libraries at barber shops or places of worship, fundraise to provide at least one book to every child to read over the summer? The more opportunities children have to interact with a variety of high-interest, high-quality, authentic texts, the better.”
And while it’s tempting to think technology holds the key to expanded book access – one device, limitless reading options – timeless print picture books hold one key advantage over their modern competition.
“The great power with small children of a traditional board book,” Klass says, “is that in order to make it talk to you, you have to activate a parent. It’s an interaction that’s about stories and language and information, and ideally it’s also about back and forth and an adult showing the way to how big and wide and interesting the world is.”
Such a collaborative relationship shouldn’t cease once a child can read on her own, although that happens far too often. Scholastic reports that reading aloud to children drops after age five, and then again after age eight. Fifty-nine percent of children between birth and age five hear books read to them at home; that drops to 38 percent of kids ages six to eight. Only 17 percent of children ages 9 to 11 hear parents read books to them.
“The reward for learning to read should not be that adults stop reading to you,” cautions Klass. “It’s the closeness of having an adult you trust take you a little further than you could go yourself in story and narrative and information.”
Parents and caregivers who continue to read with children also help set them up for a lifelong love of books. As kids get older, they have a lot of options competing for their free time. Computers, smart phones, sports, clubs, specialized lessons and social activities vie for their attention. It’s up to adults to make sure reading remains a cherished pastime.
“Parents are kids’ number-one source of encouragement to read books for fun,” says Hagen.
Adults should be role models by reading books for both pleasure and information. Klass suggests setting aside regular screen-free times, when everyone in the family or group puts aside phones, computers and televisions and instead reads, either individually or together. If kids need help finding books they like, turn to the pros. Hagen says 51 percent of kids get their best book ideas from teachers and librarians.
“The best way to make sure that children keep reading,” Klass stresses, “the best way that’s ever been discovered, is to find – or for them to find — something that they will want to know so badly that they stay up all night and read under the covers with a flashlight.”
This story originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Kiwanis magazine.