Oklahoma City family fun doesn't just take place outside the home. Snow days like the ones we've had recently are a great time to engage with kids, talk with them, play with them, read together. That last activity is the focus of several recent studies, most of which emphasize similar points: reading to young children and with older ones is important, critical even, to their development. Reading together isn't just for snow days, of course; there are organizations with resources dedicated to helping families make it an everyday habit, a part of our routine as essential as nourishing small bodies and brushing baby teeth.
March is National Reading Awareness Month and when MetroFamily's editor, Hannah Schmitt, asked if I wanted to write about it, I instantly agreed. Literacy is a topic I follow because books played a pivotal role in my childhood and there's no way I'd be the same person without them. Our living room features an armchair purchased just for sitting down with books, in the style of "A Chair for My Mother," and my oldest child, Sam, sits down with a novel there nearly every afternoon. We are a family that values literature; my husband and I both studied related majors in college and agree that it's key. However, there's still a lot that gets in the way of actually sitting down to read together.
The Read Aloud 15 Minutes National Campaign reports that only 48 percent of kids are read aloud to each day. Our sons are ages 7, 3 and 6 weeks, and I know that what we do now with language and learning is already making an impression. Their favorite books are listed below. The evidence in support of reading in early childhood is overwhelming; it's tied to better school preparedness, broader vocabulary and even higher IQ far beyond the often-cited birth to age 5 window. According to the Campaign, "Research shows that reading aloud is the single most important thing you can do to help a child prepare for reading and learning."
I don't think anyone doubts the value of reading aloud but I can see how it gets lost in the shuffle. We don't need more convincing, just more time.
Do we read every day? Yes, typically. Is it easy to get in our reading time? Not always. The laundry is never-ending and needs folded, the baby cries and dinner has to be made. This video has been floating around social media for the past week and what it shows has been described as "the Sisyphean reality we're all facing." Yeah. The housework is constant in a home with children. There's homework too, besides extracurricular activities. Plus, distractions: we're the first generation to raise children in the golden age of silver screens.
Never before have there been so many options to consume media, between video streaming, TV, tablets, iPads and other handheld devices that instantly entertain. Technology is all around us and we as parents are tasked with setting limits for our kids on what's fun and new and not fully studied. It's hard for us too to put down the phone, ignore email, turn off the TV and be fully present to repeat the words of "Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?" after a long day. I've fallen asleep reading to my sons and, more recently, dozed off while Sam read to me.
I could find plenty of excuses not to read to Sam, Isaac and Gabriel but I won't and here's why not: when they're grown, they won't remember the laundry, folded or unfolded, on any given day. Not much of the homework. Probably nothing of that high score on the iPad app. They're more likely to remember some of the stories we shared and the one-on-one interaction required to tell them.
Bonding is part of the deal with reading aloud, less tangible within the grid of neat checkboxes on researchers' rubrics but still measurable. The subconscious part, exposure to language and themes beyond their daily reality, sets them up for success as well and that's an added benefit.
Beyond providing for their basic necessities, reading aloud is the one activity I can do with them every day that will really matter beyond just today.
"We are comfy and cozy," says Isaac, age 3, almost every time we sit down to read under a favorite blanket. He's right. We are, together with our stories, on even the coldest of snow days.
Here are some quick tips to get the reading done every day:
- Read early and often: Don't wait until bedtime. Start out with a book during your time together and go back to it throughout the evening. It doesn't have to be all in one sitting.
- Take turns: If you have a child who's old enough to read, trade off. Sometimes, I read a page and Sam reads a page or he takes over reading to me and to his brothers while I cook or fold laundry. I can always circle back after the task is done to recap or for a more focused sit-down session.
- Change it up: We visit our local library every weekend. More about that here but the main reasons are it's free and provides a terrific variety that keeps everyone interested.
- Get used to screen-free time: A few years ago, I proposed "screen-free Sunday." It didn't work for us. I couldn't stay out of work email for that long and there's nothing kids notice faster than when a parent breaks the rules. Find a balance that works for you. My kids know that when we read, it's their time and I will not be looking at my phone. Help them take a break from electronics too by setting up for a special time together.
- Make the experience fun: Besides variety, finding what your kids are interested in is important. The library's searchable archives help with that but so does ice cream. It's part of our after-dinner reading time. My goal is to make our time together as pleasant as possible. If that means there's dessert and a favorite blanket, fine.
- Choose well: Titles that were exciting for you as a kid are neat to share but make sure they're age-appropriate. Sam and I read "Charlotte's Web" last year. Big mistake. I thought he would love it. He didn't. Spoiler alert: Charlotte dies. "She dies, Mom! How could you make me love her in this book knowing that she dies?" Okay. Lesson learned. No plots with animals that die can be in the reading lineup from now on. We'll save "Where the Red Fern Grows" for fourth grade. Keep in mind what themes your kids will respond well to and let them choose.
- Manage expectations: Isaac is 3. Sitting quietly isn't going to happen all the time, even with ice cream (see above). I often read to him while he's playing with Duplos or during meals. That's okay. It still counts. Gabriel is a newborn. I know he's not going to smile or even register a reaction yet but reading to him now also still counts.
- Enjoy it: Discover what makes it fun for you. It's not a chore but another way to spend time together. Whether you enjoy doing character voices or adding a hands-on activity, make it your own.
- Enlist help: Ask babysitters, grandparents and others who have regular contact with your child to incorporate a story into their time together. You can also find a local storytime at various metro locations with MetroFamily's list here.
- Keep kids motivated: Find five easy tips here and six ways to get your kids excited about reading.
A Dozen to go — Twelve of our favorite books available at your local library
Recommendations from Sam, age 7:
- "My Weird School Daze" by Dan Gutman: Apparently, this new chapter book series is quite the page turner for readers in early elementary school. Sam and his second-grade
- classmates clamor after each installment. A local librarian agreed that our branch library can't keep them on the shelves. "It's the jokes, Mom," explains Sam. "They're the funniest." I'll take his word for it.
- "Mr. Popper's Penguins" by Richard Atwater: The book has little in common with the movie. It's surprisingly relevant despite an original publication date of 1938 and features a charming cast of characters that happens to include a dozen penguins.
- "Stuart Little" by E.B. White: This endearing novel is beautifully illustrated and is written in almost prose-like language. I'm enchanted by the way the story is told every time we read it.
- "Nate the Great" by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat: These mild mysteries were my favorites too in the early '90s. They're like Sherlock Holmes for children and the title character boosts young readers' confidence as they gain reading skills and form their own theories about each case.
Recommendations from Isaac, age 3:
- "Grandfather Twilight" by Barbara Berger: Beautifully illustrated, this book is the perfect goodnight story with an unique explanation of how the moon rises each evening.
- "The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry and the Big Hungry Bear" by Audrey Wood: Cute and clever, your toddler will quickly memorize this one and figure out the bear's identity.
- "Los Gatos Black on Halloween" by Marisa Montes: Our family is bilingual but you don't have to be to love this seasonal dual-language story. We came across "Los Gatos Black" this past October and I bought a copy with the intention of putting it away with the Halloween decorations until next year. Instead, we read it on the daily. Look for famous faces like Hernán Cortés, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the illustrations.
- "Mix It Up!" by Hervé Tullet: Written by the same author as the popular "Press Here," this book came out last September and has a wonderfully kinesthetic aspect that keeps toddlers interested.
Recommendations on Gabriel's behalf:
While our newborn can't yet express his preferences, I can recommend a few titles that will at least keep you as a parent interested in reading to your baby:
- "Alphablock" and "Countablock" by Christopher Franceschelli: I actually purchased these board books recently for Isaac's third birthday. They're durable, especially for pop-up books, with cutouts and dynamic illustrations by a skilled graphic artist known for modern design. Like a lot of alphabet books, "a is for apple" and "o is for octopus," but the pages' stand-out style keeps me coming back.
- "If You're Afraid of the Dark, Remember the Night Rainbow" and "Add One More Star to the Night" by Cooper Edens: Two books in one, this art-filled book of pleasant advice about facing fears will continue to hold its appeal through childhood. Dedicated to the memory of Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison, its content is unexpected but comforting.
- "Love You Forever" by Robert Munsch: "I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always, As long as I'm living, my baby you'll be." I've read this one to all three boys since they were born. It's a good choice for kids of all ages as they understand more about growing up and unconditional love.
MetroFamily is an official Pulse Partner for the Read Aloud 15 Minutes National Campaign. The Campaign's slogan is "Every parent. Every child. Every day." and Jennifer Liu Bryan is its co-founder and director. Jennifer is a former editor at "USA Today" and also a mother of three. She answered my questions about child literacy and related issues:
Q. Many families are concerned about preparing their young children for full-day kindergarten or pre-k. How does reading to a child just 15 minutes each day help with school readiness?
A. We have sometimes described reading aloud as a “magical act,” because of its amazing benefits in building pre-literacy skills, vocabulary and knowledge. And, as with magic, it may not be obvious to parents that they are enhancing their children’s school readiness when they engage in the simple, and hopefully pleasurable, act of reading aloud for 15 minutes. But, do it every day from birth and — abracadabra!— a child is more prepared for school and learning.
Thirty years ago, the U.S. government issued a landmark report that stated that reading aloud is the “single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading.” Why? Because meaningful human interaction is essential for children to learn, and parents are a child’s first and most important teacher.Because books are one of the best ways to learn about the world, to gain vocabulary and understanding.
Books can ignite your child’s curiosity, fire his imagination, and grow his knowledge. If you want your child to know things and know words, and to love reading, books, and learning — a formula for school success — then read aloud every day from birth for at least 15 minutes
Q. If you could promote just one message about child literacy or dispel a particular myth, what would that be?
A. We believe that if reading aloud for 15 minutes every day from birth became the parenting standard, it would change the face of education in this country. Having parents engage in teaching, nurturing and growing their child’s brain from birth through the act of reading aloud would, we believe, yield amazing and beneficial educational changes that would ripple through our nation.
A myth or misunderstanding, however, might be that we are targeting only vulnerable families and children. In fact, even in higher-income families, about 40 percent report reading less frequently than every day. Scholastic’s recent survey found that only 52% of families with children under 2 were reading as often as 5-7 days a week, and that number fell to roughly one in three families whose children were ages 6-8.
In other words, too few parents understand the power of reading aloud. Regardless of education level. Regardless of income level. We believe reading aloud must be considered a requirement, not an enhancement, to a child’s healthy development.
Q. What if a toddler wants to read the same book over and over again? Is reading still beneficial if the child has the story memorized or won't diversify their reading selections?
A. A toddler who likes repetition and is kind of stubborn about it? No, that’s impossible!
Actually, it is perfectly normal for a toddler to fixate on a favorite book and choose it over and over to the exclusion of others. While frustrating for a parent who was tired of that book 100 readings ago, it is also typical.
Fortunately, the child is still accruing benefits, even when he/she has the story (and pictures) memorized. First and foremost — congrats! She is already demonstrating an interest in reading and a fondness for books. Embrace that aspect, and try to limit (or hide) your irritation at the severely limited selection. Second: Go with it! Keep the momentum going by referencing the preferred book and its subject during your day — harness her obsession and add on to her knowledge and vocabulary. Is it a book about trains? Talk trains! Is it a book about princesses? Talk about kings and queens, royal tea parties, horses and carriages, etc. Third tactic: Gently suggest other titles in the same vein. More books about trains! More books about princesses! Yes, you may yet be thwarted, but you are still starting a meaningful conversation, which builds knowledge and vocabulary, and bonding with your child over a book.
In other words, yes, reading aloud is still beneficial. And don’t despair: Like most parenting frustrations, this, too, shall pass.
Q. Oklahoma, like many states, does have some rural areas without library access. Poverty often prevents families from purchasing key materials like books. What do you recommend that parents of young children do in those cases?
A. This is a difficult and critical question that resonates in so many communities. And it matters. A meta-analysis commissioned in 2010 by Reading is Fundamental found that access to print materials is absolutely critical. Studies concluded that children with access to reading materials read better, read more books, read more frequently, and enjoy reading more.
Groups such as First Book and Reach Out and Read, as well as myriad local charities, are on the front lines of the problem. In the meantime, however, parents need to try to find opportunities to read aloud wherever they can, as best they can. Books are obviously ideal, but where there are signs, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet, there are opportunities to read. If parents can engage with their child over print in their environment (for example, at the grocery store: reading signs, reading lists, reading coupons), and with what materials are on hand (mail, closed captioning on the TV), their children will benefit.
Furthermore, beyond the printed word, parents can still harness some of the same benefits that reading aloud would provide — by growing their child’s knowledge, vocabulary and understanding through meaningful interactions and conversation. Whether there are books in the “classroom” or not, a parent is a child’s first and most important teacher.
Q. I read an article last week about screen time and how the average toddler consumes too much electronic media, despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't recommend any at all for kids under age 2. I'm the mom of a toddler and I've heard it debated that educational TV and apps provide as many learning opportunities as books, they also provide exposure to spoken language, etc. What's wrong with that picture?
A. The short answer: There is no substitute for human interaction, especially from a parent or a caregiver.
Researchers such as Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington have shown that babies do not learn language nearly as effectively (or sometimes, at all) from audio or television recordings. Instead, a meaningful human interaction is needed to facilitate learning.
It’s sort of common sense — and it turns out it’s backed-up by science: There’s nothing like mom or dad to nurture a baby’s growing brain. Television, for all its possible benefits, is no substitute.
Join the Read Aloud campaign as a newsletter subscriber or as a partner representing a group in your community who reaches parents with children from birth to age 8. Learn more at www.readaloud.org.