Why kids should be read to - even if they can read on their own

Research shows that while many children enjoyed the social aspects of reading and being read to as valuable time with their parents, they also felt they learnt from these experiences.
Research shows that while many children enjoyed the social aspects of reading and being read to as valuable time with their parents, they also felt they learnt from these experiences.ST FILE PHOTO

Many of us will be able to recall the enjoyment of shared reading: being read to and sharing reading with our parents. However, my research has found that of the 997 Year 4 and Year 6 respondents (equivalent to upper primary in Singapore) at 24 schools which took part in last year's Western Australian Study in Children's Book Reading, nearly three-fifths reported that they were not being read to at home.

A sample of these children also participated in interviews where I asked them how they felt about shared reading. While a few children did not mind no longer being read to, others were disappointed when it stopped.

For example, when I asked Jason about his experience of being read to by his parents, he explained: "…they kind of stopped when I knew how to read. I knew how to read, but I just still liked my mum reading it to me."

His experience is common, with other recent research suggesting that more than one-third of Australian respondents aged six to 11 whose parents had stopped reading to them wanted it to continue.

But why is it so important for us to keep reading with our children for as long as possible?

Research has typically found that shared reading experiences are highly beneficial for young people. Benefits of shared reading include facilitating enriched language exposure, fostering the development of listening skills, spelling, reading comprehension and vocabulary, and establishing essential foundational literacy skills. They are also valued as a shared social opportunity between parents and their children to foster positive attitudes towards reading.

When we read aloud to children, it is also beneficial for their cognitive development, with parent-child reading activating brain areas related to narrative comprehension and mental imagery. While most of the research in this area focuses on young children, this does not mean that these benefits somehow disappear as children age.

As young people's attitudes towards reading reflect their experiences of reading at home and at school in childhood and beyond, providing an enjoyable shared reading experience at home can help to turn children into lifelong readers.

As young people's attitudes towards reading reflect their experiences of reading at home and at school in childhood and beyond, providing an enjoyable shared reading experience at home can help to turn children into lifelong readers.

However, not all shared reading experiences are enjoyable. Some children described having poor quality experiences of being read to, and children did not typically enjoy reading to distracted or overly critical parents.

In some cases, parents attempted to outsource this responsibility to older siblings, with mixed results.

While many children really enjoyed the social aspects of reading and being read to as valuable time with their parents, they also felt that they learnt from these experiences. For example, listening was felt to provide an opportunity to extend vocabulary and improve pronunciation.

Gina recalled the advantage she lost when her parents stopped reading to her: "When they did read to me when I was younger, I learnt the words; I would like to learn more words in the bigger books and know what they are so I could talk more about them."

Similarly, Craig explained how being read to enabled his academic advantage in literacy, as "they were teaching me how to say more words", and "that's why I'm ahead of everyone in spelling and reading and English". When this stopped, "just because my mum thought I was smart enough to read on my own and started to read chapter books", Craig was disappointed.

In addition, some children were terrified of reading aloud in class, and this fear could potentially be alleviated through more opportunities to practise at home.

Hayden's anxiety around reading aloud at school related to his lack of confidence, and his tendency to compare his skills with those of his peers. He described himself as "always standing up there shivering, my hands are shivering, I just don't want to read, so I just start reading. And I sound pretty weird". No one read with him at home, so he had limited opportunity to build his confidence and skills.

This research suggests that we should not stop reading with our children just because they have learnt to read independently.

We should keep reading with our children until they no longer wish to share reading with us, ensuring these experiences are enjoyable as they can influence children's future attitudes towards reading, as well as building their confidence and competence as readers. It is worth the effort to find time to share this experience with our children in the early years and beyond.

•The writer is a senior lecturer in education at Murdoch University.

•This article first appeared in The Conversation at http://theconversation.com, a website which carries analysis by academics and researchers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2017, with the headline 'Why kids should be read to - even if they can read on their own'. Print Edition | Subscribe