Lori Bruner is a doctoral student at College of Education. His research explores the early development of language and literacy in family and community contexts. She is also the recent recipient of the 2021 Jeanne S. Chall Research Grant, awarded to a doctoral student each year.
Caregivers are responsible for an overwhelming number of child-related tasks every day: we make sure our children are getting proper rest, wearing the right clothes, eating healthy foods, having time to burn off energy – and list goes on and on. But what about reading to our children? Everyone from our pediatricians to the media tells us this is important, but why? With such limited time together in the evenings, should reading really be at the top of our lists?
Among other things, reading aloud to our children helps them understand how books “work,” like reading left to right, and that the print – not the pictures – carries the message. Reading aloud also models the structure and grammar of stories, promotes vocabulary development, and contributes to reading comprehension by introducing important concepts and themes beyond their everyday environment.
Children who read with understanding in the first years of primary school have access to a wider range of texts, basic knowledge and educational opportunities throughout their lives, making the opportunity to acquire language skills and early literacy particularly critical.
Perhaps one of the most important benefits of reading aloud is children’s exposure to new words. Most of the language we use throughout the day is very functional and emphasizes “the business of life”.
We talk to our kids about dressing, brushing their teeth, eating dinner and cleaning their toys. In contrast, the language of the book is rich in unusual verbs, descriptions, and imagery that children unlikely to hear elsewhere; this is true even for books intended for very young children. For example, the first page of Sandra Boynton’s hardcover book, “But Not the Hippo,” reads, “A pig and a frog are cavorting in the bog. But not the hippopotamus!
Learn to speak words with our children
In a recent student view, I discussed the number of new words I found in 70 preschool storybook apps – 1,380 to be exact! Children can learn new words just by listening to stories, but we can reinforce their word learning by engaging them in discussions about the words in the text. However, don’t worry if you’re not a language expert or an educator. There are many ways that caregivers can make it easier to learn when we come across a new or interesting word. Try these five to get started:
- Provide a child-friendly explanation: Briefly explain the meaning of a word, using language your child understands. For example, you could say, “The word ‘twinkle’ means that something appears to be sparkling.
- Give an example: Share familiar examples with your child. For example, you could say, “Vehicles are something that carry people or things. Cars, planes, trains and ships are all vehicles.
- Point to an illustration: Some words – like “armadillo” – are difficult to explain using only words. If so, use pictures in the story to help. If the word is not illustrated in the text, consider looking for pictures of the word after the story is complete.
- Mimic: Use sounds and movements to show children the meaning of the word. Walk around the room to demonstrate the meaning of the word “to walk” or speak very quietly to show the children what it means to whisper.
- Create links: Connect the word to something your child already knows. For example, you could say, “Remember when we saw this person throw garbage out of the car window? This is called “rubbish”.
To learn more about children’s vocabulary development, the power of reading aloud in early childhood, and some tips on how to promote literacy at home, please see the following resources:
Neuman, SB and Wright, TS (2014). Word Magic: Teaching Vocabulary in the Early Childhood Classroom. American educator, 38 (2), 4-13: https://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/summer-2014/magic-words
Wright, TS (2019). The power of interactive readings aloud. American educator, 42 (4), 4-8: https://www.aft.org/ae/winter2018-2019/wright
WKAR family. (April 14, 2020). Promote literacy at home [Video File]: https://video.wkar.org/video/promoting-literacy-home-yj2kgn/