How to raise a reader
Think your newborn baby is too young to experience the benefits of reading? Think again. Research shows that reading books in early infancy can boost vocabulary and reading skills years later, writes Kathy Donaghy
The benefits of reading to children are well documented, from improved vocabulary skills to helping learn about empathy. The latest research presented by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) shows that reading books to babies can boost vocabulary four years later, before they start primary school.
"These findings are exciting because they suggest that reading to young children, beginning even in early infancy, has a lasting effect on language, literacy and early reading skills," said Dr Carolyn Cates, the lead author in the study carried out by researchers at New York University.
"What they're learning when you read with them as infants still has an effect four years later when they're about to begin elementary school," said Dr Cates.
The respected AAP has previously said that reading regularly with young children stimulates optimal patterns of brain development and strengthens parent-child relationships at a critical time in child development, which, in turn, builds language, literacy, and social-emotional skills that last a lifetime.
So how do you make sure you are doing everything you can to reap the benefits of reading for your child and raising him or her to be a reader in the future?
Current Laureate na nÓg and children's author and illustrator PJ Lynch says it's incredibly important that young kids see their parents reading. "If you never have a book in your hand, they won't read. Kids will copy your behaviour so you've got to be reading yourself," says PJ, who has travelled the length and breadth of the country in his role as Laureate, promoting the importance of reading and books for children.
He says that if as a parent you've lost the habit of reading, it's a good idea to get back into it. "It's important for you to get some time to read not only because it gives you some time to feel like an adult but also because you can't start reading early enough with your kids," he says.
PJ, who has illustrated over 20 books including modern editions of classic books such as Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson, believes that there are many opportunities throughout the day to incorporate simple books into your baby's life.
He says when his own children Ben (16), Sam (14) and Evie (11) were small, they had little waterproof books in the bath that may have only one word or picture per page. They also had sturdy little books that were often as much chewed as looked at but they introduced the idea of books at an early stage.
"Simple books where there are pictures and a word to go along with the picture - these are what you start with. The progression is very quick from these to the more sophisticated ideas," says PJ.
"From birth to five years old, kids love to pore over the details of pictures, so great illustrations are important. A good illustrator will have included lots of details for kids to pick up on. Beatrix Potter is a tremendous one to start with. As your child gets older, they can start collecting all the books in the series, which is something they love," he says.
"As they get older it's also important to let them choose something they love. Even if you are disappointed in their choice, they are still getting the reading habit."
PJ recommends books like The Gruffalo and his own children's old favourite The Smartest Giant in Town as good books for parents to read to young children.
"For very young kids, Goodnight, Moon and Owl Babies are brilliant. Can't you Sleep Little Bear? is another famous book that's good before bedtime," he says.
"It's important to read to them every night before sleep and important to have a space where you can go and read not just at bedtime. You can't just save the reading for bedtime. It would be nice if there's a place you can settle down in and books can be read away from the TV. If your kids see you really enjoying the book, they will enjoy it too," he says.
For mum Julie Hunter Shaw, reading is an integral part of her daily routine with her son Finn, who will be two in May. An avid reader herself, who attends a weekly book club in her home town of Naas, Co Kildare, Julie says her son enjoys his story time and loves nothing more than climbing onto her lap with a book.
It's a habit, she says, that started from birth and she was conscious of introducing reading very early on so Finn would get into routine of books being part of his day.
"I got some books as baby presents and started reading to him when he was only a few months old. I might even have read aloud to him from an adult book I was reading. I would read every day. As he got older, he'd pick up books and climb onto my knee to read," says Julie.
"When we're winding down after dinner he usually likes to read. I leave the books where they are easy for him to grab because he likes to bring them to me. I always liked the idea of him enjoying books. Now he even looks at the books and talks away to himself while he's looking at the pictures," she says.
Donegal-based creative writing facilitator Grainne McCool says that in her work she sees how the child who reads or who has been read to stands out. "Their enthusiasm for books and reading is just there. Their vocabulary in their writing immediately shows me that they read. I work with children from five years of age. I feel very strongly about encouraging them to read from as early an age as possible. I really do see the benefit of reading in young children," she says.
"I have one little girl called Megan who recently turned 10. Her mother read to her as a baby. Megan now is never without a book in hand. She loves writing and her ability to express herself in words is so very poignant."
Grainne adds: "When should you start reading to your child? During pregnancy. From the day they are born. It's just never too early to start. Nursing your baby and reading to them as a newborn not only develops the baby's language and vocabulary from this young age, but it is also a very strong bonding experience for mum and baby.
"Someone once said, 'a child who reads will be an adult who thinks'. This above all is true. We don't want to teach our children 'what to think', but 'how to think'. Reading does this all by itself."
Start them early
You might think you're off the hook with reading until your baby can at least sit up. But as the research shows, your little one will reap the benefits if you read to him or her from when they're born.
If you want to raise a reader, be a reader: Your child copies everything you do. If they don't see you reading, they won't pick up the habit themselves.
Reading happens throughout the day: Make sure it's not just an activity reserved for bedtime. Have a space in your home where you can all retreat to do some reading away from screens.
Bedtime story: What better way to get a little one to relax and unwind after a busy day than with some relaxing story-time?
Respect your child's preferences: While it's good to introduce them to some of your old favourites when you were a kid, let them choose their favourite too.
Enjoy it: If your child sees you are enjoying the experience of reading, the chances are they'll enjoy it more too. So go ahead, do the silly voices and accents and be in the moment.
It's OK if they interrupt: You might have had a long day and be wishing for the end of the story but try not to rush the story and if they have questions go with them. It shows your child is engaged with the book.