Ask Mrs. Brooke | Why is it important to read to your child?

Dear Mrs. Brooke,

When should you start reading to your child? When should you stop reading to your child? What is the importance of reading to your child each day?

I have been an educator for 24 years and every year I am asked these questions. Please Mrs. Brooke, share with parents the importance of reading to your child at an early age and continuing reading to them even when they are too big to sit on your lap. Read to all!

Jackie Puppe Wotipka, Multiple Intelligences' Academy

Dear Ms. Wotipka,

Thank you for your questions and allowing me to share my answers through this column. As educators, I believe we do have the huge responsibility to educate those around us of the importance of reading to your child early on and continuing throughout the years as they grow and develop. For as teachers, we know firsthand the glaring difference between a child who enters our classroom and has been read to from the beginning compared to one who has not.

As a parent, I also gladly share the importance of reading aloud as I strongly believe reading aloud to your child is the single most important thing you can do as your child’s first and most important teacher to help your child succeed not only in school, but life. Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, was right, when he said “The more you read, the more you know, the more you know, the more places you’ll go!” Research tells us this is so true. For the more you read and the more you know the longer you will also stay in school, earn diplomas and degrees and have endless opportunities. We know the opposite is true.

So, when should you start reading to your child?

Now! From the moment your child is born they can recognize your voice. When you talk and when you read to your child your voice soothes them. With this they also recognize sounds. In the first months, these sounds serve to create a bond between parent and child.

During this time, parents should be reading and can get away with reading anything really. My girlfriend Robbin even read aloud "The Economist" to her newborn, Owen, the first couple months. Believe it or not those articles brought him comfort. They soothed him. At 2 months old, "The Economist" brought him closer to his mama.

From day one by reading aloud to your newborn there are so many benefits. You promote listening skills, increase the number of vocabulary words your baby hears, help develop attention span and memory, help teach uncommon words (often not used in spoken language), help them understand the meaning of words, teach about print, how to get information from pictures, promote calmness and bonding for both you and your child, stimulate the imagination and all senses, and instill the love of books and learning ("Baby Read Aloud Basics," Carline Blakemore and Barbara Weston Ramirez).

Maybe baby Owen will grow up to be a savvy businessman, but more importantly because he was read aloud to early on (and I am confident he has parents that will continue to read aloud to him), he can grow up to be whatever he dreams to be. Recent research tells us that the number of words a child hears per hour even by the time they are 2 years old can predict future academic success (Hart and Riley).

When should you stop reading to your child?

Never. As your child grows from a newborn to a toddler, to a preschooler, to a kindergartner, first grader and beyond, never stop reading aloud to your child. You are giving your child the gift of words at a time when the brain needs it most!

Not only does research indicate that reading aloud to children substantially improves their reading skills, as well as their written, oral, and auditory, in addition, children who hear stories read aloud have an increased positive attitude towards reading more so than those who do not hear stories read aloud (Jim Trelease, "Read Aloud Handbook").

In other words, children who are read aloud to not only enjoy reading, but become readers themselves. And as researchers have seen in children across the world, including all social classes, kids who read the most, read the best and achieve highest.

In 1985, the U.S Department of Education declared in its report “Becoming a Nation of Readers,”  these key important findings. First, the single-most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children. Second, reading aloud is a practice that should continue throughout the grades.

As a teacher, many parents I encountered throughout the years think that once their child begins to read independently, they no longer need to read aloud. “Read aloud now and never stop!” This is the message I give the parents of my students.

Kathy Collins, author of "Growing Readers and Reading for Real," and a leading expert in teaching reading agrees. “Never stop reading to your kids - read to them as long as you can, as long as they'll listen, even longer!”

She also recommends that every parent read “Reading Magic,” by Mem Fox and reminds us to think of reading aloud not only as a time for parents to provide their child with an advantage, but view it mostly as a precious time of focused attention and warm interaction with their children.

As a parent of a 4 and 2 year old, I have not reached the moment when my son or daughter has decided that they are too “big” or too “old” or “too” whatever to have me read aloud to them. I treasure that they bring me dozens of books each day and beg to read just “one more” each night before bed. I dread the moment when they say “enough."

Jim Brozina knows the moment all too well. When his oldest daughter was in fourth grade she decided she had “enough” of her father reading aloud to her. Brozina, an elementary school librarian, knew the importance of reading aloud and couldn’t let this happen when his youngest daughter grew older.

So, he proposed, “The Streak” to read aloud 100 nights. The 100 nights turned into 1,000 and pretty soon he had read aloud to her every day until she went off to college. Their little “streak” created a lifelong reader, a graduate with honors, and an everlasting father-daughter relationship.

The decline of older students’ recreational reading coincides with a decline in the amount of time adults read to them. By middle school, almost no one is reading to them. By 12th grade, only 19 percent read for pleasure. What would happen if we just kept reading to our children? We didn’t allow them to say no. Not only would there be great academic gains made, but think of all the topics that might be brought up, the conversations that would be had, feeling and thoughts you might hear from your possibly closed-off teenager, the many parent-child bonds that would be strengthened.

Just because our child can’t sit on our lap anymore, does that mean they no longer have to brush their teeth, wear their seat belt, eat dinner at the family table? No, so why would we allow them to no longer listen as we read aloud to them when we know the great benefits.

Yes, our read aloud choices will most likely change as our child grows from board books, to children’s picture books, to poetry, an interesting article in the newspaper, or an age-appropriate paperback. But we should never stop reading aloud.

Possibly if we continued to read aloud to our upper elementary children, our “tweens,” our teens, yes, even our high school aged children, our children would continue to choose to read as well. As a teacher and as a parent, I think about this quote all the time by Lucy Calkins, founder and director of the Reading and Writing Project at the Teachers College at Columbia University. She said, “The crisis in America is not that kids can’t read, it is that they choose not too.”

Every time we read aloud to our children, whether they are infants or 15 years old, we are sending a very important message. We are showing that reading is not only important, but joyful and entertaining. In my classroom, whenever I feel that the excitement for reading is fading a little, there is nothing like a good read-aloud to bring the joy back! We can do this at home, too.

I believe parents must enjoy these read-aloud experiences and look forward to this time just as much as our children. Instead of always giving our children the choice, we can also be choosing books that we want to read, that excite us, that changed how we thought or made us feel when we were young.

I don’t think I would be the same person today without the devoted and loyal Charlotte, the feisty and independent Pippi Longstocking, and the passionate and strong willed Jo March. I long to read these stories and many more to my own children when they are ready, introduce them to bits of me, but also watch them as they find their own favorites that challenge their thinking, change their ideas, and help them form new ideas about themselves, the world and people around them.

You are the first and most important teacher in your child’s life. In some ways, you are also the co-author of your child’s life. You write the beginning of your child’s story by reading aloud to them from day one. You create the setting by providing your child with the three "B’s": Books, Bathroom (books in the bathroom), and a Bed Lamp (Jim Trelease, "Read Aloud Handbook") and a TV out of the bedroom.

You set the tone by modeling your own reading life, making time for reading, providing a quiet environment free of distractions, continuing to read aloud, and remembering to enjoy every minute of it. In doing so, you make a huge difference in how the story goes for your child. As your child’s first and most important teacher, read aloud to your child from the very beginning and never stop, so your child may have a happily ever after ending.

Joy Brooke is the first and most important teacher of her 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. She resides in downtown Kirkland with her husband and two children. Brooke currently teaches AM Kindergarten at Ben Franklin Elementary in the Lake Washington School District. She is a National Board Certified teacher in Literacy: Reading- Language Arts/Early and Middle Childhood, holds a B.A. in Educational Studies and a M.A. in Educational Policy and Management from the University of Oregon. The opinions provided in this column do not reflect that of the LWSD or any other organization she is affiliated.

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