The reading of the bedtime story is a daily ritual in many households and one that can be enjoyed by both parent and child.
For children, the bedtime story marks a period of one-to-one time. Of having a parent’s full attention in absence of any chores. A time to step away from the humdrum into exciting and unknown territory.
For parents, it might be the joy of seeing your child cozied up in bed absorbed in a magical fairy tale or perhaps the symbolic aspect? The ritual marking the winding down of the day and the imminence of quiet time and a glass of wine.
Many of us who had the blessing of being read to as children think nostalgically of these times and this alone can be a reason for repeating this practice with our own children. But, just how important is this ritual?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it is of great importance. So much so that they released a policy to advocate it.
Entitled Literacy Promotion: An Essential Component of Primary Care Pediatric Practice, the policy requires that pediatric providers advise parents about the value of reading aloud to their children. Beginning in infancy and continuing at least until the age of Kindergarten entry (around five years).
Pediatric providers are to highlight to parents the beneficial outcomes of this practice, namely to “enhance parent-child relationships and prepare young minds to learn language and early literacy skills”. As the already vast body of research exploring the impacts of home literacy on the child continues to grow, so does the evidence of the many positive outcomes reading aloud to children can have.
Some of the key areas where benefits emerge include:
Language skills and academic progress
One of the most commonly cited benefits of reading aloud to young children is the effect this has on their academic progress.
Meta-analyses indicate that home literacy activities from preschool age contribute significantly to young children’s language and reading comprehension. One of the reasons that children who are read to at home are thought to do better at school is due to their exposure to a larger vocabulary.
In one study a comparison was made between text from 100 children’s picture book stories, and text from a corpus of child-directed speech, that is, talk directed at the child rather than adult-to-adult talk or background conversation.
Findings revealed the picture books contained 1.72 times more unique words than the child-directed speech.
Building on this research, another way of assessing the language used in child-directed speech compared to language used in picture books is to measure its readability.
A recent study employed a range of readability formula to compare the language used in child-directed speech and the language used in picture books, along with adult-directed language.
Examples of words that appeared in picture books that did not occur in child-directed language include nervously, shepherd and thundered.
Differences in words used were reflected in the readability scores for the different types of language.
For Flesch-Kincaid grade level formula, readability was measured at 0.1, much lower than the scores for 3 picture book samples which ranged between 2.4 and 3.2.
Similarly, for the Gunning-Fog readability measure, the child-directed speech score was 2.6, again far lower than the scores for three picture book samples which ranged between 4.5 and 5.
On average across all readability measures, the score for picture books was 4.2, the score for child-directed speech was 1.9 and the score for adult-directed speech was 3.0.
What is notable here is that the readability score for adult-directed language is lower than the readability score for the children’s picture books.
The researcher highlights that the discrepancy between written language scores and spoken language scores reflects a difference in the formality of speech compared to written language rather than the nature of the medium itself.
While spoken language can be formal, when giving lectures or talks, it is often informal as in the case of face-to-face conversation.
The study enforces the finding that reading books aloud to children exposes them to a linguistic and cognitive complexity which they would not encounter in normal speech to children.
Creativity and imagination
Numerous studies have reported associations between parents reading aloud to their children and development of children’s language abilities.
But what about the development of other capacities such as creativity and imagination?
In a recent study, blood oxygen level dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging, FMRI, was used to explore the relationship between home reading and brain activity during a story listening task in 3-5 year olds.
Reading exposure – how much a child was read to at home - was established via a survey.
The study revealed that high reading exposure was positively correlated with neural activity in the left-sided parietal-temporal occipital association cortex. This area of the brain is linked to mental imagery and narrative comprehension.
These findings illustrate that the processes that occur when a child is listening to a story differ to when they are watching a story, e.g. a cartoon. As when listening to a story, children are required to create the images in their own mind.
As the researcher notes, “When we show them a video of a story…They’re not having to imagine the story; it’s just being fed to them”.
By reading to children, parents can be seen as facilitating the use of imagination as well as helping prepare their children for learning to read.
Creating a passion for reading
Evidence suggests that in addition to shorter-term benefits, reading aloud to children can have long-term benefits too, some of which extend into adulthood.
Longitudinal research reveals that children who are read bedtime stories are more likely to read independently later on.
Beginning in 2004, a large scale study of 10,000 children and families across Australia looked at families with a child of 0-1 and families with a child of 4-5 years.
These families were followed up 6 years later. The study found that at the 6 year follow up, children who were read to by caregivers when they were aged 4-5 were more likely to enjoy reading at age 10-11.
Further, the transmission of literacy habits is cyclic with studies reporting that parents for whom reading is a source of pleasure are more disposed to read to their own children and engage them in stories.
If a parent creates a spark for reading in their children then, this enthusiasm for literature is likely to continue, generation after generation.
Next time you buy a child a storybook or settle down to read to them at night take a moment to reflect not just on the immediate benefit but on the many positive outcomes this simple act can have throughout their lives.
“If my books can help children become readers, then I feel I have accomplished something important.”