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Why you should read to children

Father reading to baby
Photo by Daniela Rey on Unsplash

It's the stuff that Hollywood movies and the sweetest of dreams are made of: bedtime stories can be one of the fondest of childhood memories.

Be they recited classics or imagined tales, made up by an exuberant parent on the hop, bedtime stories - or any stories in fact -  are a nurturing and essential part of every child's, learning and development.

"Reading, singing, talking and playing with children in those first five years is just so important," experienced children’s librarian Claire Grandcourt says.

"And it's never too early to start."

Giving children the means to communicate and express themselves, through language and vocabulary development, is very important in terms of everything from their speech development, to understanding and even behaviour.
Claire Grandcourt

Grandcourt, who is a mum, a classroom volunteer and has spent the past 20 years working in Australian public libraries – most of that time as a children's librarian - says when it comes to developing good literacy and reading habits, what starts at home is crucial.

"Parents need to be educated and informed about the benefits of reading to and with their children," she says.

"It you are not reading with your child then they are going to be behind their peers.

"A child's ability to communicate comes from their parents; and subsequently, their frustrations and many issues come from an inability – or, at least a limited ability – to communicate.

"Giving children the means to communicate and express themselves, through language and vocabulary development, is very important in terms of everything from their speech development, to understanding and even behaviour."

Grandcourt lists several key holistic advantages to exposing children to something as accessible and simple as the old-fashioned bedtime story.

The good news is, Australian parents can see the value in reading to their children, with almost 60 per cent of parents surveyed in the First Five Years Snapshot of Australian Families survey saying they set aside one-on-one time to read with their child for at least 20 minutes either often or always.

Key holistic advantages to bedtime stories

Emotional Connection: 

"When you are reading to your child, it is a shared activity and experience," Grandcourt says.

"You are spending real time together through the story."

She says it's here that dads, who can often feel a little left out in the whole parenting experience, especially in the early days when mum is breastfeeding can make a very real connection with their child.

"By singing a song or reading a story, spending that time with their children in such a meaningful and useful way, there is a strong connection there."

Vocabulary Development:

This one might be a bit obvious but the benefits to a child's vocabulary through home story times are immeasurable.

"Children will learn through what they see and what they hear. But through books and reading they will be exposed to a whole new use and context of words which might never be heard in day-to-day conversation," she says.

"By reading they are learning new words, new contexts around words and they are filling their vocabularies full of wonderful words to pull out and use as soon as the chance arises.

"This also helps in developing their speech and in kindergarten and, prep and during early primary school years when they are starting to read themselves."

Improved Attention Span:

A child who is able to sit and engage with a book while it is being read to them is more likely to develop a stronger and longer attention span.

"I see classes where I am able to go into their room and sit and speak to them or read them a story and you can tell the ones who have group reading every day, because they are the ones who can sit still, pay attention and engage in what is happening," Grandcourt says.

She says it is also evident in children's behaviour and development of self-control, as well as that old-fashioned notion of ‘time and place’.

Challenge:

A lot of the time we tend to underestimate our children's ability, Grandcourt says.

"Reading to our children exposes them to new concepts, new words and helps develop their overall understanding of reading and speaking and language."

She says a child exposed to reading at home, especially as a very young child, will have a natural inclination to extend their ability beyond the prescribed junior readers or standard levels.

"Don't be afraid to read them the classics. Don't just settle for the simple picture books – although, certainly, they have their place.

"Being able to read to your children from a book which doesn't have as many pictures, or any comes with many benefits."

Greater Understanding:

"We have entire sections of our junior libraries dedicated to the topics and issues faced by children. A book can be a wonderful way of explaining and supporting a child and showing them they are not alone in a situation,” Grandcourt says.

"Whether it be starting school, moving house, a parent diagnosed with cancer, having two mums, two dads, a weekend dad – whatever the situation, there are books and stories out there to help."

On the flipside, Grandcourt cites the very real link between a child who reads and an inherent sense of empathy.

She says there is a greater understanding for difference and appreciation for what someone might be going through.

Escapism:

Children are bombarded with screens and apps and devices. Parents sometimes rely on devices to keep children busy while we shop, take a phone call or visit the doctor, making it all the more important to ensure that children also have access to  books as a means of distraction and escapism.

"The ability to imagine something more wonderful, or to create dreams and aspirations is something we have always known comes with great stories and reading.

"Reading with your children, and creating that habit of reading as a fun and enjoyable pastime will stay with children for their whole lives."

Educating Parents:

"Reading aloud is hard," Grandcourt concedes.

"Unless you're presenting or reading or teaching for a living, then chances are, reading aloud isn't something you have done since you left year six!

"It's a skill. And it is very different to reading to yourself."

Grandcourt says while reading to yourself will allow you to read with a kind of shorthand, reading aloud is unforgiving in the need to articulate every word, in the order it is written.

"You cannot skip ahead, you cannot be reading ahead of yourself and you can't be reading an entire paragraph at once.

"It can be really tricky."

Taking the time to slow down and engage in the process of reading aloud does take time, but like everything, it improves with practice. And it is well worth the effort.
 

Books to read to your baby

Reading to your baby is a wonderful experience for you and for them. It doesn’t really matter what you read, but your child will enjoy the sound of your voice and books with rhymes and rhythms. Here are some suggestions from Goodstart Early Childhood Teacher Janis McDermott:

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish – Dr Seuss

In this hilarious exploration of opposites, colours, numbers and nonsense, Dr. Seuss paints a crazy world of singing Yings, boxing Goxes and seven-hump Wumps. 

Hop On Pop – Dr Seuss

House, Mouse! Hop, Pop! Cup, Pup! Learning about words that rhyme has never been more fun – simply change the first letter and the whole word changes.

Where Is The Green Sheep? – Mem Fox

Here is the blue sheep, and here is the red sheep. Here is the bath sheep, and here is the bed sheep. But where is the green sheep? 

Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes – Mem Fox

As everyone knows, nothing is sweeter than tiny baby fingers and chubby baby toes…

The Very Hungry Caterpillar – Eric Carle

Eric Carle's children's classic is the story of a very small and very hungry caterpillar who manages to nibble his way through the pages of this enchanting book.

We're Going on a Bear Hunt – Michael Rosen

Follow and join in the family's excitement as they wade through the grass, splash through the river and squelch through the mud in search of a bear.