On Reading To Children

  • 24 October, 2008

Okay, here is a quiz...

 1. Does research show that reading to kids improves literacy? Yes or no.

  If you read Jim Trelease's books, you're likely to get this one wrong. Reading to kids has been shown to improve kids' language development--and this might have a positive impact on reading--but no studies show that reading to kids improves their reading ability.... Really.

2. When you read to kids should you focus on picture books? Yes or no.

  Research studies don't really tell us much about the impact of reading specific books on children's learning, but the key to having an impact on children's language learning must be a balance among several factors. It would matter that the book presented kids with adequately complex language. It would matter how much the context of the text supports kids understanding the new words and ideas presented. And it would matter that kids found it interesting enough to pay attention. Picture books do a pretty good job of all of these, especially the latter...

  But what if... what if ... you read really long classical books to kids? I must say that's what I did. My wife read picture books to them, and I read books like Wind in the Willows and Black Beauty and Surely You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman. I started this practice when they were babies, and continued until they were about 13 or 14.

  These books had a powerful impact on their lives. My oldest daughter (the lawyer, book editor) loves reading, at least in part due to that reading, and several of those books are still on her favorites list. She has read everything Richard Feynman wrote as a result of reading, Surely You Must Joking to her. I think it thrilled her that smart people could do such neat things by thinking. Every summer when she returned home from college she reread The Hobbit, and I have no idea how many times she has read The Odyssey.

  Her younger sister didn't care for reading (or being read to) as much as she did. In fact, when she was a toddler I literally had to capture her to read to her (holding her in my arms, often for no more than one or two minutes while I tried to read and to quiet her at the same time). But over time, it caught on and I read to her a bunch. One day she said, "Why don't I ever get to pick what we read?" I told her she could, and just to test me she pointed to a book on my shelf: In the Shadow of Man, Jane Goodall's memoir about working with chimpanzees as a young woman.

  I shocked her by reading the book that she picked and not surprisingly it became a favorite. She is still a big Goodall fan and I suspect that was the beginning of her fascination with science (she is now a bioengineer). Other favorites of hers were books like Catcher in the Rye and Brave New World.

  Lots of the books that I read to them became summer vacations. Of course, we had to go to Virginia to see the miniature horses at Chincoteague once we'd read about Misty, and another trip had to spent in Missouri in the cave where Tom and Becky get lost in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Twain was the subject of my oldest's bachelor's thesis in English as a result of these early reading experiences).

  Still other books led us to see the videos (like The Wizard of Oz or The Yearling).

  I can't claim that reading these challenging chapter books has been proven to be better than reading picture books to kids. However, I once asked my kids to name some of the books their mother read to them. They expressed surprise: Mom read to them? Of course she did, and quite a bit, but as they figured out, those books take only a few minutes, while the books I read often required their attention over days and weeks and even months. Those became unforgettable experiences, in the way that most picture books cannot.

  The books I read to them were rich in language and ideas, powerful in their ability to transport you to different times and places, and demanding of attention and memory all good things for developing young minds. It is clear to me that the books I read, whatever their impact on language and literacy, helped shape their tastes and talents.

  But you know what I like best about reading those kinds of books to kids? We, the kids and I, really enjoyed the quiet time together. It was a real delight.

  Maybe you should read those kinds of books to your kids or to your grandkids. Toward that end I have put a carousel of these read aloud books on this blog site. I'll list more choices in coming days and swap some of the carousel books out. They would make a great Christmas present or Chanukah present (when they were growing up, we gifted them a new book each of the 8 nights of Chanukah). Oh, and by the way, those two little girls that I wrote about above--they both got married this year, one on Memorial Day weekend and one on Columbus Day weekend, and both will be reading such books to their children someday.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Virginia Coutinho Jul 02, 2017 02:10 AM


Thank you very much for your blog! I love it.I am from Portugal and a fan of children and youth literature.I have also a children's literature blog but unfortunately it is in portuguese. Maybe one day I start to write in english...About the theme of your post I want to tell you that I am reading an old book about literacy "Literacy as a Human Problem" by J. C. Raymnd and he has a chapter about the cognitive consequences of reading and writing.I really would like to go deeper in this subject. Do you know any other authors about the same theme?

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On Reading To Children


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.