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Posted at 9:35 AM ET, 11/11/2009

Why it is so important to read aloud to your kids

By Valerie Strauss

I want to share this email I received from a reading specialist in response to my recent blogpost about parents pushing academics on preschool kids, who actually learn best through well-designed play. The blogpost was then published on The Washington Post’s education page, which runs in Monday’s Metro section.

The following comes from Barbara Bosworth, a reading specialist at Haycock Elementary School in Fairfax County Public Schools and a faculty associate at Johns Hopkins University. Her thoughts about the importance of reading aloud to children are, well, important. Read on.

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Hi Valerie, I read your blog today with sadness about potential time of childhood amiss and absence of real joy. For my greatest joy as a mother was reading aloud to our three children (all three grown and in their 20s--- an attorney, an electrical engineer/Marine Corps pilot, and a graduate student in education).

Just as I purchased separate size clothing for the three, I would read separately to each of them and then together as well. Reading aloud, talking about books and going to the library was a major priority in our house.

My husband was a naval officer at the time, deployed at sea for nine months, six months at a time and I’d send him books and tapes so he could record readings, and the children could hear his voice and read and reread stories as well.

On Thursday this past week, many teachers in our area attended the Greater Washington Reading Council Conference with Kylene Beers [(president of the National Council of Teachers of English and author] and Bob Probst [a research fellow at Florida International University and reading instruction expert].

Kylene said something that we’d all agree upon, know for sure, and want to shout on billboards and full page newspaper ads: It’s simply that the single best predictor of how a child will do over 12 years of school is: How much s/he was read to prior to the first day of first grade. It’s that simple.

A lot of reading aloud means 20-40 minutes per day. It does not have to be 20 consecutive minutes, but can be 5 minutes here and 10 minutes there. Those who’ve been read to have working vocabularies of 40,000 words. They have heard over 3 million words.

Children who’ve been read to barely or none at all have 10,000 word vocabularies. They’ve heard just 750,000 words. (Unfortunately, the majority of these words have been negative -- "because I said so", etc.) So they have limited vocabulary and limited view of themselves. The gap is already there and every child wants to read in first grade.

The child who has been read to has a system of semantics and syntax. With their extensive vocabulary, when they sound out tricky words, they have knowledge of possibilities for that unknown word.

As Kylene stated at the conference on Thursday, if we want to change America, we need to change how parents read to their children.

This reading requires two-way interaction--lots of talk. So the parents are pushing their children, and all they need to do is read aloud, with joy and talk. Doing this is like treasure and gold for a child’s life and with libraries, does not have to cost either.

I have a framed "Good Night Moon"(a story I read over 1,000 times to our children) poster in our laundry room, a testament to the joy and power of reading aloud.

I wish we could share this wonderful message to the parents of young children!

Barbara Bosworth, Reading Specialist at Haycock Elementary, Fairfax County Public Schools and faculty associate at Johns Hopkins University, teaching a fall reading methods class in the department of special education

By Valerie Strauss  | November 11, 2009; 9:35 AM ET
Categories:  Fairfax County Public Schools, Parents, Reading  | Tags:  preschool, reading aloud, reading instruction  
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Comments

When our children were young, we had a special place in our home to keep just the library books, many of which were chosen by the kids. This way, we would avoid late fees on one or more of our dozens of books per library trip. Money was tight, so they didn't have an abundance of toys (they did have lots of old fashioned outside play). However, the library was one place where we could go and they could get anything that they wanted, and they did. We chose some books for them too. We read aloud to them daily. Many books were read to all of them together, briefly defining words as necessary for understanding. So many times, books led to great curiosity to know more about a topic or famous person which led to treasure hunting on the next library trip. We slowing built our own family library of books as well.

Funny, the oldest was stubborn in learning how to read on his own. When I had a heart to heart talk with him about this, his reply was that if he did learn to read, that I (or Dad) wouldn't read to him anymore. I assured him that I would continue to read to him, which I did for another decade. Yea, family readings from great old books still kept his interest as a young teen. Today, he is in his mid- twenties, working around the world with a great company and is already known for his wisdom in dealing with complicated issues. He is also known for his concise letters/emails on the fly, often with millions at stake; his industry works at lightening speed sometimes. Others ask him to review their letters often. Surely, being exposed to great books has had a very positive impact on many levels. All the kids have done (or are doing) well in college, grad school, research, etc.

As a mom, reading to them is one of my fondest memories. I also have great joy in knowing that so many of their interests/career choices today were shaped by great books. Biographies of scientists were wonderful - they taught perseverance and healthy curiosity.

So many books - so many wonderful discussions! Oh, and the often stunning artwork in children's books was delightful for all of us!

Posted by: shadwell1 | November 11, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Reading to your kids is definitely important. I don't follow how it was related to the original blogpost.
Play time/ discovery is just as important.

Posted by: robjdisc | November 11, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

I read a lot to my kids when they were toddlers, but as they have entered elementary school with homework and school activities I find we do not engage in this activity as much. Reading this article reminds me that we should make this a priority again. With that in mind, does anyone have suggestions for books that would engage both of my kids - ages 5(kindergarten) and 8 (3rd grade)? I find that the older child is resistant to being read to - she likes to read on her own (thank goodness) but I would like to read aloud to my son at least - I imagine she will not be able to resist and will eventually join us. Thanks!

Posted by: claire101 | November 11, 2009 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Great article - thank you. As an arts educator, literacy advocate and the author of a book on the subject ("Raising Bookworms: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment") I'd just like to add that reading aloud to kids should not be limited to pre-school and elementary school. It's critical that we not stop reading to kids once they are able to read for themselves - in fact, our listening skills and our reading skills don't converge until around 8th grade, so kids are better able to understand, absorb and retain what is read to them than what they read themselves through middle school and possibly longer. There is no better way to model fluency and the joy and value of reading than by reading aloud with our kids, students and families. Provided, of course, that what we're reading is a good, engaging read... but that's another story. Finally, for a great testament to the value of read-aloud with older kids, read Daniel Pennac's "Better Than Life."

Posted by: ewhamilton | November 16, 2009 8:26 PM | Report abuse

While is is true that reading to our children is critically important. It is unfortunately not true that "the single best predictor of how a child will do over 12 years of school is: How much s/he was read to prior to the first day of first grade." It is in fact not at all "that simple." Extensive research by the National Institutes of Health over the past 30 years has shown that statement false. About 20% of students, irrespective of how much they have been read to, will struggle with reading. Dr. Sally Shaywitz, published the research findings in her book "Overcoming Dyslexia." These students need a very specific type of instruction in order to learn to read. In spite of normal to well above average IQ's, the fundamentals of reading and spelling elude them. Without very specific instruction, they will not attain grade level reading or spelling. And, exposure to reading by being read to, is NOT enough for these kids. In fact, one of the ways they are able to survive and learn their school subjects is by having everything read to them. Whether they follow along in the book or not, their reading does not reach grade level with this methodology. There are brain function and structure differences that cause the difficulty. It's not lack of reading, lack of motivation or lack of trying - it's dyslexia and it can be helped with proper instruction. Parents - if your child is struggling, do not delay in seeking help, the research shows things can and will improve with the right kind of instruction but that reading to the student is not ever going to be enough. I work with such wonderful students every day. Parents need to know help is available. Contact the International Dyslexia Association or "google" dyslexia for a wealth of up to date information.

Posted by: DyslexiaTutor | November 16, 2009 11:10 PM | Report abuse

My brother and I were four years apart in age, and I remember my mother reading "Robin Hood" to us--and Hawthorne's "Twice-Told Tales" and a lot of other "non-children's books." She read a lot of mythology, too. Is Lamb's "Tales from Shakespeare" still available?

Until the last half of the 20th century, there weren't "children's" books--after the youngster learned to read from very elementary books, anything was fair game.

(I realized years later that the illustrations in Robin Hood were the N.C. Wyeth drawings--given the fact that the book had been handed down for years, it may very well have been a first-edition!)

Posted by: opinionatedreader | November 18, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

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