Parents may read to children with the intent of fostering a love of books in the child, or perhaps with the hope of teaching them to read early. For myself, I read to my child from the moment she was born, not because I thought I’d be teaching my 1-day old to read, but because, as a reader, it seemed a natural thing to share. I enjoyed being able to cuddle up with this bundle and passively share books from my childhood. I felt, instinctively, that she’d draw comfort from the sound of my voice, but I have discovered that there are cognitive benefits from shared reading too. Numerous studies discus variances in reading frequency, quality and even age, and the effects these have on children’s vocabulary. Although many studies focus on literary development as the end result rather than oral development, we will see that to assist oral vocabulary development in children is to make reading an enjoyable, bonding exercise, with frequent reading sessions that focus on the child’s interest and, ideally, with a personalised book.
Talking to babies is important. A study by Weisleder and Fernald was able to show that conversing with an infant directly has a positive outcome on a child’s cognitive development and vocabulary, irrespective of cultural background or socio-economic status. However, this only applies to speech with the child, not for speech that the child may simply overhear; reading to a child has a similar effect. The more a child is spoken to the better their oral vocabulary will be.
Shared book reading helps develop a rich verbal vocabulary. Hindman, Skibbe and Foster describe shared book reading, as practiced in most westernised cultures, as an activity that involves a reader (parent, teacher, sibling etc) reading a picture book to a, usually pre-literate, child. Shared reading provides a time for both the infant and the reader to match words and objects, with parents able to ask questions that help label images and relate the story back to the child (Tomasello and Farrar qtd in Karrass and Braungart-Rieker 134; Ninio qtd in Cameron-Faulkner and Noble 270). Not only is the child given a chance to observe their world one still frame at a time, but the language used in written language is richer than found in free-play (Hoff-Ginsberg qtd in Karrass and Braugart-Rieker 134; Fletcher and Reese 66). This is not simply in sentence structure, but in providing a wider view of the world. It would be a rare everyday occurrence for most New Zealand children to hear ‘look at the zebra, it has a black and white striped coat’, yet in the world of story books this phrase might be repeated often (Hindman, Skibbe and Foster).
Picture books are of great value in assisting infants to label and understand their world, more so than simply observing the world around them. Picture books provide a snapshot moment in time, which allows the child to focus and analyse on the one image, rather than try to analyse a “quite fleeting and changing” situation (Moerk 549; Forman, Anthony and Seals). Moerk notes that children’s picture books tend to be made of simplistic and stylised line drawings, which he suggests make it “easier for the child to recognize the represented objects” (549).
Using simplistic, rhyming, language picture books help children understand the meaning of the pictures. Moerk feels that this, combined with the repetitive nature of both text and frequency of reading, assists children in learning these stories “by heart” (558), reinforcing vocabulary learning.
As with most things in life, there is not a one size fits all solution for oral vocabulary development in children. Fletcher and Reese looked at different studies (Morrow; Reese and Cox) and found that repetitive reading of the same book to a child with low language development meant the child was more likely to make comments and ask more questions when compared to reading different books. However, when they looked at styles of reading they found that discussing story meaning at the end assisted children who already had a higher vocabulary learn more, yet children with a lower vocabulary learnt more with a style that focused on descriptions and labelling. So fitting the mode of shared reading to the language level of the individual child is important.
One of the best ways to encourage discussion and interest is the use of personalised books. Kucirkovea, Messer and Whitelock “define personalized books as books that are written specifically for a particular child, have a personal meaning for the child and are sociocultural appropriate” (446). Yet, Hindman, Skibbe and Foster feel that even in a unpersonalised book, relating the story back to the child has a similar effect, although marginally lesser, on oral vocabulary development. However, “emphasizing letters/sounds” (303) has little benefit to oral language development. One of the advantages of personalised books may be in catering to different cultures and parental beliefs. Fletcher and Reese note that many cultures do not have the “wh” questions (who, what, where, why) that seem to come naturally to Westernised readers, and this information should be considered when planning reading intervention programmes.
It shouldn’t be surprising to discover that children learn more if they’re enjoying what they’re doing (Deckner, Adamson and Bakeman). Children who are encouraged to choose their own books to read have increased levels of interest in what they’re reading (Ortiz et al. qtd in Fletcher and Reese 94, 97), with children asking more questions and making more comments. Parental enthusiasm and interest does not have the same effect. However, the more interest a child shows in the book, the more metalingual utterances (“what’s that?”, “say doggy”, “that’s right, a cat”) the parent will make, and the more metalingual utterances a child hears, the greater the child’s expressive language development will be. Yet “referential utterances” (Deckner, Adamson and Bakeman 32) (e.g. “where’s the dog”) and “social regulative utterances (Deckner, Adamson and Bakeman 32) (e.g. “now it’s your turn”) have little effect on language development. Of course, the more interested a child is, the longer a reading session is likely to last, and the stronger the effect on their oral language development becomes (Tomasello and Farrar qtd in Karrass and Braugart-Rieker 134; Trivette, Dunst and Gorman 3).
Studies have shown that 8 months of age is a critical time for language development. It is the best time to start reading to a child for expressive language development, although not significantly related to receptive language development (Karrass and Braugart-Rieker). However, the younger a child is when the parent starts to read to them the more likely it is that frequent book reading will become a habit, although it is possible that reading to a child from a newborn may have effects not yet studied (Karrass and Braugart-Rieker; Rescorla and Goossens qtd in Karrass and Braugart-Rieker 135). Er, Aral and Bizakzi looked at a study by Slivern that suggests “reading stories to young children …increases… listening and speaking abilities” (1270). With increased comprehension and “linguistic competencies” (Huck, Helper and Hickman qtd. in Er, Aral and Bizakzi 1270) reading to young children can foster an enjoyment of reading that will see continuing developmental benefits.
Another strong effect on positive shared reading experience is parental attachment. An insecure dyad is more likely to see unproductive behaviours such as the parent trying to hold the book out of reach of the child, correcting words and choosing books that are above, or below, the comprehension level of the child. Because these reading sessions are fraught with anxiety neither will enjoy the experience, and neither child nor parent will be keen to try again (Fletcher and Reese 93). Yet it must be remembered that while the reasons for unattached dyads can be varied and complex, the effect of a negative reading experience can be damaging. Fletcher and Reese cite Bus and van Ijzendoorn’s inability to find “a sample of securely attached dyads that did not read frequently” (84). So it’s conceivable that a securely attached child is going to be more content to read with their parent, and show more interest thereby gaining the benefits of being actively involved in learning, but equally, a securely attached parent is more likely to be in-tune with their child, and reactive to the child’s interest, answering questions easily, and choosing books that are more likely to be of great interest to the child.
In conclusion, reading to children is a wonderful way to engage them, to help them understand their world, and to help them develop their vocabulary. It can also a wonderful way to help cement the bond between child and the reader, be that parent, teacher, sibling, grandparent or other. However, reading needs to be fun and enjoyable to gain any benefits. A personalised book, based around things the child is interested in, that gives plenty of opportunity to discuss objects or themes seems to be the best way to foster a love of reading and to develop a well-rounded vocabulary. These can be a few family photos or magazine images glued onto paper folded into a book, to professionally design books with the child’s name and details customised into a story. In an ideal world, the importance of reading to children from newborn would be known by all new parents, but customised early intervention programs that include how to read to children, and how to make personalised books that a family can share, might assist at risk children and their families. Reading to a child from infancy starts good habits, creates an enjoyable routine, and helps develop early oral vocabulary, but it is never too late to start reading to a child and encouraging their love of language.