The Magic of Reading
"You're never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read with a child." –Dr. Seuss
National Read Across America Day, celebrated today on Dr. Seuss’ birthday, reminds us that reading with your child isn’t just about reading — it accomplishes a number of great things. When parents read with their child on a regular basis—daily is fantastic—not only are they supporting their child’s ability to develop strong reading skills, they’re strengthening the relationship between their child and the world around him. As a parent myself, some of my most valued moments have been reading aloud with my children.
First, the more a young child is exposed to books and reading aloud from birth, the more they move towards an amazing shift in their understanding of the world around them. You see, a younger child may not understand that printed words are actually conveying information. They think a reader is telling stories just by looking at the pictures in the book. So when they start to recognize that words are not mere decoration, but are telling us something, they’re reaching a milestone we call “print awareness.” We may not remember that time ourselves because we were so young. But when a child is read to, they achieve that awareness earlier, and are better prepared for gaining even more information from books as a result.
Reading is a loving, reciprocal, nurturing interaction with a caregiver — and those high-quality relationships are the most important thing that helps children develop and thrive. For families that may not have ever had a model for how to interact with young children, reading aloud together may be a more familiar activity that allows them to do exactly that.
With a little modeling and coaching, parents can easily learn how to do something called “dialogic reading” — this may sound technical and overwhelming, but it’s fairly straightforward. It makes the act of reading something one does with a child, not to a child. Let the child hold the book and decide when and how to turn the pages. Follow their cues — if they touch a picture of a dog, name that (“Yes, it’s a dog!”) and ask a follow-up question (“What color is the doggy?”). The act of reading turns into a back-and-forth conversation between the parent and the child. This technique is really good for squirmy toddlers who have a naturally short attention span at this age. There’s no rule that the entire story needs to be read, in sequence! In fact, it’s perfectly fine if the parent makes up a story together with the child. Every book, story, word, and conversation you share with your child makes a difference—and it’s never too early.
In my clinic, I bring a high-quality, developmentally-appropriate book into the exam room, and then hand it directly to the child. I watch what the child does with it and what the parents’ response is. I take that opportunity to ask about reading behaviors at home, and to listen for barriers. I model briefly what dialogic reading looks like and coach the parent on how to do it, all in the space of a few minutes at the beginning of regular checkups of children under age 5.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t other health care providers do this? Well, they do! This is the approach used by the evidence-based Reach Out and Read program, which is in over 6,000 primary care clinics throughout the country. Almost 30 years old, Reach Out and Read trains health care providers in how to incorporate early literacy into their well-child visits, assessing development, relational health and boosting education, and building parenting skills. If you’re interested in reading more about this approach, read this report I co-authored from Ascend at the Aspen Institute and Reach Out and Read.
Dr Dipesh Navsaria, MPH, MSLIS, MD
Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health
Founding Medical Director, Reach Out and Read Wisconsin