Deborah Allen

Reading to a child in this digital age is perhaps more important now than ever.

With so many electronic devices available to entertain, distract, and yes, even teach us, books are easily overlooked.

The human brain is “hard-wired” for spoken language, but not for reading. Babies learn from an early age to connect sounds they hear frequently –– the words, tones, and rhythms of human speech –– to their environment. Infants also learn to “read” facial expressions and body gestures. But the ability to read written symbols, as well as write them, does not develop naturally. Children need to be taught these skills.

Learning to read and write is a developmental process. This process continues over the course of several years. Children acquire literacy skills through interactions with others. But numerous scientific studies and years of research point to one specific activity that builds the skills and understandings necessary to learning to read: being read aloud to.

Reading to a child provides an invaluable foundation for all of his literacy education. A teacher can always tell if one of her students has been read aloud to at home. And also, if a child’s experience with print and books has been limited. A child who has been read aloud to has larger and stronger vocabulary skills. In fact, communication skills in general are often stronger.

You can read aloud books that children cannot read on their own. This is why it is so important to read aloud to children who are already reading. Children can understand more complicated stories and sophisticated books than they can while reading alone. And if the child does not understand what has just been read, you are right there to explain it to him or her.

What children know before they begin their first day of school is strongly related to how easily that child will learn to read. I have found that there are three main predictors of reading success:

• The ability to recognize and name letters of the alphabet.

• General knowledge about print –– which is the front of the book, the back of the book, and how to turn pages.

• Awareness of phonemes (the sounds in words).

Young children need to be spoken to and listened to. When a parent sings rhymes and plays word games with her child, she is sharing the sounds of our spoken language. This helps the child recognize the different sounds and combinations of sounds in words.

The following facts are somber reminders of the importance of providing a strong foundation for reading for children from birth to age 5:

More than 88 percent of children who have difficulty reading at the end of first grade display similar difficulties at the end of fourth grade.

Three-fourths of students who are poor readers in third grade will remain poor readers in high school.

Thirty-three percent of American fourth-graders read below the “basic” level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test (according to NAEP 2009 Reading Report Card).

Early intervention programs can be profoundly valuable. These programs can assist a poor reader to increase reading skills to at least an average level. Children with hearing and/or speech issues need to be identified and diagnosed early. Then they can get the help they need to become proficient, or to prevent later reading difficulties.

Research has shown that families, teachers and even community programs (libraries) all contribute to a child’s learning to read. But there is no substitute for the close bond established between a parent and a child being reading together.

When you read to your child, you are doing so much more than teaching and demonstrating the use of language –– you are also saying, “You are important to me. I care about you, and I enjoy spending time with you. You are safe.”

Deborah Allen is a teacher and librarian, and she enjoys reading to children all the time. She can be reached at windmeadowfarm@nullgmail.com.

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