Getting them to read

In fact, even toddlers who have yet to learn to speak, much less read, can benefit from books this way.

Reading isn’t just an acquired skill. It’s also an acquired habit. When children are encouraged to read for pleasure from an early age, they are far more likely to continue reading throughout their school years and beyond. Children are expert imitators and often pick up the habits of other people around them, especially their parents, siblings and classmates. That is why children of parents who read a lot will likely become avid readers themselves. 

Just as important is the learning environment at their preschool and later primary school. Schools with well-stocked libraries containing plenty of age-appropriate books can set their students on a path towards a love of books. Schools can start doing so even before children have learned to read for themselves by having storytelling classes during which teachers read stories out loud from books to young children.

In fact, even toddlers who have yet to learn to speak, much less read, can benefit from books this way. The content of the books, experts say, matters less than the sound of a parent’s or a teacher’s familiar voice in reading well-crafted children’s stories for them with the texts’ rhymes, puns and intriguing new words.

“Research has shown that the number of words an infant is exposed to has a direct impact on language development and literacy,” Pamela Paul, a children’s books editor, and Maria Russo, a journalist, explain in an article. “But here’s the catch: The language has to be live, in person and directed at the child. Turning on a television, or even an audiobook, doesn’t count,” they add.

The minds of young children are like sponges that absorb new knowledge with effortless ease. By having adults or older children read to them, preschoolers can learn new vocabulary and grammar, understand how language works, and acquire new knowledge about the world all at the same time. Such reading sessions should become a daily routine both in preschool and at home, if only at bedtime. 

It helps to introduce youngsters not only to fairy tales and comic books but also to age-appropriate children’s books on a variety of topics from geography to culture and from history to basic science. In other words, it does not have to be only fiction, nor should it be. Children are naturally curious about the world and they delight in learning more about it. 

Once they master the alphabet and learn to read simpler texts, children should then be encouraged to start reading independently. Not all children can do so at the same age and at the same speed. Eventually, however, they can all get there with some help and guidance from parents and teachers. 

Just as reading should become routine, so books should be ubiquitous. By leaving visually enticing books around the house and school — on desks, on shelves, on tables — parents and teachers can inspire children to pick them up and begin leafing through them at leisure. 

Parents and teachers, Paul and Russo argue, should create “impromptu reading opportunities” for children by placing books, especially eye-catching ones on interesting subjects, in places where youngsters might be more inclined to pick them up and peer inside their pages. 

“Discovered on a coffee table, a great photography book or a book about lizards may occupy children for long stretches,” they write. “But don’t stop there. Leave paperbacks and magazines piled in the bathroom (yes, everyone reads on the toilet, even children), or anywhere they could catch a young reader’s eye.”

Simultaneously, giving books as gifts and rewards to children can help them appreciate their inherent value as objects to be treasured. It can also motivate them to begin amassing a personal collection of their favourite books. Once children learn to treasure books and their endlessly fascinating contents, a whole new world of learning, adventure and discovery opens up for them. When that happens, it’s unlikely they will want to leave that world.

Understanding how we can learn to read at all, despite not being hardwired evolutionarily for this task, showcases what Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai call “one of the brain’s great, semi-miraculous design features,” meaning plasticity. This malleability of our brains allows us to “create whole new circuits and connections among our older, genetically programmed structures,” they note. 

“In the case of reading, plasticity enables the brain to form new connections among the structures underlying vision, hearing, cognition, and language,” the experts elucidate. This design feature means that the very organisation of the human brain enables it to go beyond itself.” The educational benefits of deep reading are considerable, they stress. 

“By deep reading, we mean the array of sophisticated processes that propel comprehension and that include inferential and deductive reasoning, analogical skills, critical analysis, reflection, and insight,” Wolf and Barzillai say. 

“The expert reader needs milliseconds to execute these processes; the young brain needs years to develop them,” they add. “Both of these pivotal dimensions of time are potentially endangered by the digital culture’s pervasive emphases on immediacy, information loading, and a media-driven cognitive set that embraces speed and can discourage deliberation in both our reading and our thinking.”