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According to the United Nations UK (UNUK), literacy is a fundamental human right for all children, youths and adults. Worldwide nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.
In the UK the literacy rate is 99%, which means one in every hundred people struggle to read and write. 95% of all employment in the UK requires employees to be able to read, and the effect of having poor literacy skills has a negative impact on career progression and earnings.
The National Literacy Trust reports that 16% of UK adults are considered to be “functionally illiterate”; this means that although they may have some basic literacy skills – they can read and write – they are lacking the level of literacy necessary for coping with most jobs and many everyday situations. Lacking vital literacy skills holds a person back at every stage of their life.
As a child they won’t be able to succeed at school, as a young adult they will be locked out of the job market, and as a parent they won’t be able to support their own child’s learning. This intergenerational cycle makes social mobility and a fairer society more difficult. It also undermines the UK’s economic competitiveness, costing the taxpayer £2.5 billion every year according to accountancy firm KPMG.
These are some of the reasons that reading is an important skill for children to learn.
How young do you start?
It is never too early to start reading and storytelling with children. You might not think about reading to a young baby, but even babies as young as six months old can actually benefit from hearing you read to them. It trains their ear to hearing the rhythm of language, making it easier for them to pay attention to longer sentences later on.
At this age the content of the book is not important, so stories written for older children are fine to read; it is about them hearing the spoken words, your voice and the patterns of speech. Spending time together and reading stories also nurtures your relationship with your baby.
From about a year old, babies start to get interested in books as toys. They enjoy physically exploring them, which is why cloth, textured and picture books are so popular. Books that have simple pictures paired with single words help babies learn their first vocabulary.
Point to what you are talking about, especially when there are two or more pictures on a page, so that they start to make the connection between the sound of the word and the picture. Because of their natural rhythm, nursery rhymes are great to read to one-year-olds.
Their flow allows you to naturally pause before something important which lets the child’s brain catch up with the words that you are saying. Colourful pictures with labels can help your child; you can say, “where’s the dog?” and they can point at it showing they comprehend.
Reading with two-and three-year-olds
At this age a toddler is ready for more complex pictures and stories. They love stories that describe something familiar to them, like going to the park or to the shops. Toddlers also love re-reading favourite stories, and they begin to recognise familiar words that you point out. You can try pausing mid-sentence to see whether your child fills in the next word and encourage them to retell familiar stories in their own words.
At three they will be ready to start graduating to real stories with simple plots. This level of book tends to have three or four sentences per page and is often about a character that has an obstacle to overcome such as looking for something, the steps they take to find it, and finally there is a happy ending when they find it.
This is a good time to introduce simple non-fiction books such as books about dogs or dinosaurs; these will start to teach them about subjects that interest them. This is also a good time to start pointing at the text as you read rather than the pictures, which helps children begin to learn that you read from the top to the bottom of the page, and from left to right.
If you follow the text with your finger as you read they will begin to recognise the text, the vocal sound of the words and they often join in with you when reading familiar stories.
As you read, explain new words to your child, for example if a character is described as “grumpy” you could explain that it means they are not very happy. This will also give you an opportunity to talk about how characters are feeling, why is the character grumpy? What would make the character happy? This helps to develop a child’s emotional and problem-solving skills.
Reading with four-and five-year-olds
By this age, children are at a pre-reading stage where they begin to focus on the text. When they start school, in the Reception class they will be taught a method of learning to read words called phonetics, reading the letters in the word by saying the sounds they represent.
When you read with your child you can start to do this by reading part of a sentence, pausing and letting the child sound out and then read a word, for example “The ball is r / e/ d – red”. These simple phonics word games help your child to recognise the words, their pronunciations, and it will support what they are learning in school.
Some words will be harder for this phonetics method because the sounds and letters don’t match the rules, for example “the”, but by pointing to the word as you read it, you child will begin to recognise these words.
Once children start school they will be bringing books home to read. Set aside time to listen to your child read. If they get stuck on a word, remind them to say it phonetically. As your child is learning to read, it is important to continue reading to and with them. Keep reading a fun activity because there will be times when they find reading for themselves hard going.
By reading stories or non-fiction to them that are slightly more complicated than they are currently reading themselves can widen their vocabulary by introducing new words, even if they are not ready to read them yet.
From six years and upwards
Just because your child is learning to read for themselves is no reason to stop reading to and with them. The ritual of bedtime stories is a great opportunity to advance their vocabulary and their enjoyment of stories. Continue to have those conversations about what you are reading, the different characters and plots.
Reading should be kept a fun and enjoyable experience and very soon your child will make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn.
Don’t stop with books – take any opportunity to read with and to your children, for example road signs, posters, recipes when you cook with your children, menus; it can be fun for older children to look at menus and work out what they want to eat. There are plenty of ways you can make reading fun and improve their literacy skills.
What are the benefits of reading for children?
Children who read frequently and who are read to regularly, improve their reading skills; it is definitely a case of “practice makes perfect”.
Other benefits of this enjoyable pastime include:
- Bonding – Reading provides great opportunities for you and your child to spend time together and take time out during otherwise busy days. Children feel secure when they are being read to, and showing your child a positive attitude towards books and reading helps children to view literacy in a positive way.
- Language development and vocabulary expansion – Research has shown that babies who are read to and talked to score higher in language skills than babies who are not. American paediatric studies suggest that this link extends throughout childhood into the teen years and that those verbal interactions between parents and children such as reading and talking, may promote higher language and IQ scores all the way up to the mid-teens. Children learn new words as they read and, subconsciously, they absorb information on how to structure sentences and how to use words and other language features effectively in their writing and speaking.
- Improvement in listening skills – Children need to concentrate in order to comprehend when they are being read to, in other words they need to pay attention and listen. When they are listening, they are more likely to sit still and this develops a longer attention span.
- Cognitive development – Reading is a much more complex task for the human brain than watching television, for example. Reading strengthens brain connections and builds new connections; this helps to build skills such as problem-solving and reasoning.
- Development of imagination and creativity – Books and stories open up a whole new world to your child; many stories go beyond the real world and employ fantasy elements that get children thinking outside the box. They use their imagination to “see” what a character or place looks like. Often children already have vivid imaginations, so reading serves to further feed their creativity.
- Social and emotional development – Reading to children can teach them how to cope with difficult or stressful experiences and provides an opportunity to talk about real-world situations in age-appropriate ways. As children develop they begin to imagine how they would feel in that situation and this helps them to develop empathy. Reading teaches children about the world around them and helps them to model what happens in various situations. By reading a variety of books, children can learn about people, places, and events outside of their own experience and develop the skills to deal with something new. Reading also has a beneficial impact on a child’s mental health as they can explore their emotions and vulnerability by observing a feeling or situation from a distance through the story in a book.
- It is fun – As children develop a love of reading and/or being read to they become immersed in the stories, they can laugh at every funny anecdote, get excited as the story unfolds and be surprised by plot twists and turns.
Importance of reading for children
Studies show that reading for pleasure makes a big difference to children’s educational performance as a child’s reading skills are important to their success in school; their literacy level impacts on their success in all other subject areas. Children with good literacy skills do well in other subjects as they are able to comprehend more easily and to express their ideas and knowledge, both verbally and in writing more fluently.
As children develop their reading skills they also develop their reading comprehension, that is, their ability to understand a written passage of text. It is the bridge between being a passive reader who takes nothing from what they have just read and an active reader who engages with what they are reading and who reads with an open and questioning mind.
This is the crucial link to effective reading that is essential for a positive academic, professional and personal life.
How can parents encourage reading?
The key to encouraging reading habits in children is reading with them from a young age and having a wide variety of books at home so children recognise books as an essential part of life.
Other ways to encourage your children’s reading include:
- Rediscovering your own taste in children’s books so that you can talk enthusiastically about books you read as a child that you will introduce to them; children love to try things their parents did as children.
- Not being afraid to expose toddlers to unfamiliar subjects. Take advantage of this time to expose them to a balanced menu of characters that can capture their imaginations.
- Encouraging children to express what they like about their books and finding more books like those.
- Respecting your child’s book preferences – Your child may already be surprising you with independent tastes and opinions, so encourage this in their choice of reading material.
- Making reading mutually satisfying – Make a special time and comfortable place to read; the more you do this the more reading will be associated with pleasure.
- Showing your delight as your child’s reading skills develop, say well done and let them know how pleased you are when they get things right.
- Not getting so caught up in your own reading that you ignore your child’s comments and queries. Interruptions show that your child is engaged and wants to know more.
- Acting as a role model and reading in front of your child. Watching you reading magazines, newspapers and books shows your child that reading is important. Encourage your child to join you with their own book while you are reading.
- Visiting your local library – Help them to get their very own library membership and take advantage of the selection of books on offer by letting your child pick out a book that catches their attention. Also having a limited borrowing time can encourage finishing the book before it has to be returned. Sign up for library events that will get your whole family inspired to read.
- Exposing children to diversity in books – This will prepare them for life in a diverse world and gives you the opportunity to discuss diversity in an age-appropriate way.
- Making reading a habit, for example a bedtime routine, helps your child learn to associate reading with relaxation.
How can teachers encourage reading?
A lot of a teacher’s time is spent encouraging children to read in school. Some of their students will develop a passion for reading whilst others will dislike reading and won’t want to read for pleasure. Helping children to develop a passion for reading for pleasure will have benefits that are far-reaching, meaning that the efforts of educators are more important than ever.
Ways to encourage your students’ reading can include:
- Knowing your students’ level of literacy – This is important for choosing text, books and other learning materials. Reading should neither be too hard, at a point where students can’t understand the text and therefore can’t benefit from it, nor, on the other hand, too easy. If the student understands everything in the reading there is no challenge and little or no learning.
- Encouraging your students to highlight and underline valuable information as they read. Have students write notes on the pages they are reading to help them stay focused and improve comprehension. If you are concerned about them marking books then provide photocopies of the text. Students should also be encouraged to write down questions as they read to receive more explanation on a new concept or to define a new word.
- Setting reading goals – Have each student set their own reading goals. This can help them take action in building reading skills and students will be more mindful of how they are improving.
- Reading in portions – Long, complex reading can be more digestible by breaking it up into shorter segments. This will help students retain the information as the class discusses the materials. It can also help students build confidence in understanding complex subjects.
- Being a reading role model – As with most activities we expect children to participate in, it is a good idea to model what good looks like. Help children envisage what a passion for reading looks like and how inspiring it can be.
- Starting a book club or reading circle – Book clubs and reading circles are a popular part of many work and social environments, and there is no reason why it can’t be a part of your school too. Be sure to get buy-in from pupils by giving them control over which book is chosen. After reading the book, or just a few chapters, get together somewhere quiet and comfortable to discuss it. If you think this won’t work on a regular basis, try special one-offs every now and then. That way, there is no big commitment involved.
- Arranging an author visit – Is there a local author in your area that might consider making an appearance in your school? Bringing someone as passionate and inspirational as the authors themselves is priceless when looking to arouse the imaginations of young people.
- Getting the parents involved – If you can get some interest from parents at home, you will go a long way to ensuring that your students are reading for pleasure. At the next parent-teacher meeting make sure you reinforce the importance of reading and how it can impact every subject, not just English.
- Embracing World Book Day – Chances are your school already celebrates World Book Day but embracing it as enthusiastically as you can is one of the best ways to inspire pupils to love reading. Give your students control over decisions of what to do as a class, set them up a project team with defined roles and responsibilities to organise their event.
- Running a reading challenge – A little friendly competition never hurt anyone. A reading challenge may be just what you need to incentivise some pupils to pick up a book. Give your class a goal and they will have a reason to read, rather than just because they “have to”. Ideas could include a checklist to read certain classics or a book from each genre, with prizes for those who do it, or you could hold a photo competition, where groups of students recreate a famous scene from a set book.
- Writing book reviews – Ask students to write up a short review explaining what it is they loved about a certain book and why they would recommend it to others to read. If you have a school magazine or Moodle blog you could publish the best reviews.
Reading for pleasure is a great habit. Like all habits, it needs repetition and regularity to establish itself. Once children have been bitten by the reading bug, you will find that they are reaching for books in their social time more and more often. The most important thing is to create a feeling of joy around reading that lasts a lifetime.
Reading at any age expands the mind and has been proven to keep our minds young, healthy and sharp, with studies showing that reading can even help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.