Earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced that its members are going to be encouraged to promote reading aloud to children during well-visits. Studies show that infants and toddlers whose parents read to them enter school better prepared to read themselves.
Listening to books, according to the AAP, develops language and other intellectual skills. With the support of the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation and donations from Scholastic Books, the nonprofit group Reach Out and Read has been donating books to pediatricians for distribution to low-income families. According to a national survey, parents living below the federal poverty level are much less likely to read to their children. Naturally, as someone who critiques children’s literature, I was curious to know which books the organization is promoting. I could not find a comprehensive list on their site.
When I speak to parents about reading to their children, there are a few questions that they nearly always ask.
1. Until what age should I read to my child? Until he no longer wants to listen! In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman discussed the importance of oral tradition and storytelling and their impact on listening skills and memory development. No one is too old to listen to a good tale. Audiobooks can turn a long car ride into an opportunity to delve into literary treasures – and the kids are a captive audience!
2. How can I read if my toddler won’t sit still? While parents may dream of cuddling up on a couch, there is no reason why a child cannot play quietly with trucks, Lego, dolls or coloring books and still listen. It is really a matter of finding the time, place and book that best suits the individual.
3. What should we read? I always suggest finding a book that is slightly more advanced in terms of reading level (not content) than a child can read on his own. With intonation and explanations of difficult vocabulary, parents can help youngsters develop reading skills. Historical fiction can complement school curriculum, and the classics are never out of style. The best books, though, are those in which heroes and heroines are truly virtuous, providing good role models and food for thought.
4. How can I find the time? There is no rule that states a parent has to do all the reading. Older siblings can also benefit from reading to younger family members. (Not to mention the role grandparents can play.) In the end, however, time spent with a child and a book is never time lost. It is an opportunity to discuss life experience and personal values and to simply enjoy each other’s company. As C.S. Lewis once said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”
Jennifer Minicus is a mother and teacher living in Ridgewood, NJ.