Cultivating Literacy: Why You Should Read Aloud to Your Kids
Story time is one of the highlights of the day for most children simply because it is concentrated time with their caregivers doing a fun activity. However, research by psychologist Dominic Massaro, professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, indicates that it’s also one of the best ways to encourage literacy and later academic success.
Although picture books are often looked down upon because of their simple sentence structures and superficially straightforward stories, Massaro’s research suggests that they are actually a highly effective source for learning new vocabulary and correct grammar.
Even in families where caregivers spend a lot of time talking to children, the number of words used and the grammatical structures formed can be limited. This is because most people speak in what Massaro calls a “lazy” way. They point to objects, use as few words as possible, and rely heavily on context. This means that children do not develop an extended vocabulary or learn how to use language in a more engaging way.
By analyzing two sets of conversations and counting vocabulary in a range of storybooks, Massaro discovered that the storybooks used far more “rare” words than typical speech does. Three times more words, in fact—1453 versus 451. This means that children who are read picture books have the chance to hear three times as many new words as those engaged in conversation alone. Massaro notes that “word mastery in adulthood is correlated with early acquisition of words,” leading to the conclusion that these simple stories from childhood are actually a key factor in later language competence.
What makes these illuminations regarding children and language so important is that picture books are available to any family with access to a public library. This means that the benefits of reading to small children are not limited to the affluent and well-educated; they are available to families of all incomes. Most parents and caregivers already know that story time is important for a child’s well-being in terms of structured time spent in a safe environment. This research suggests that it is important at another fundamental level. Enjoying books with your children from an early age can set them up for a life of linguistic success.