Eric Durbrow pointed me to this article in the Globe and Mail. Its lead sentence offers a surprising claim:
Parents take note: Reading to your preschoolers before bedtime doesn’t mean they are likely to learn much about letters, or even how to read words.
But aren’t teachers and literacy advocates constantly urging parents to read to their kids? Aren’t their entreaties backed by research?
The Globe and Mail article reports on research published in Psychological Science by Mary Ann Evans and Jean Saint-Aubin. I decided to look at the original article to see if it lives up to the dramatic claim offered in the mainstream media report.
Evans and Saint-Aubin note in the introduction to their experiments that little research has been done specifically focusing on the relationship between shared book reading and orthographic development. In other words, while there have been studies about parents reading to their kids, these studies don’t specifically examine how kids learn about the shape of letters and how letters form words. So there may be some cause for concern.
The Globe and Mail article does offer a good summary of Evans and Saint-Aubin’s work. They tracked the eye movements of 4-year-olds as their parents read picture books to them from a computer screen. Despite using several different types of books, including books where the text was enclosed in conversation bubbles superimposed on the illustrations comic-book style, the children rarely looked at the words on the page. They generally looked at the pictures more than 20 times as often as they looked at the words. Evans and Saint-Aubin quite reasonably ask how these children could possibly be learning anything about words or reading.
The Globe and Mail article quotes Evans as saying that parents believe that reading to their kids will help them learn to read. “That’s true to an extent in that reading to your children will help them develop an understanding of storyline. But it’s not necessarily helping them to learn how to decode the words on the page.”
Does the research really suggest that reading to children only helps kids understand “storyline”? In their second experiment, Evans and Saint-Aubin had teachers read two different versions of the same story to a new group of children, again monitoring eye movements. In the modified story, the text was changed to refer to specific details in the pictures. On pages with references to specific picture details, children looked at the corresponding area of the picture nearly the entire time the page was being read. This suggests that the kids are paying close attention to the meaning of the text in the story. Wouldn’t that at least help children develop vocabulary skills?
Indeed it would, and Evans and Saint-Aubin cite two meta-analyses and three studies showing that reading to children correlates with vocabulary knowledge. While vocabulary may be important for parents, for psychologists, language ability is a separate skill from reading ability. However, while the five articles that Evans and Saint-Aubin cite find that there is a stronger impact on vocabulary than on reading achievement, each study does show some association between shared reading to preschoolers and school-aged reading ability.
Evans and Saint-Aubin argue that this small effect may be due to the fact that parents who read to their children are also more likely to specifically coach their children in orthographic skills. Perhaps this is true—perhaps it is the coaching, and not the shared reading, which leads to improved reading ability in school-aged kids.
But is the Globe and Mail article’s lead sentence warranted—does reading to children really lead to no improvement in reading ability? From a psychology research perspective, it’s arguable that it does not. But for parents trying to help their children develop the skills that will help them in the future, the question may be irrelevant. Developing vocabulary skills and a love of books are important in their own right. In the long run, these skills may lead to better readers: Evans and Saint-Aubin’s report doesn’t address long-term development.
Finally, I would argue that children whose parents read to them to are substantially more likely to learn to read—because if no reading occurs, then there is much less opportunity for coaching. As Evans points out in her interview with the Globe and Mail, one of the simplest ways to coach children on reading skills is to point to the words while we read them.
Evans, M.A., & Saint-Aubin, J. (2005) What children are looking at during shared storybook reading: Evidence from eye movement monitoring. Psychological Science, 16(11), 913-920.