Does reading to children help them learn to read?

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.

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I think that reading to children, even small ones (1-3)
does help them develop language skills. Maybe not make him/her into a bookworm but definitely help them develop interest in reading. Also, books for preschoolers should be colorful and bright. It should evoke powerful emotions. This is key to developing their imagination.

I just recently finished my first book. Spark, the being of light. It has a great message for preschoolers...
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is there evidence to suggest that vocabulary skills will lead to better reading skills, providing a less direct route for the benefit of reading to kids to have an impact on their reading skills?
Did this article address this issue or eliminate the link from vocab to reading skills from a statistical model?

reading to kids teaches them how to sit still and listen to a story for ten minutes. that's valuable. it also teaches them to like books. very valuable. school-age kids will needs both of these skills to succeed.

[...] Take yesterday's article, for example. I was ready to make a strong argument that Evans and Saint-Aubin were overstating their case ¡ª surely, since reading to kids improves vocabulary, it also improves literacy. Greta pointed out to me that a lay person might see it that way, but in psychology research, literacy and language ability are two separate fields. Armed with this specific scientific knowledge, my understanding of Evans and Saint-Aubin's rhetoric changed. RCT skills alone weren't enough ¡ª I couldn't have successfully understood the article without scientific knowledge as well. [...]

In my humble opinion, it might be worth considering that reading to a child might foster the parent-child bond, and self-confidence of the child which would translate to educational gains later. Since science doesn't understand all the mechanics of how the brain develops, I'm disappointed at those who are quick to jump to conclusions that haven't been supported by long-term studies. I agree with the author of this article that a love of reading is a key to learning.
My teenage daughter reads to me now, it's one of our favorite things.

By oliveasmom (not verified) on 11 Nov 2005 #permalink

Just a thought,

Perhaps the positive affect induced by the intimacy of such an activity between parent and child may develop, by association, the postive view of the activity itself in the child.

Additionally, the activity of reading itself, and under the above circumstances, may raise this activity in one's 'activities of preference' provided the said intimacy is not counterbalanced with other activities that are first amongst the stimuli to attract the juvenile mind.

For instance, a parent spending as much time with a child playing baseball as in reading, whilst encouraging such activities within the child and reinforcing it with the glue of positive affect arising from familial intimacy, may lead to a decline in reading or perhaps no appreciable increase in a desire to read because the baseball sessions have a greater 'goodness-of-fit' with juvenile inclinations. i.e. activity-based, less intellectual effort required, group validation, etc.

Whilst the positive affect arising from an intimate relationship with a parent does have its benefits in directing our inclinations, the activities themselves may conflict with each other on the basis of our age-related state of mind. This may lead to one not appreciating an activity for itself but that which leads to the greatest overall positive affect. When this happens, more 'strenuous' activities becomes 'contextualised', as in, reading for a purpose such as educational requirements, etc, whilst the juvenile minds is perpetuated by judging the overall value of activities according to their overall benefit to a perpetuated juvenile mind.

Interesting article. Thanks for the stimulus.

I am a teacher and an avid reader. I just know that my love for books and music came from my parents' love for books, stories, illustration, music and arts in general. Other people's mileage may vary.

It's not based on any research, but I find that many of my students who are avid readers, make music themselves or are in any way actively creating art usually also have very inquisitive minds and a way of attacking problems in ways that are creative and often very surprising and stimulating. On top of that they are also often the ones ready to stand up for their opinion and capable of voicing and formulating stringent thoughts.

Of course, there are many exceptions, but it's something I've noticed in 13 years of very intensive work with junior and senior high school students.

Parent's reading and children's orthographic learning may not be directly connected. Indirectly it trains children's phonological skills, phonological awareness which are believed to be closely correlated with reading and writing skills.

Strangely, my nearly 3 year old has, on her own, developed an interest in learning the spelling, but with only ONE of her books. She has no interest in connecting the words I read to the black letters on the page EXCEPT when I read the inane board book "Miss Spider's Family Album." She makes me spell out loud the name of each of Miss Spider's children. I suspect, with amusement and some alarm, that she'll be able to read "Squirt, Spinner, Worm, Bounce & Dragon" before anything else....!

Wouldn't the most obvious way to have children learn to read easily be teaching them the alphabet from an early age followed by words etc? The earlier they're taught the more comfortable they become with reading... at least from what I've been able to see with myself and the people around me. Also the ones who were taught to read at the youngest age were usually the best students in class. A child can learn the alphabet as early as year 1...