Why reading to kids is a big deal

Anna Gibson discovers why making time for a story is the biggest contribution you can make to your child’s ‘success’ in life.

Albert Einstein was once asked what we could do to make our children smarter. He answered, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

The greater their vocabulary, the better they do at school.

Increasingly, the research backs him up. The more we read to our children, the greater their vocabulary. The greater their vocabulary, the better they do at school. The better they do at school, the more successful they will be in life. As parents, isn’t this what we want?

A 2013 study by the University of Melbourne followed more than 4,000 Australian kids from pre-school to mid-primary and found the single-most-important predictor of overall success at school was the amount they were read to as toddlers. Reading to Young Children: A Head-Start in Life  found children who were read to three to five times a week were almost six months ahead of their peers in reading and cognitive skills (activities of thinking, understanding, learning and remembering) by the time they started school. Children who enjoyed daily story time were almost 12 months ahead. By age eight to nine, these kids recorded higher scores in the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests than kids who went without. In addition to the purely academic benefits, children who were read to regularly as toddlers showed greater school readiness, a better approach to learning and better physical, social and emotional development.

children with a rich vocabulary will understand more

This is one of the most recent studies in a significant body of research that links regular reading to young children with greater success in later life. A 2013 British study, Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: The role of reading, found kids who read for pleasure were likely to do significantly better than their non-reading peers throughout primary and into secondary school. These children tended to be those whose parents had read to them regularly at the age of five. “It’s likely that strong reading ability will enable children to absorb and understand new information, which affects their achievement in all subjects,” says study co-author Dr Alice Sullivan.

In his international bestseller The Read-Aloud Handbook, US author Jim Trelease writes, “The one pre-kindergarten skill that matters above all others, because it is the prime predictor of school success or failure, is the child’s vocabulary upon entering school.” He says children with a rich vocabulary will understand more of what the teacher is saying, while those with a smaller vocabulary will understand less. As school becomes increasingly complex, it is the latter who are more likely to struggle. Once they begin to read, their existing vocabulary feeds (or frustrates) their comprehension: it’s nearly impossible to read a word we have never heard or said before.

Dads also have an important role to play, especially when it comes to their sons

Dads also have an important role to play, especially when it comes to their sons. Jim cites a study where boys whose fathers read to them regularly were better readers than their peers whose fathers didn’t. “As you read to a child, you’re pouring into their ears (and brain) all the sounds, syllables, endings and blendings that will make up the words they will someday be asked to speak, read and understand,” says Jim. Equally important, the stories themselves fill in gaps of knowledge they need to understand things outside their immediate surroundings.

We live in an age where written knowledge is currency. A 2003 US study How Much Information? 2003, estimated the information flow through the internet tripled between 2000 and 2003. A child who grows up in a print-rich environment where reading is valued is more likely to try to read for themselves. Making time to read in a pleasurable environment creates a happy association with books that can help motivate children to keep trying when the learning gets tough.

Don’t stop once they can read: by reading them stories that are of interest, but beyond their reading level, you can stretch your child’s understanding. It also creates a natural place for children to explore challenging ideas and concepts outside their experience, under the guidance of a loving adult.

In larger families, encouraging older children to read to younger siblings is a win-win: it’s a story for the youngsters and practice for the big kids. That said, experts from US literacy organisation Reading Is Fundamental recommend spending some time reading alone with each child, as it reinforces the message that reading is important.

Children’s writer Jackie French (author of Diary of a Wombat) is the Australian Children’s Laureate and a passionate advocate of reading to children. She calls books “our unacknowledged superheroes” for their ability to build brain development, imagination and communication. “A book gives children the dreams to imagine their future and the tools to create it,” says Jackie. “Every book I write is created by the reader too, as they imagine the world from the words on the page.”

Books, particularly fiction, also build empathy and perception, as children explore the world from another’s viewpoint. “Every book, no matter how trivial, is a record of the way the author sees the world, a map of their values,” says Jackie. “I believe that if you give a child 1,000 books, you are giving them 1,000 different world views. Expose a child to enough good books, and they’ll learn to think.”

Ten Minutes A Day:

Australian literacy-advocacy body Love2Read recommends reading to children for 10 minutes every day. “I’m the daughter of a time-and-motion expert who would never admit ‘there is no time’,” says author Jackie French.  “There are a million ways to share a story with your child once you tell yourself this is something you must do.”


While you cuddle them to sleep.
When they need comforting.
While you’re having a coffee break.
On Skype from your hotel room on your next business trip.
Over the phone from your office.
Cereal-box labels in the supermarket queue and entertain the shoppers.

“When you are really bushed, put your feet up, shut your eyes and let your child read you a story,” says Jackie French. “It doesn’t matter if they can’t really read the words; if you have read to them often enough, they will make up a story just for you as they turn the pages.”