Parents, do you know how to read? More precisely, do you know how to read to kids?
Almost every adult who cares for young children knows that sharing books with them is an important way to promote their reading skills. But research shows that subtle features of the way adults act during story-time make a big difference in children’s literacy—and that most grownups aren’t using these simple but effective techniques.
The first step to becoming a better reader to children is to understand where our young audience is looking when we read. While we might assume that they’re viewing the words, just as we are, eye-tracking experiments—which use special equipment to identify where subjects’ gaze is
directed—reveal that preschool children are focusing on print only five to six percent of the time. Instead, they’re mostly looking at the pictures, or looking up at our faces. Few of their questions or comments are about the words themselves, either; their interjections have to do with the illustrations, or with the content of the story. Yet studies have shown that it’s “print knowledge,” and not just general experience with books, that advances children’s reading ability.
“Print knowledge” is an awareness of the mechanics of the reading process, like the fact that English is read from left to right and that written words map on to spoken ones. Adults often take this knowledge for granted, but research demonstrates that children benefit when these aspects of print are explicitly pointed out. In a study published in the May-June issue of the journal Child Development, for example, Ohio State professor Shayne Piasta and her coauthors report that when preschool teachers drew students’ attention to print while reading to them, the children’s skills in reading, spelling and comprehension improved. These positive results were long-lasting, too, still showing up a full two years later.
This accentuation can be non-verbal—pointing to letters or words on the page—or it can be spoken. Left to their own devices, research finds, adults rarely generate questions or comments about print, but it’s a practice that’s easy to adopt. Ask, “Where should I begin reading on this page?”, and “Do you know this word?” Say, “I spot three capital letters on this page—see if you can find them,” or “This dot here is a period, and it tells me I’ve reached the end of the sentence.” Point out, “This is the title of the book—it’s on the cover and also on the inside,” and “This is the name of the author—she wrote all the words that you see.”
Piasta proposes that such interventions encourage children’s emerging reading abilities in two ways. First, they directly increase the amount of time kids spend attending to print. And second, they provide explicit information about the forms and functions of print, helping children to learn in the moment and remember in the future. Interestingly, Piasta notes, books that highlight particular words—by using different fonts, for example, or by putting characters’ speech in bubbles above their heads—don’t do much to enhance kids’ print knowledge. What matters is that the grownups who read to children take the time to show them how it’s done.
Annie Murphy Paul is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The New Science of Smart. Visit her website and sign up for her monthly newsletter.