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.


Surprising Tips That Help Kids Learn to Read 8 June,2012Annie Murphy Paul

  • Lauri Lee

    This is great advice for parents whose kids are old enough to attend to and understand print and more abstract concepts, such as 3+ or 4-year-olds. However, for babies and toddlers, it’s most important that parents and caregivers just read to them: they will gain closeness, a general understanding of stories (they have a beginning, middle, and end, for example), learn to appreciate that pictures generally represent the characters/events in the story (so that they may be able to predict what will happen next), and a love of reading in general!

    • Learning to read is a long process, but it doesn’t have to be a difficult process. Broken down into intuitive and logical steps, a child as young as two years old can learn to read, and older children can accomplish even more. Here is a simple, step-by-step program that can help your child learn to read, and watch a video of a 2 year old child reading…

  • Polarsimmons

    Gotta laugh when the article starts with “Parents, do you know how to read?”  Obviously if the answer is “No” then there would be no answer.   Books are the favorite toys of our 18 month old.  After reading this we no longer feel qualified to read to him.  

  • Trenalg

    I worked part time for a short while in a daycare center, where one of the “teachers” actually would not let the children (classroom of babies under a year old) touch or hold the books!  These were baby books, board books!  She actually made them sit in a circle before her, made them sit quietly, and “read” the “stories” to them!  They were even required, by her, to keep their hands to themselves!  Glad I don’t work there anymore, and sad for the little children, whose parents have entrusted their care to an agency which continues to allow such an ignorant approach to reading/teaching.  With this age group, the kids should be expected to be all over the teacher, all over each other, all over the books, even all over the room.  Readhing should be introduced as a warm, interesting, fun option and opportunity, not a constraining requirement!

  • My mother read to all of us, and she did not go through the mechanics described above. She later told us that we ourselves soon began asking, “Where does it say that?” and pointing out words to ask what they were.
    Children in a reading household, where books are common objects and reading a routine activity, are inevitably going to “get it” and start reading on their own. If you have a such a home – Polarsimmons, are you listening? – you have no worries.
    On the other hand, people who do not maintain a reading household – why do you care if your kids read or not? 

  • Anonymous

    This is exactly how I learned to read at age 3.

  • Anonymous

    Let me see.  Yes I often ask questions about what is being read and ask to see if he understand by asking him to explain the written word to him.  
    Something I picked up in the military is if you have someone who is having a difficult time with something, have him teach it.

    Arithmetic we do everyday.  Papa will have 2 eggs and how many does Luc want?  Bring me that many.  How about the bacon?  How many slices?  

    Sciences mostly biology such as what similarities are there between us and the lizard?  How do you know that is an insect?

    Questioning children before they begin asking “why?”, the ultimate in preemptive strikes!

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  • Ray Narayan

    I still remember of the time when I was a kid and was taught by my mom. She always had this wonderful way of explaining things to me while she helped me reading. I think adult asking questions or giving comments about print is not simply just a practice which they should adopt its something which comes naturally. Parents with this habit makes it easy for their kids to learn reading skills and also makes them enthusiast and interested in reading. I think the tool described above is what all parents should try to understand because this would really help their kids. The kids find reading interesting when their parents follow such a practice and when this reading becomes interesting we know kids start loving studies.

  • DrBharti

    Its not easy to teach kids at home but after reading this post some new ideas came in mind and it seems easy to teach kids at home

  • oaklandlitspecialist

    The author of the article is encouraging us to explicitly teach “concepts of print” to our children…which are important concepts for beginning readers to grasp, and yes, many kids that lack these skills struggle to read in elementary school. These are skills that are explicitly taught to K/1 students. I’d encourage parents to casually address these concepts, but not to overwhelm their beginning readers. It’s is equally important to encourage a love for reading while our kids are young. Reading to our kids daily, seeing their parents read and get excited about reading, taking frequent library visits, and talking about what we read with our kids will get our kids hooked on books for a lifetime. For a balanced approach to reading, explicitly teaching concepts of print and reading with your child are key factors in creating a reader out our your little one.

  • We found a unique way to get our kids to stop watching tv. Audio books. They’re far more engaging than television. We downloaded a bunch for free at this site.

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  • Dan

    Take a look at for some great ideas that really work.

  • Michelle Steele-Fischer
  • Pingback: Ten easy ways to help your child read better, faster, sooner. | Maureen Grenier()

  • Heike Larson

    The most important thing in reading is to do it for enjoyment, not out of duty. If reading becomes just another educational “to do,” stressed parents will dread it! Success happens when reading becomes a treasured routine, something neither parent nor child can do without.

    I love reading with my children. It’s one of our favorite times together. We’ve read board books, longer picture books, and just now finished reading aloud all seven Harry Potter books together.

    Reading, to me, is all about sharing happy memories with my children. Of course, they learn a lot from this experience: we look up vocabulary words all the time. We discuss ideas from books. We do research based on books. But the important thing is that reading is for happiness:

  • The children who struggle to learn to read are bright, and they are attending as well as
    they can. If we understand more about that struggle, we will be better able to teach all
    children effectively. We must teach consistently. We need to talk to students in ways that do not invalidate or contradict what we have previously taught.

  • Learning to read is a long process, but it doesn’t have to be a difficult process. Broken down into intuitive and logical steps, a child as young as two years old can learn to read, and older children can accomplish even more. Here is a simple, step-by-step program that can help your child learn to read, and watch a video of a 2 year old child reading.

  • Caroline Martin

    We found free application PHONICS from iTunes App Store to learn how to read for kids. Our girls, age 4 and 6, love it and enjoy making steady progress reading. Cute, completely free and effective so far. Here is the link to check it out:

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  • Matthew

    This is some very good information. I had really good results from applying the above read to the Reading Head Start program. I would definitely recommend the Reading Head Start program to others. Here is the link if you would like to look more into it:

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