Raising Lifetime Readers from the Start

Ever since 18 month old child prodigy Elizabeth Barrett read flashcards on The Today Show, parents have been asking me what they can do to help their children acquire similar skills and learn to love reading.

Experts say that most children learn to read between the ages of six and seven and it is not beneficial to try to push a child to read before then. In fact, recent research shows that, quite to the contrary, it can actually do more harm than good. One of the most damaging things you can do to affect your child’s relationship with books is to create pressure for her to read which can foster a negative association between your child and reading making her less likely to want to read.

There is, however, one simple and inexpensive thing you can do which will guarantee a positive difference in your child’s reading success and that is reading aloud to her, which parents can even start while their child is in utero. Not only does this help to create a healthy relationship between your child and reading, it is also an excellent bonding ritual which has other beneficial elements for both parent and child.

There are many benefits to reading to your child, most notably the positive association between reading and pleasure that can last a lifetime. The other positive effects apparent in children who are read to are:

  • increased vocabulary
  • greater acquisition of knowledge
  • greater academic achievements
  • pursuit and completion of higher levels of schooling
  • better performance on comprehension tests
  • better attitudes about reading
  • better scores on tests of reading, writing, and speaking


The single best predictor of language acquisition is the number and quality of words a child is exposed to each day. Reading has the added benefit of exposing children to “rare words,” complex sentences, literary devices like alliteration and rhyming, descriptive language, and original synonyms and story conventions (i.e. “in a land far, far away”). According to Betty Bardige and Marilyn Segal, authors of Building Literacy with Love, “children who have lots of experience with books are likely to develop richer vocabularies and deeper understanding of the meanings, sounds, and uses of words than those with less literary experience. They are also likely to be familiar with the conventions of language and story form that they will encounter when they begin to read for themselves.”

Reading makes a world of difference in achievement. An international study of 150,000 fourth graders found that students who were read to at home often scored 30 points higher than those who were only read to “sometimes.” In a study done by the US Department of Education researchers found that children who were read to at least three times per week had significantly greater phonemic awareness when they entered kindergarten than children who were read to less often, and were also twice as likely to score in the top 25 percent in reading.

It Starts at Home

It is up to parents to create enthusiastic readers. Studies show that children who come from what researchers call a “print-rich environment” consistently score better in writing, reading and math skills than those from “print-poor environments.” Print, in this case, relates a wide variety of materials, including: books, magazines, newspapers and even comic books. When researchers examined 21 kindergarten classes to see who displayed high interest in reading and who showed low interest in reading it became clear that the home environment and parents’ reading habits are crucial factors. Of the high interest group, over 78 percent had mothers who read for leisure, 60 percent had fathers who read for leisure, the families had, on average, more than 80 books in their home, more than 98 percent of the kids were taken to the library and more than 76 percent were read to daily. This compared to the low interest group where only 28 percent of the mothers read for leisure, fewer than 16 percent of the fathers read for leisure, they averaged fewer than 32 books in the home, only 7 percent were taken to the library and fewer than 2 percent were read to daily.

An addition, book ownership is a significant factor in reading enthusiasm and achievement. According to Jim Trelease author of The Read Aloud-Hand Handbook children need to have books that they own, ones that they can put their name in and don’t have to share with siblings. He also believes that as they get older they should be able to mark up books by writing in margins, highlighting and earmarking pages. This allows kids to learn new words, come back to passages that intrigue them and make the reading experience their own.

What Else You Can Do

Start reading to your child right away. Children, even infants, are never too young for a picture book. Understand that attention span is a learned process. Infant reading studies show that most infants average a three minute attention span. However, like exercising a muscle, those who are read to regularly can have an attention span as long as 30 minutes a day.

Take your child to the library. When children from “print poor” environments were taken to the library and given the opportunity to check out books, 96 percent of parents reported an increase in reading after the visit.

Let your child read in his bed or crib. 72.2 percent of children classified as “heavy readers” have parents who allow them to read in bed, compared to only 44.4 percent of those who were considered to be nonreaders. Start the habit early by allowing your infant or toddler to take board books into bed as soon as they show interest.

Be a role model. Children read more when they see other people reading. There is a direct correlation between how often children read for leisure and how often their parents do.

Create reading rituals. Create regular times in your children’s day when you read to her. My daughters look forward to hearing two books after every meal while they are still in their chairs. We started this started this ritual as soon as they were able to use a highchair. Many parents use nap or bedtime for a reading ritual.

Keep books on hand at all times. Bring books with you wherever you go: to the park, doctors’ appointments, play dates, relatives’ homes, etc. Keep them in the car, in the diaper bag, in your purse and any place else you can think of.

Read to your child regularly. A study of early readers, like Elizabeth Barrett, found that their parents not only read them books but also read package labels, street signs, billboards and other reading material that they encountered throughout the day.

Make writing utensils and paper readily available to your child. Early reading curiosity often comes in the form of scribbling, drawing, copying objects and letters of the alphabet.

Answer all your child’s questions. Satisfy your child’s curiosities even if the questions interrupt reading a great story.

Have book baskets throughout the house in places where they are accessible. Have these baskets in your children’s rooms, bathrooms, the kitchen, living room, and the car. A study of children who are most interested in reading found that they came from homes where books and printed materials were spread around the house, not just in one or two places.

Give your child a bed lamp. As soon as your child is old enough to read in bed get him a night light and allow him to stay up past his bedtime to read.

Point to the words as you are reading them. According to Trelease, the visual receptors in the brain outnumber the auditory receptors 30 to 1 and therefore the chances of a word being retained in our memory are 30 times greater if we see it instead of just hearing it. Also, it helps younger children to start to make the connection between letters and sounds.

Use books to help you deal with difficult situations. Children coping with the loss of a beloved pet can get solace from reading a book like The Tenth Good Thing about Barney. A toddler who is hitting a sibling can learn from Hands Are Not for Hitting.

Get books about topics that interest your kids. If you notice your toddler showing interest in birds, buy books about birds. If your child seems interested in fire engines get books about fire engines.

Always read the name of the author and illustrator. This helps children understand that people create books. It also gives them the opportunity to pursue other books by the same author if they like the book. With older children it is recommended that you help the author come to life by reading the dust jacket or even googling the author to learn a little something about him or her.

Have regular family reading time. During this time kids can read anything they want, even magazines or newspaper while the parents read, too. This should be a relaxed time and kids should not be quizzed about their reading. It can be as short and 10 minutes and as long as one hour, depending on the ages and concentration levels of your children.

Turn off the TV. Every minute that your child sits in front of the television is a minute he is not reading, playing, exercising, or being creative. Not only does TV viewing directly cut in to reading time, but once exposed to television and given the choice, most kids will pick television over books. Keep in mind that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television viewing prior to the age of two and suggests that parents limit their children’s viewing to fewer than 10 hours a week. This makes sense since an international study of 87,025 children in four countries found that children who view more than 10 hours of television in one week experienced a proportional decline in their academic scores.

Published on: June 22, 2010
About the Author
Photo of Dr. Jenn Berman

Dr. Jenn Berman is a Marriage, Family and Child Therapist in private practice in Los Angeles. She is the author of SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years

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