Reading - Prime time

Educational neuroscientist Paul Howard-Jones tells Annette Rawstrone why reading is the most important skill we can teach to children

Reading is our ‘prime technology’ which readies young children’s brains to interpret new concepts and new ways of thinking, including mathematics, says educational neuroscientist Paul Howard-Jones, an expert on Channel 4’s The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds.

‘Children can begin to understand the value and concept of books by seeing adults experiencing books and having their attention drawn to books. This can start in the first two to three years of their lives, well before they themselves know how to read but when their brains are at their most plastic and malleable. That’s a great start – and it can develop into a resilient enthusiasm for books in their school and adult lives,’ he told attendees at the BookTrust Annual Lecture in November. (BookTrust’s Storytime prize was also awarded at the event – see panel, right.)

‘Simply put, reading is perhaps the most important cultural tool we transmit to our children. It’s the gateway to the greatest part of accumulated human experience and understanding.’

Prof. Howard-Jones believes that reading is a catalyst for civilisation and that it continues to rewire young minds from the earliest years to provide a platform for adult well-being and success:

  • We evolved a large primate brain and a collaborative inclination for ‘shared attention’. About 10,000 years ago, sharing attention with infants created a platform for a new level of learning (that accumulated and kickstarted progressive civilisation).
  • Reading remains our ‘prime technology’ – our most important cultural gateway.
  • Sharing attention with an infant (especially to books) has a fundamental impact on their potential to learn and succeed.

Why is reading our ‘prime technology’?

‘I think that we often forget that reading is an invention, because it is so ubiquitous in our lives and we take for granted the fact that we didn’t evolve to read. Reading is something that has to be taught, unlike learning to speak. Because it is an invention, it’s not a perfect system, and that accounts for why people can find it easier to acquire reading in one language than another. In archaeological terms, we refer to reading as a technology, because it’s a cultural artefact and it’s made by people,’ Prof. Howard-Jones explains to Nursery World.

‘It is prime, because although we often think of technology in terms of our phones and laptops, there is so much that we’d be unable to access without reading. We can learn without reading – observational learning is particularly useful for young children when they’re still learning their vocabulary and speech and can’t read, but observational learning is limited and there is something special about learning through symbols.

‘One of the special things about learning through representation of ideas, rather than seeing them in a concrete way, is that learning is slightly more tricky, but it is easier to transfer that learning to other situations. So, reading is a technology because it is man-made, and it is prime because even though we may be using laptops and screens, we are using reading to access things through that medium.’

What is the importance of shared attention?

‘Although we are born with or quickly develop a bias towards sharing attention with our caregiver, it is also something which is learnt and develops through interaction with others. Therefore, one of the issues is iPads and all the ways that children can now learn through technology. These can’t be a substitute for sharing attention with a human being, because this involves lot of eye contact, turn-taking and interaction, and is such an important platform for further learning.

‘There is also the issue of how you build on that shared attention and learning. For example, when it comes to reading, it is not the time spent sharing books but the quality of the shared attention, the interaction that is taking place and how the child is being supported and encouraged to interact with the object, i.e. the book.

‘There should be interaction, so questions that encourage the child to explore the meaning, symbols and pictures of the book and also questions that encourage divergent understanding of number as well, so counting how many trees there are, for example. All of that is very important. It is also important to be engaging and exciting and use the experience as an opportunity to build on the child’s knowledge and understanding in an interactive way and elicit responses from the child.’

What makes a good picturebook for early years children?

‘This can be a little bit controversial; everyone has their own opinion on the role of books. I have colleagues who are experts in reading and tell me that actually learning to read is easier for children when a book has fewer pictures, because these can distract or occupy the child’s learning memory, and we all have a limited capacity to pay attention.

‘However, that tends to ignore the broader role of books and the importance of engaging children’s enthusiasm and interest in reading. So, I think books that are visually engaging are an important part of ensuring that children do pick up and listen and attend their interest in books. But it’s important to be aware that when it comes to formally teaching reading, some types of visual information, such as pictures, can be a distraction.’

How should we be teaching reading?

‘A lot goes back to teachers understanding how learning works. We can say broad things about reading practices, and that many different skills need to be supported in developing reading in young children. Phonics is one important part of any effective reading introduction process, but actually when it comes to developing practices in a classroom, I do believe teachers need to be supported in accessing and being able to understand the science of how reading and learning take place. That’s what I’m working on at the moment with UNESCO.

‘There is no prescription for effective teaching of reading, or anything else, because children’s contexts differ. What we do have is an increasing understanding of the processes involved, and that should inform the decisions and strategies that teachers take on a day-to-day basis.

‘So, they have got the evidence from the children that they know and the context that they know, and the evidence of practices that are generally purported to be effective, but then there is a third kind of evidence, which is how reading and learning actually occur. I think it is that understanding which teachers are often not being supported with. One of the changes we need to see in teacher education and professional development is more focus on understanding the processes that occur in the brain when we learn, such as when we learn to read.’


Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or How you got to be so smart by Paul Howard-Jones, Routledge


The Storytime Prize is a new award that has been launched by BookTrust to celebrate the best books for sharing with babies and children aged from birth to five years old.


  • Cyril and Pat by Emily Gravett 

Cyril the squirrel is lonely until he meets Pat the big, grey ‘other squirrel’. Then Cyril is told they can’t be friends because Pat is actually a rat. Life is duller and scarier without Pat by his side until Cyril learns that some things are more important than being the same.


  • Billy and the Beast by Nadia Shireen 

Join Billy on her mission to defeat the Terrible Beast and save some bunnies too.

  • Cake by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnett 

Cake is excited to be at a party until the candles on his party hat begin to burn and the other guests start to sing…

  • Amazing by Steve Anthony

A boy and his pet dragon are best friends in this book celebrating friendship and diversity.

  • Little Owl, Little Owl, Can’t You Sleep? by Jo Lodge 

Find out who is keeping little owl awake with their noisy habits and who is keeping very quiet.

  • Hat Tricks by Satoshi Kitamura 

Hattie the rabbit conjures an array of animals out of her hat, then a habitat where they can all live.

  • If All the World Were… by Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys

A moving book about a girl’s love for her granddad and how she copes when he dies.


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