'We all read to our children don't we?'

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Professor Law and Dr Charlton stress the importance of parents reading to their children after their joint study confirmed the positive effect it has on language development.

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Professor James Law and Dr Jenna Charlton

I [Professor Law] was in a shop last weekend. A four year old boy picks up a book and says to his mum 'can I have this?' to which his mother replies 'No, because you don’t know how to read yet'. Studies have shown time and time again that many parents do not read to their children especially when they are younger, and time and time again we see that there are major inequalities between children from different backgrounds by the time they reach school.

So what difference does reading to your child make to their language development? Over the last year or so our team from Newcastle University and Queen Margaret University Edinburgh carried out a literature review funded by the UK’s Nuffield Foundation of all the best quality literature on parent/child reading to see what effect it has on children’s oral language development.

In particular we were interested in the difference in the effects of book reading on what children say and what they can understand. We looked only at book reading intervention studies – in other words only those studies where there was a group of children who did receive the intervention and one that did not, so that we could compare the effects of the intervention to typical development.

We found 22 studies which met our inclusion criteria, which included 1,320 children conducted across five countries (although interestingly not the UK). The average age of the children was 40 months. A variety of different approaches to reading were identified, the most common being shared and dialogic book reading. Dialogic is the most structured type of book reading where the parent ask the child lots of questions about that they are reading about in the book. Most of the studies used books but others used tablets and other electronic devices. Interventions varied considerably in length.

We found a number of things. The first is that the majority of the studies show positive effects but the largest effect by quite a long way was on receptive language skills demonstrated by a number of randomised controlled trials; however, this effect was statistically non-significant. The average effect size of 0.68 for receptive vocabulary is equivalent to an advantage of 8 months using criteria developed by the Education Endowment Foundation. This was twice to that for expressive language. The findings were almost the same irrespective of whether the intervention was carried out over a relatively short time (less than ten weeks) and those which went on for longer. They were also similar for children from more socially disadvantaged and those from mixed backgrounds.

But what does this all mean? To some extent we knew that book reading helped children’s development and this type of activity is common practice in nurseries and early years centres. However other reviews have not picked out the striking effect of specifically parent/child book reading and have not emphasised the relationship to oral language skills.

Book reading is clearly not just about reading. It is much more about the listening and attention on the one hand and the interaction with the adult on the other.  It can have all sorts of positive effects on other aspects of development as well.

The other issue, which is important for all early years workers, is that it is important that all parents know about the value of reading and are actively helped by early years staff and encouraged to be positive about the need to read with their children. Everyone needs to recognise the benefits of early reading, benefits that start long before children are starting to read themselves. 

James Law is professor of speech and language sciences and Dr Jenna Charlton is a research associate. Both work within Newcastle University's School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences.

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