“Children who have a good foundation in reading achieve better in school,” notes Susan Penn, children’s librarian at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. “That’s one of the main things parents can do to affect their children’s school achievement.”
This information comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with The Urban Child Institute’s 2013 Data Book: the State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County. Packed with important facts about early brain development in young children, the Data Book has this to say about the effect of safe experiences, like reading with a parent, on a child’s developing brain:
Although the first stages of brain development are strongly affected by genetic factors, genes do not design the brain completely. Instead, when and where genes are used is fine-tuned according to the input they receive from the environment.
Penn thinks of reading as one of the most viable conduits to these foundational experiences, setting children on a successful path from an early age.
“Studies have shown that children who are read to at home, by their parents or caregivers, get on grade level (in reading) and stay on grade level and achieve better, all the way through their schooling,” she says.
But looking past its future academic benefits, reading together with your children offers immediate and observable outcomes. Settle into a chair with your book-hungry kid and you can feel the story surround you. The shared act transcends the text and pictures, becoming a conversation as well as a bonding experience.
“Reading is a lot broader than just reciting words on a page,” says Penn. “Reading promotes different kinds of connections; a connection to the child’s self, a connection to the other person they are reading with, a connection to the world. And different kinds of books promote different kinds of connections.”
Different books appeal to different children. Kids are unique and adaptable, approaching situations individually. This means we as parents must be adaptable too, listening to our children’s half of the conversation and making choices based on their interests and understanding.
“When we talk to parents about reading, we encourage them to have a book in their hands but to not follow the script, and instead to follow the lead of the child,” says Penn. “We encourage them to make up their own words, to have a conversation. That’s one things reading does, it promotes conversation. When conversation is at its best, both parties feel like they are really responded to. We like to encourage parents to use books to start that conversation.”
By paying attention to our kids, we can get a sense of what captures and holds their attention. This is crucial: it becomes the difference between defining reading as a task or chore, or defining it as a constant joy through school and beyond.
“If you aren’t getting any response back and you just keep reading the book, it’s not interesting to the child, and it’s not interesting to you,” said Penn. “To make reading uninteresting doesn’t help.”
The Data Book states: Experiences during a child’s earliest years will shape the development of fundamental cognitive, behavioral, and language skills that are necessary for learning and thriving upon reaching school.
The wildly explosive period of brain development in the first three years of your child’s life is the best time to start defining healthy habits, setting kids up for a bright future. Reading is a powerful instrument in the parenting tool kit and should play a major role in any home with growing children.