Worried about your child’s education while schools are closed? Here is some good news: If all you can do some days is read with your kids, you are doing great things.
We have known forever that reading to children improves their vocabulary. That’s not even half of it.
When we read to children, a lot of other cool science stuff happens. Some of it we can’t even see, and it wasn’t so well understood even a generation ago.
Starting with babies: When we read, sing and talk to babies, their brains literally form networks that prepare them to start reading by age 6 or so. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Dr. John S. Hutton, a pediatrician in Cincinnati, has recorded the effect on children’s brain scans.
The gist is, we are born with brain networks ready to learn certain things — to see and speak, for example. We have no ready-made brain network prepared to figure out the word c-a-t.
But as we read to children, show them the pictures, let them think and talk about what happens in the story and relate it to their own experience, the human brain organizes itself to do that task more efficiently next time. The more we do it, the more the brain insulates and strengthens these networks.
By the time children skip into kindergarten and first grade, all that reading instruction at school falls on very fertile ground. Children blossom into readers.
This is a turning point in their lives. Children who can read well tend to get better grades and test scores throughout school. They go further in school, are less likely to get in trouble with the law and have higher lifetime earnings. They even enjoy better health outcomes as adults.
Like I said, a turning point.
Even after children can read well on their own, they still benefit from being read to. First, they gain fluency by hearing good readers. If they have a chance to follow along, they can make even greater gains.
Second, children can hear and understand stories that are too difficult for them to read comfortably on their own. The experience draws them further along, toward more difficult texts, and they grow ever more skilled, and knowledgeable.
And then, there are the other benefits. Anyone at home feeling anxious? Worried? Acting out? A soothing solution is to slow down and share a story.
At the Children’s Hospital at West Virginia University, thanks to exceptional teacher Katie Ridenour, Read Aloud helped organize medical students to read to patients. The idea is to keep as much normalcy in their lives as possible, and to keep up with their education.
When we asked how it was going, there were several benefits, but we heard one anecdote we cannot forget. As a medical student read to an infant who had a very rapid heartbeat, the baby’s heart rate slowed to a relaxed pace.
If that happens to a very young, ill child connected to monitors that capture this information, how might it affect the rest of us who don’t have sensors and readouts to tell us?
Our classroom volunteers frequently say their Read Aloud time is the “highlight” of their week, the same word, from many volunteers, independently, over many years.
I can attest to that. Countless times, I had a rough day at work in the newsroom but, at the appointed hour, I dropped everything and showed up in class, book in hand. And I always came away refreshed. Relaxed. Refocused. In perspective. I would miss lunch, if necessary, but not that Read Aloud time. I joked then that it was like I had stepped out and petted a cat.
It may not have been a joke. An oft-cited 2009 report from the University of Sussex concluded that as little as six minutes of reading (for pleasure) reduced stress by 68%, better than anything else.
We’ve heard it from students, too.
“This is my favorite time of week,” a fourth-grader sighed to me one day when I arrived. “Mine, too,” I answered.
When we read to children, we all get to walk around in someone else’s shoes for a while. Sometimes, that is called perspective taking. It improves our social cognition, the ability to understand what others are thinking and feeling.
And social and emotional maturity is important for learning and for school success.
“The processes by which we regulate our emotions begin to develop when we are children. As we become adults, the framework put in place when we are younger becomes increasingly vital for successful learning to occur,” writes Joshua R. Eyler in “How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching.”
Cognition and emotion work together. When we are unable to regulate our emotions, it disrupts our other brain activity, no matter how good the teaching is.
“Simply put: overwhelming emotions have a negative effect on learning,” Eyler writes.
Which brings us back to education and how we are all going to weather the coming weeks and months.
Relax. If all you can manage to do with your children while schools are closed is to read to them for half an hour a day, you will do more for them than either of you may realize.
Read what your family enjoys together. Start with five minutes, if that is all you can manage. Stop while you are still having fun. Go where your children’s curiosity takes you. Come back to it every day. I promise, we are all learning.