If you were told that you could improve your child’s imagination, thinking ability, vocabulary, oral language, literacy skills, interpersonal relationships, empathy, attachment, and have great fun at the same time, you would rush to sign up for such an amazing programme. Imagine if you were told that you can do it yourself and it’s free? So, ‘what is this magic and where can I get some?’, you would ask.
Reading aloud to babies and young children will do all the above and more, and if you have access to a library, it can be completely free. Meghan Cox Gurdon says on page xiii of her 2019 book ‘The Enchanted Hour’:
‘A miraculous alchemy takes place when one person reads to another, one that converts the ordinary stuff of life – a book, a voice, a place to sit, and a bit of time – into astonishing fuel for the heart, the mind, and the imagination’.
Gurdon cites recent neuroscience to provide evidence that reading aloud can have ‘dazzlingly transformative’ effects on the brains of babies and young children. As they listen to a story and look at pictures and can interact with the person reading, their deep brain networks are stimulated, and their cognitive development is optimised. Because being read to is a warm and nurturing experience, empathy can be developed, and this, according to research, dramatically accelerates young children’s language acquisition and sets them on track to be ahead of their peers in school. As a former infant teacher, I can attest to this – the children who were read and spoken to, had language abilities that helped them in all kinds of developmental ways.
Being read aloud to and given the opportunity to chat about the book immerses us in words, visual images and in rhythms and cadences of speech that might not be available elsewhere. When I read ‘Kate and the Beanstalk’ to my then three-year-old nephew, we heard that Kate’s mother was in despair. We spoke about the word and I explained it as being ‘so sad you can’t think of anything happy’. We read books about treasure chests and avocado babies and knights in shining armour; about dinosaurs, sleepy animals, gruffalos, scarecrows and giants. We knew ‘Not Last Night but the Night Before’ off by heart. This last meant there were many pleasurable intertextual links made with well-known nursery rhymes.
Rhyming books are essential for pre-schoolers. The rhymes and catchy rhythms are universally appealing. They introduce babies to a shared culture, and they are a wonderful form of shared connection. They are easy to remember, and babies get great feedback when they supply an approximation of the key word. Imagine the scene: adult says ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on the?’ baby supplies ’Waw!’ and everyone claps. Babies learn the pleasure and the power of repetition and the amazing payoff of the accompanying gestures and actions. Who does not recall the ‘do it again’ factor of reciting ‘Round and round the garden, catch the teddy bear’ or ‘This is the way the ladies ride’?
Picture books like ‘Peck Peck Peck’, ‘Hooray for Fish’ and ‘A Busy Day for Birds’, by Lucy Cousins, provide endless, interactive fun. Books like ‘Let’s Talk About Vehicles’ by Ronnie Randall and Britta Teckentrup can be superb sources of vocabulary development: ‘We ROLL on wheels! We FLOAT on water! We SKIM over ice and SOAR in the air.’
Traditional stories can scare, reassure and provide endless sources of discussion. Is Jack a hero? Should Goldilocks be punished? Why didn’t The Little Red Hen’s friends help her?
Your local library will be invaluable. Put out the word to godparents, aunties, uncles and grandparents that book tokens make great presents. Then take the time to read – just ten minutes a day will change your child’s life. I’ll leave the last words to Mem Fox, from pages xii-xiii of her 2001 book, ‘Reading Magic’:
Children who realise in their first weeks and months of life that listening to stories is the purest heaven; who understand that books are filled with delights, facts, fun and food for thought; who fall in love with their parents, and their parents with them, while stories being shared; and who are read aloud to for ten minutes a day in their first five years, usually learn to read quickly, happily and easily. And a whole lot of goodness follows for the entire community.
Dr Mary Roche is an education consultant. Passionate about the importance of dialogical pedagogy, literacy and children’s books in education, she is frequently invited to be a keynote speaker in Ireland and the UK. A former education lecturer and classroom teacher, Mary is the author of ‘Developing Children’s Critical Thinking through Picturebooks’ (Routledge 2015). A bookworm, she is at her happiest when immersed in good children’s literature.