Reading to a toddler-aged child does more than just get them to sit still for a few minutes.
Led by James Law, Professor of Speech and Language Sciences in Newcastle University’s School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, researchers found something interesting. According to a new study, when parents and other caregivers routinely read with small children, the result is a language advantage of eight months.
The researchers carefully reviewed sixteen reading intervention studies from the past 40 years, conducted in the USA, South Africa, Canada, Israel, and China. Some children were read to by a parent; some were read to by another caregiver. Some were read to from books; some were shown electronic readers. The average age of the child involved was 39 months.
The goal was to examine the effects on receptive language (the ability to understand words), expressive language (the ability to translate thoughts into words), and pre-reading skills (the ability to see how words are structured.) In each category, these children experienced an improvement. However, the most dramatic changes occurred in receptive language, resulting in a lead of eight months over other children.
One group of toddlers showed slightly more benefit than the rest: the socially disadvantaged.
Eight months is a huge gap when talking about preschoolers. It’s the difference between not being ready for elementary school, or acing kindergarten. Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Outliers would argue that this early bump could determine a child’s entire academic destiny: a student labeled as smart early on will garner more attention from parents and teachers, thus leading to a feedback loop that can last beyond college.
It’s true that some of Gladwell’s conclusions have drawn criticism from journalists. However, it is hard to deny that a child entering school with an eight-month lead will have a considerably easier time of things. And Professor Law himself notes, “This ability to understand information is predictive of later social and educational difficulties. And research suggests it is these language skills which are hardest to change.”
As politicians and educators continue to debate educational reform, it seems hard to believe that the solution could be as simple as promoting programs where parents and caregivers read, say, Hop On Pop to a three-year-old. No doubt a comprehensive solution must include a number of other steps.
Still, this research suggests that one thing shouldn’t be controversial: if you are parent or caregiver to a small child, it’s time to practice your best Dr. Seuss voices…