Reading to a baby is a lot like talking to your dog. You’re not sure how much is really getting through to them, but it makes you feel better to act like they understand. Unlike dogs (kind of), babies improve their vocabularies and literacy skills when you read to them. Both benefit from your attention (though only dogs will love you truly unconditionally).
A lot of the factors that influence academic performance are outside of parents’ control. Namely, socioeconomic status. But even after controlling for these outside factors, sharing books with kids improves their reading comprehension. Heck, just having books in your house seems to help. Families who own 100 books have kids with reading capabilities 1.5 grades ahead of their peers. More books seems to help—owning 500 books puts you about 2.2 years ahead, though past that and you get diminishing returns (plus you start to literally fill your house with books). And yes, it’s obviously not that just the act of owning a book imbues your child with reading skills like some kind of literary osmosis. It’s some combination of providing plenty of reading material and being the kind of family that owns and reads books. But the fact remains that encouraging kids to read is one of the best ways to boost their education.
New research presented at the Pediatric American Societies Meeting last week showed that even babies benefit. Sharing a book with your infant might seem futile when they’re drooling all over the cardboard pages, but it will pay off when they start school. Pediatric development researchers looked at the quality and quantity of books shared with kids age six months through 4.5 years to see whether reading more high quality books improved their language abilities later. And, as you’ve probably guessed, it does. In fact, it improves early vocabulary understanding and use, helps infants interpret sounds as words, and gets kids to read on their own sooner. All of those advances add up once they hit school age and need to understand their class assignments.
Oddly, the research only looked at mother-child pairings, not father-child pairings. It’s possible that mothers reported all reading, regardless of the parent involved, but it’s worth noting the imbalance. It’s not like fathers don’t read to their kids. And yes, it’s possible that the mothers were asked about all reading activity, not just their personal involvement, but it’s still strange to see a non-gendered thing like reading broken down by the gender of the parent.
Either way, getting your kids hooked on reading early makes them better students overall. That’s doubly true if they like it enough to read in their free time. Independent readers perform better on tests across the board and have more concrete knowledge than their non-book-loving peers.
And even later in life, employers want their employees to have solid reading and writing skills. This seems painfully obvious, yet it’s become one of the principal complaints about high school and college graduates: they can’t read and write well enough. Reading proficiently helps you get well-paying jobs in management, business, and finance. And in a survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, 70 percent of poor readers recognized that their reading struggles held them back professionally.
This isn’t to say that reading is a magical cure…but it’s about as close to one as you can get in the anything-but-exact science of parenting. And like healthy eating and exercise, instilling your kids with a love of reading will make it far easier for them to maintain a regular reading habit. So send their little kiddie minds off to Narnia or Hogwarts or Redwall. Get them immersed now and they’ll thank you later.