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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

The Importance of Reading to Your Child

September 12, 2013

By Henry H. Bernstein D.O.

Parents and caregivers alike want children to succeed in life, to do their best, especially in school. It turns out that one of the most important things we can do to help our children succeed in school is simple, fun, and not expensive — read to them every day, starting when they are just babies.

More than 20 years ago, the National Commission on Reading concluded that "reading aloud by parents is the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading." Experts still think that reading aloud to children is a better way to help kids learn to read themselves than fancy computer games or expensive electronic toys. Unfortunately, surveys show that fewer than half of parents with children younger than 3 years read to their children every day. To address this need, programs, such as Reach Out and Read, have tried to spread the word about the importance of reading aloud to our children.

Children exposed to lots of books during their early childhood will have an easier time learning to read than those who are not. One study found that if a child has difficulty reading in first grade, it is likely that he or she still will be having trouble in fourth grade, when children must start reading in order to learn. Another study showed that a child who is not a moderately skilled reader by the end of third grade is unlikely to graduate from high school. Therefore, not reading aloud to a child beginning in infancy makes it harder for a child to learn to read as he or she gets older and then makes it even tougher to catch up later.

Since reading is so important, here are some tips to help you encourage your child to read:

  • Read books with your child every day.
  • It is never too early to begin reading with your child! Babies love hearing the sounds of their parents' voices reading to them, even when it is the morning paper.
  • Young children have short attention spans, so try reading for short periods of time, several times every day.
  • Most children, even young babies, have favorite books. It is normal for them to want to hear you read the same book over and over again.
  • It is fine to choose stories that you like, too. Have fun when reading them, and share your enthusiasm about the book with your child. If you feel you do not read well, ask your librarian where you can learn to read better yourself, too.
  • Read out loud from everything, even shopping lists, road signs and bills, to show your children how important reading is to you.
  • Get a library card for your child and visit regularly. The librarian, and also your child's teacher, can suggest books that your child would like.
  • Ask school-aged children to read to you, and then discuss what you have read. You also can ask about books they have read in school.

The bottom line: Read, read, and then read some more every day!

Henry H. Bernstein, D.O., is a Senior Lecturer in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition, he is chief of General Academic Pediatrics at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth and Professor of Pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. He is the former associate chief of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital Boston.

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