Most children can operate a DVD player, download, upload and surf the web with more aptitude than their parents. But can they use a thesaurus? We speak to the experts about the whys and hows of encouraging healthy reading habits in children.

Readers love to read. They don't just like it, or use it to fill time – they love it. On a cold day, they just want to curl up under a blanket with their book.

They look forward to the weekend when they can laze by the pool on a sun-lounger – with a book. There is a sense of virtuousness and an image of intelligence associated with being a dedicated bookworm, but is reading any more beneficial than any other pastime?

Possibly not for adults, other than to be ‘well read', but for children the benefits are endless and essential for building a firm education foundation.

In a study carried out by The Children's Society in the UK, 94 per cent of teachers said they could “clearly distinguish between a child who reads at home with their parents and one who doesn't.''

They listed higher reading ability, stronger vocabulary, higher confidence and better concentration amongst the benefits. In the UAE, teachers categorically support this statistic.

“Children definitely progress much quicker if they spend time reading with their parents at home,'' says Sarah Edwards, primary teacher and Year One leader at Dubai British School (DBS).

“The more children read, the better their fluency, which boosts their enjoyment of reading – so they read more, which improves their vocabulary and language skills. Also, if they associate reading with their parents and home, it helps them to see themselves as a reader in a positive light, which is very important.''

The positive linguistic effects reach all the way through to senior school. Guido Omissi, head of English at DBS, says, “If students are avid readers, they will have better vocabulary, stronger punctuation and it is much easier for them to use complex sentence structures. These skills are reflected in their written work.''

For older children, the benefits are not only restricted to their language capabilities, according to Rob George, head librarian at DBS.

“Reading allows children to understand different perspectives. Also, older girls will lock into what I call ‘pink books' about young relationships and social lives, starting with Jacqueline Wilson and usually progressing through Louise Rennison and Cathy Hopkins – it's their way of exploring their way through life.

Boys also explore their minds and world with other types of books, such as fantasy or adventure novels, depending on their mind set.''

Daily routine

Forcing a child to do anything is the surest way to put them off, so instead, try to create an environment where reading is propagated. Andrew Homden, principal of DBS, says, “If there are books on the shelves, it sends out a massive signal to the children.''

Guido, who grew up in a house with 3,000 books, agrees. “Physically having lots of books, and a wide range of books, in the house is crucial.''

Although it may seem strange to read to a baby, the earlier you start incorporating reading and language into your child's life, the better.

The sound of a parent's voice is soothing and lulling to babies – even for newborns – so even before they can fully comprehend what you are saying, telling your baby a story will calm him down and is a good way of showing him attention and affection.

Dareen Charafeddine, an editor at the local publishing house Kalimat, advises parents to start reading with their children before they can even talk.

“Start reading with your child when he is a baby and make up your own stories to tell your children. Then when they are older, encourage your children to make up their own stories and make them into storybooks with pictures.''

As children get older, try to make reading a normal part of every day life. If children see their parents reading, chances are they will want to read themselves. Amani Salya, aged five, says, “I like watching my daddy reading the newspaper – then I pretend to read it in my head.''

One way to keep books interesting and fresh for young minds is through regular replenishing of stocks. “Make visits to the bookstore or the library a weekly activity and, when they are old enough, teach your children how to use a dictionary,'' says Dareen. Primary teacher Sarah agrees.

“It's important that children go to the library or a bookshop regularly so they can choose what books they want… and encourage reading in environmental context, like reading food labels in the supermarket and road signs – this will help foster a love for reading.''

If you have a child that looks forward to going to the library, you have struck gold. Lillie Bullock, aged six, says she was over the moon when her father said he'd take her to the library.

“I keep asking my daddy if we can go to the library after school and this time he said, ‘Yes','' Lillie told me during a recent visit to her school.

Bringing it to life

For young children who can't read yet, illustrated books reign supreme for both sexes and, while The Hungry Caterpillar is still going strong, there are now countless picture-led storybooks to choose from.

Una Rawlinson, Dubai-based author and illustrator of children's books such as Fishcakes and Jelly (Jerboa Books, available from Magrudy's), believes that good illustrations are essential for snagging a child's interest and will keep them coming back to re-read the book over and over again.

Lauren Child, British author and illustrator of award-winning children's books, such as I Will Not Never Ever Eat a Tomato (Orchard Books), says it is important to look at text as well as illustrations when choosing a book for your child.

“I think to create a really good book the writing has to be as strong as the illustrations because a picture book is about a balance between the written and the visual. However, just sometimes, a book will come along that is so well illustrated that the pictures can carry a weak text. I don't believe this works the other way around – a badly illustrated picture book can't really be lifted by a good text.''

Illustrated comics also count as reading and can be used to tempt your child into becoming a reader. “I like Batman comics – they're good,'' says Hugo Lynn, aged six. “Sometimes I just look at the pictures because I am not that good at reading yet. But as I get older, I will be able to read them.''

Libbi Kettle, aged six, is also a fan of comics. “I like reading comics – especially children's comics that my Nana brings me.''

Relax and enjoy

Bedtime reading with your small child can be lots of fun and, with a little bit of energy and effort, you can really captivate your audience.

Librarian Rob says to leave your pride at the door and really get into the story. “Don't be shy when you read picture books to your children. The more you ham it up, the more they understand the life stored in the words and develop a love of reading, and with picture books it is just as important to help the child read the pictures.''

There are specific techniques used by children's TV presenters and primary school teachers alike to engage children in the story, such as acting the story out using different voices for different characters and making funny faces.

Primary teacher Sarah says, “When reading with your child, use your voice, expression, dramatic pauses, actions, ask them lots of questions about what's going on, the characters, what they would do in that situation or what they think will happen next.''

Education consultant Elaine Hook says a good lead up to reading is to read a picture book with your child and then let them read the story back to you from the pictures.

Once your child is of reading age, ask your child's teacher what reading strategies they use in the classroom so that you can use the same methods and terminology at home. Sarah says that this will help the children to be continually practising their language skills.

If your child is reluctant to read, it could be indicative of a learning disability, such as dyslexia, dysgraphia or processing difficulties.

According to Elaine, such learning difficulties can hinder a child's reading and writing development and cause them to appear bored and disinterested in reading. If you think your child is having difficulties, seek professional help and an assessment from an expert.

Gaining pace

As a child's reading skills develop, so should the level of language in the books they read. By the time they are eight they should be able to read children's novels, at which point storyline will take over and illustrations will start fading out.

“To induce in children a love of reading, books must be exciting and well plotted,'' says award-winning Dubai-based author of children's books such as Sea Djinn (Jerboa Books, available from Magrudy's) and adult thrillers, Linda Davies.

“Children from around eight like complex plotlines and multiplicity of characters – especially boys, who like to read about boys having adventures. They also like reading about characters with whom they can empathise, such as the schoolboy Harry Potter. My books are set in Dubai so that children living here can recognise and relate to places and names.''

As your children grow, being a role model is incredibly important. Young adults mimic the adult behaviours they see around them, and with their new found freedom and the multiple extra-curricular activities on offer to them, not to mention a burgeoning social life, their childhood reading habit could get left behind.

“Parents talk about encouraging their children to read, but how actively are they encouraging them?'' asks Guido. “If they don't see their parents reading and they see more DVDs in their home than books… that will be a crucial factor in their decision to pick up a book. Make a specific time for reading when TVs and computers are turned off. Share your reading with your child — show them books that you love and read them passages you think will be interesting for them.''

While there is a tendency in young children for girls to prefer narratives and for boys to prefer informational books, like the Guinness Book of Records, Rob warns that as boys get older, these factual books may become boring in comparison with other hobbies or pastimes.

He says at this point, some boys will stop reading altogether for a few years until they rediscover reading in their adult life You can help your son to bridge this gap by getting the right material in front of them at the right time and keeping a wide range of material accessible.

In older children, regular reading will not only keep their language skills finely tuned, it will also provide a sanctuary of calm and an opportunity to enjoy quality me-time. It is this ‘escapism' aspect of reading that becomes addictive right through adulthood. Author Davies agrees.

“If you develop a habit of reading it will follow you for life. It's a hobby, a comfort, an escape from any stresses, a solace and a companion — more than any video game or movie.''

Cyber threat

Screen-time is a real concern for most parents who see their children spending more time staring at a computer screen than swinging in a hammock with a novel.

According to market research agency ChildWise, 38 per cent of British girls aged between five and 16, say they take a console to bed at night instead of a book.

Whereas TV used to be the sole technological offender of sucking up time, now most children have computers and games consoles in their bedrooms meaning that they rack up an average of six hours of screen time a day.

“Furniture in a family home used to be around the fireplace. Now it is around a TV,'' says Guido.

However, the internet isn't all bad – it still requires reading of words and is arguably the most accessible source of literature for many people.

Education consultant Elaine says, “People are scared of computers when it comes to young children, but we have to accept that the world we live in now is a technological one. Many children won't pick up a book, but they will pick up a laptop.''

If your child likes spending time on the internet, why not suggest he researches a particular topic of his choice, which is an indirect way of guiding him towards reading.

“Knowing how to research will be a great asset for young people's futures. Becoming familiar with internet skills means they don't have to sit down and plough through a book – this can also teach them how to scan read which is another useful skill for them to have later in life,'' says Elaine.

Ignite a spark

The end answer is simple – it doesn't matter what your child is reading, or whether they are reading it on screen or on paper. The importance and the lesson-learning is found in the act of reading itself, rather than the content or the format.

A website on fast cars will contain just as much punctuation and vocabulary as Wuthering Heights, and for very small children, the only importance is that they enjoy it.

As parents, if we can create a home environment where reading is modeled, enjoyed and subtly encouraged, then we can rest assured that we have prepared the way for a lifetime of peaceful enjoyment and learning.

“If you can encourage a love for reading in a little person,'' says Elaine, “as they develop, reading will become a habit, not a chore.''