Your child is starry eyed, alive with imagination. In the little head bent over literary portals, worlds are shifting – animals are animatedly talking, dainty fairies sit on soft petals in firefly-lit forests, a purple crayon draws the world, dreams are chased, friendships are made and magic is reality. Rapunzel, it seems, has let down her hair to the prince and faces the wrath of the witch yet again, especially for your little one.
Stories are what make us human, we are often told. And the benefits of reading to our children cannot be overstated; it lays the foundation for a lifelong love of language. This International Literacy Day, which is celebrated annually on September 8, Gulf News speaks to Dr Afra Jamal Ahli, specialist in Family Medicine and Fellow in Maternal and Child Health at Dubai Health Authority, about how exactly reading can help your child, and what you can do as a parent to instill a love for it in him/her.
"Whether it is reading or storytelling, it is always important as it helps brain development and imagination, as well as [the development of] language [skills] and emotions. It [story time] also [helps children] develop strong relationships with others, especially with parents and older siblings,” says Dr Afra.
A five-year study published in 2002 in the peer-reviewed academic journal ‘Child Development’ showed that children’s exposure to books was related to the development of vocabulary and listening comprehension skills, and that these language skills were directly related to a child’s reading ability in grade 3. “They tend to value books and stories, and these also spark their imagination as they get older,” adds Dr Afra.
Whether it is reading or storytelling, it is always important, as it helps brain development and imagination, as well as [the development of] language [skills] and emotions. It [story time] also [helps children] develop strong relationships with others, especially with parents and older siblings.
Explaining the world
There’s more to it – stories and books also hold the keys to understanding the norms of social interactions; they teach children about social cues and healthy practices as they face the daily challenges of school.
“For example, if you go to school – some teachers get annoyed with children, children get annoyed with other children, and they need to understand the interaction between them. They need to understand why these things happen – and [that they] don't last forever,” says Dr Afra.
“Sometimes, the children might not understand what sad means, and why some people get sad. If they did something wrong, definitely [others] will get sad – but they need to learn that emotion can be corrected, once you have corrected your [actions]. [They need to understand] this idea - I am sad for the thing that you have done, not because of you,” she explains. Books can show us the relationship between cause and effect, and how to modify behaviour to alter the outcome.
Reading responsiveness – or lack thereof – can also be an indicator of other developmental issues. For instance, while Autism Screening test or MCHAT (Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers) is administered at two years of age, protocol calls for waiting for a two-month period where the parent establishes a regular prescribed reading routine focusing on the child and wait for progress or changes in the child’s development. The effect of this programme will allow experts to gauge the issue and so prescribe a schedule that would most benefit the child.
The brain stimulates each of these parts while you are reading aloud to them.
When they are younger, children have a more auditory bent. “That’s why initially we are singing to our children; they like the rhythm, they depend more on their hearing,” she explains.
“As they are growing up, they [can detect] colours at around 6 to 12 months, which is why colours are the best to use at this age. Later, each book has a different skill to help them develop their brain and mind as they grow,” she adds.
Because it’s these two senses that are most at play when learning, picture books are a good idea when they are younger. They enjoy the words, the pictures and colours – and of course spending time with you. Repeated exposure of course results in learning. “If you practise this, and then test by showing them a picture of a cow, they might name it – not just make a sound of it. They can recognise the covers of books as they grow older – especially [in] the toddler phase,” says Dr Afra.
Physical books or tablets - which is better?
According to Dr Afra, both digital and printed books have their own benefits, and the choice of medium is individual.
She says, “Reading printed books is actually a hands-on experience for your child - children can touch the book, turn pages, feel the texture of the book – especially [as] there are books for which they put faux fur and different textures on the textile.
“Children tend to develop their focus and attention on such books.”
However, the potential for online books to be more interactive could make it more engaging for your little one.
“It is more interactive than printed books – some of them are like cartoons, where for example, the character is moving and something is written below that the child might be able to read. There are some websites that also have reward systems such as gaining stars to encourage reading,” adds Dr Afra.
At the same time, using tablets and laptops come with the usual concerns of screen usage. A concern is that tablet or phone screen lights may weaken eye muscles, Dr Afra warns.
“For example, if used for nighttime storytelling, the light from the screen will induce endorphins in the brain, and your child’s sleep will be delayed. You would need to choose the proper time to read each kind of book with them,” she explains.
Instilling a love of reading
Unlocking the key to a child’s imaginative universe is best done hand-in-hand with parents. The 2002 five-year study concluded that parents’ involvement in teaching children about reading and writing was directly related to development of their early literacy skills.
Wondering how to establish good reading routines for your child? According to Dr Afra, reading aloud to a child is always recommended, especially in the early stages. She advises establishing a programme depending on whatever is convenient for the parent and the child – as long as the child is interested; nothing good will come from forcing a child to do something he/she isn’t interested in. This respect for the child’s bent of mind is also reflected in the Montessori Method of education.
minute reading sessions are a good way to develop a child's interest in books.
Children get bored very easily, she warns, so it’s best to keep the routine between 10 and 15 minutes' long. “For example, we can have a day in the week where we read for 10 to 15 minutes maybe in the morning or afternoon time if it is the weekend, and then do an activity related to the book as well,” says Dr Afra, adding that it is important for such an interaction to be a period of focused time spent between parents and each child for one-to-one bonding.
Having conversations around the stories and books your child is reading can also boost development. A 1992 study published in the journal 'Developmental Psychology' by the American Psychological Association had found that for children from the experimental group – where parents had been asked to increase rates of open-ended, in-depth questions about the picture books they were reading – scored significantly higher on tests for expressive language ability than the control group, which didn’t have such discussions. Expressive language ability includes asking questions, describing things, requesting answers and making choices.
Dr Afra suggests some questions you ask your child about their books to encourage this:
- What do you think happened in the story?
- Which character did you prefer?
- Do you think the character was happy/ sad/ …?
- What colours they were wearing?
“We need to put this love into their hearts to do it, especially with reading,” emphasises Dr Afra.
This could then prove beneficial in the long run for school as well. A 2016 study by US-based researchers published in 'The Journal of Multidisciplinary Graduate Research' found that those who read for pleasure averaged higher scores than their non-reading counterparts in the measured subject areas of study.
What should my child read?
Of course, a key to sustaining interest in reading is finding what works for your child.
According to Dr Afra, at around two to four years of age, they tend to think about what is going to happen next in stories, so books featuring action, imagination and fantasy, adventure could be fruitful. “You can always change between them until you figure out what your child is looking for. What stories make your child think and reflect? If your child likes it and interacts, then you will be buying more and more [of the genre], and they can start to like reading.”
There are limits, however - the genre of horror must be avoided at all costs, she warns: “It is also good to pick proper books, and not buy things that interfere with their feelings. If you are buying a horror book for a five- to six-year-old child, they would definitely have nightmares at night.”
There are a range of book choices available to you, and Dr Afra says as an example that the Oxford Readings series for kids have stages of books for each age group. “They are interactive, with repetition about the different concepts so that it sticks in the child’s mind,” said
It is also good to pick proper books, and not buy things that interfere with their feelings. If you are buying a horror book for a five- to six-year-old child, they would definitely have nightmares at night.
The Ladybird Early Learning Centre in Jumeirah Village Circle, Dubai, integrates daily storytime for all students - with themed books chosen for special occasions such as festivals, international days and celebrations, amongst daily wordbuilding activities.
Helen Taylor-Shaw, Principal of the centre, says, “For example, for World Book day – we chose various authors such as Julia Donaldson, and read their books – in this case, ‘ The Snale and the Whale’ - and this way the children learn about the author as well. We also ask them to bring their favourite books from home that they can choose with their parents as well.
“In November, we have factual books on Diwali and similarly for Christmas and Thanksgiving, and various other festivals. We also have themes for numbers, pets and farm animals, and we have many more books covering all the stages of the early years.”
This may be a good way of making reading more informative and exciting for your child. Like Roald Dahl’s 'Matilda', whose mind was ‘nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea’, your little one can also travel all over the world from their rooms and find a refuge in the wise pages of good books.
What books do you read to your child? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org