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BY Jim Cosgrove
You're a time-pressed parent. You wish you could find some way to spend more time with your children. Quiet time. Quality time.
Time when you and your progeny are not just under the same roof, but actually doing something together. Time that can show them you love them. Time that can give them an academic advantage, enhance their moral development and form them in the faith.
How's that for a tall order?
And how's this for a solution? Browse the family bookshelf. Together.
Studies in cognitive development consistently show that children who are read to develop thinking and communication skills much sooner than their peers who aren't read to.
Similar studies show that children whose parents read to them continue to develop these skills at an accelerated rate for as long as they are exposed to reading aloud, even into early adolescence — well past the age at which most children can read proficiently on their own.
“Reading aloud to kids is, by far, the best predictor of children's success in school,” says Patricia Crawford, coordinator of the University of Central Florida's early childhood education program. “It helps to build listening, comprehension and vocabulary skills. Most importantly, though, reading to kids is a great tool for bonding between adults and children. When I ask undergraduates about their early reading experience, they all have memories of a special person in their lives — and it's someone who read to them.”
Crawford, who, along with her sister Kerry, compiles the Register's “Children's Book Picks,” adds that older children also can benefit from family reading times. She encourages parents to continue reading to their children, even after their picture books have been set aside.
“All kids need good role models of reading, especially kids who struggle academically,” she says. “We tend to think that once children can read on their own, reading is now “their job,' but it's still our job to make reading enjoyable for them.”
One of the best ways to do that, according to Crawford, is to share the reading experience with your children. Beginning readers can benefit from “buddy reading,” a system in which parent and child take turns reading one page of a book alternately.
But readers of all ages and ability love to listen to a good story — and it doesn't take a university study to prove that hypothesis.
“When someone heralds the cry “Mom's going to read!', they come scurrying from all corners of the house,” says Kathy Szymanski, a read-aloud enthusiast and mother of seven in Alden, Minn. “More often than not, Dad comes, as well.”
With children ranging in age from 1 to 26, the Szymanski family is all over the proverbial map when it comes to interests and activities. Yet one thing every member shares is a love of books.
“If the younger ones say to an older brother, “Mom's reading The Hobbit,' he will immediately identify with them and vice versa, as they know he once sat and listened just as they did,” explains Szymanski. “And you can share in a personal, family way those characters and stories. It crosses the distance of the years when lives aren't as close on a daily basis anymore.”
Besides family bonding, Szymanski further values family reading for its power to develop her children's imaginations — something she has noticed television fails to do.
“In order to read aloud, you have to make the time,” she says. “If you choose to spend an hour each night watching TV, you probably won't have much reading aloud. When we watch occasional movies, I always make sure we have read the book first. The kids are usually disappointed in the movie as the book is often better. Reading stimulates the imagination, but TV gives it all to you on a platter — and probably not as well as you would have imagined it.”
Kathleen Pfaff, head librarian and assistant principal at St. Mary School in Clinton, Md., agrees.
“Reading helps children to develop upper-level thinking skills in a way that television could never do,” she says. “Children can imagine how the places and people in the stories look, instead of passively watching them. You can read at your own pace, pause and ask questions, and look back to clarify things when necessary.”
Pfaff acknowledges that many families have busy schedules, but emphasizes the enormous benefits parents reap for themselves and their children when they make time for reading aloud.
“Find 15 minutes in your day and make it a permanent part of your routine,” she suggests. “If you consider that reading out loud to your kids is the single most important factor in raising a reader, you can find 15 minutes.”
One of the greatest benefits of reading aloud, according to Pfaff, is the fact that children's listening comprehension is always more advanced than their reading comprehension. In other words, when children are read to, they can listen to, understand and enjoy the benefits of books they could never read successfully on their own.
“If the subject matter is appropriate, it's a great way to introduce them to fine literature they wouldn't be ready to read on their own,” she says.
Pfaff adds that reading aloud is a tool parents can use to enhance their children's faith formation as well. By reading aloud to kids, parents and teachers can expose children to stories from the Bible and lives of the saints that young people might not otherwise choose to read on their own.
Nor do the stories necessarily need to have overtly religious themes in order to be spiritually beneficial. All great stories have moral elements and characters facing adversity or making difficult decisions. These can provide fodder for family discussions on good versus evil and moral decision-making.
And that's not all. Most parents who read aloud to their kids will tell you that they do so because it just plain feels good.
“We have pictures of me in my chair surrounded by the children from 17 on down, baby nursing, while I read away,” says Szymanski. “Once a story is shared, you can keep going back to it again and again. Reading good books gives children good characters to identify with and good role models to follow. Reading aloud together means you can share that with them and be a part of that.”
Danielle Bean writes from Center Harbor, New Hampshire.