Corrected on 5/13/08: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of researcher Elisabeth Duursma.
"Children are better prepared for school if their parents read to them" sounds like the "duh" headline of the day. But keep reading—there's actually some useful news here.
Child development experts have known for a long time that reading to small children helps them learn new words and boosts early literary skills, like rhyming words and associating letters with sounds. About 50 percent of parents read to their children every day, according to Reach Out and Read, a Boston nonprofit. But it's the style of reading, more than the frequency, that really matters, according to a new review in the Archives of Diseases of Childhood.
The parents whose reading style is interactive really encourage children's language development, the researchers say. "Interactive" means asking children questions about the story that move it beyond the page, like "What do you think the caterpillar is going to do next?" Such an exchange "requires them to really use their language skills," says Elisabeth Duursma, director of research initiatives at Reach Out and Read and lead author on the study. There are data aplenty on interactive or "dialogic" reading, including an evaluation of various programs by the U.S. Department of Education.
But you don't need advice from the bureaucrats to put this science to good use. It's as simple as using a picture book as a springboard to talking about your child's own experiences, connecting the story in the book to the real world. Parents can also offer explanations along the lines of "he cried because he was sad." These open-ended discussions give children a chance to learn to talk about their own feelings. Who hasn't felt like "Olivia," the strong-willed piglet who paints a Jackson Pollock on the wall and gets a timeout? Or like Max, who escapes the rules of Mom and Dad in the land of the beasts in Where the Wild Things Are? (Public libraries have terrific suggestions for age-appropriate books, both online and in the building.)
"Probably the most important thing is the mutual enjoyment," says Barry Zuckerman, chairman of the pediatrics department at Boston Medical Center, who helped found Reach Out and Read 19 years ago. "When children share books with someone they love, they learn to love books."