A study by the National Literacy Trust in 2022 revealed that only one in two of under-18s enjoyed reading, which is the lowest proportion since 2005 and only three in ten children read daily. However, these figures may be linked to the finding that only 32% of British children under the age of 13 are read to daily by an adult, with most parents and carers stopping reading to their child by the age of eight.
Studies have shown that children of all ages benefit from being read to, from strengthening the bond between a child and a parent (or other caring adult) as well as helping with their social, emotional and intellectual development.
“Sparking a love of reading can change a child’s life… we need to give them every opportunity possible to fall in love with reading.” – Martin Galway (head of school programmes at the National Literacy Trust)
Reading to children from an early age (even when they are babies) plays an important role in language development and can benefit a child later in life. Research shows that a child first acquires language and literacy skills not from school, but from home through interaction with their family. However, not all families are able, for various reasons, to read to their children, especially not daily given work patterns – so does this mean that their development may have been hindered?
It has been demonstrated by researchers that reading to a child and the number of books a household owned predicted a child’s vocabulary and phonological awareness (the awareness of and ability to work with sounds in spoken language). Studies like this, further stress the importance of reading, especially within a child’s early years. Teachers could continue story time in school to give a better chance to those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, where reading with a parent or access to books may be more difficult.
Schoolreaders is a charity in the UK, with a purpose to improve literacy and increase life chances. The organisation matches volunteers to primary schools and gives weekly one-to-one reading sessions to those who may be more disadvantaged. They work all over the UK, including the North West in areas such as Blackpool and Cumbria; schools can register on their website.
Another charity helping children to improve their literacy skills in the UK is “Words for Life” by the National Literacy Trust. Their work is based on helping parents and carers provide support to their children from home, with a range of activities on their website to improve their language. They have reading activities suitable for any age, from six months to 13 years and older. Again, reinforcing the idea that reading from an early age is beneficial.
Benefits of being read to
Reading to children of all ages brings many benefits. Children who enjoy reading and writing are generally happier, perhaps because they are three times more likely to have good mental well-being than children who don’t enjoy it. It can also be a great way to bond as a family but a YouGov Poll commissioned by Readly revealed only 43% of parents and grandparents have shared a magazine or comic with children. Even spending 15 minutes a day reading with a child can bring the parent and child closer together, as well as other benefits.
Not only does reading make children happier, but research in Italy has shown that it may make them more intelligent. An unpublished study (waiting to be peer-reviewed) showed that children who were read to an hour a day at school, showed an “increase on measures of intelligence”, leading to officials in Tuscany to introduce an hour a day of reading aloud in public schools.
Arguably the most important benefit is that increased literacy skills may possibly improve a child’s life expectancy, according to the National Literacy Trust. Their report found that children born into certain communities, such as those living in poverty or low-income families, have the most serious literacy challenges and therefore may have some of the lowest life expectancies in England. For example:
“A girl born in Queensgate, Burnley (which has some of the most serious literacy challenges in the country), has a life expectancy 20.9 years shorter than a girl born in Mayfield, Wealdon (which has some of the fewest literacy challenges)” – National Literacy Trust
In addition to this, the North West is ranked third for regions in England with the greatest vulnerability to literacy issues, and ranked second for life expectancy for both men and women. In particular, Blackpool, Manchester, Blackburn with Darwen, Liverpool, Knowsley and Burnley are all on the top ten list for shortest life expectancy at birth for both men and women. So does this mean that those with greater household income (which can be used to buy more books), parents with better education (who have better reading abilities), and families with more time (a less busy household, for instance with only one child) can provide their children with a better start to language and reading development?
The National Literacy Trust has taken steps to change literacy levels in low-income areas since the findings from their report. After revealing that children aged five in Middlesbrough have some of the lowest communication and literacy skills in the country, their hub ran an early-intervention programme in nurseries alongside a campaign to get parents reading to their children from an early age. Since their report, they have also launched hubs and campaigns in Manchester and Blackpool.
Tips for reading to your child
Readly, a digital magazine app, describes itself as taking a more hands-on approach to set up children for life when it comes to reading. To engage children of all ages and enjoy reading together they have given their top five tips to help parents or carers get started:
- Don’t just read at bedtime: reading before going to bed is a classic ritual but for some children, it can be associated with having to stop playing. You can build a more positive association with reading by making it more fun, why not try reading under the table, in a den or at a picnic outside while eating snacks?
- Don’t be afraid to embrace technology to encourage reading: just because children are turning to devices doesn’t mean they have to switch off from reading. There is a wide range of easily accessible content online and apps to encourage children’s literary growth.
- Comic books can be a great place to start: with an emphasis on reading being fun, embracing comic books is a simple way to help more children find reading pleasure. Comics are also an excellent, fun and non-threatening reading option for children to start reading in a non-native language.
- Lead by example: children imitate their parents and other adults around them, you can set a good example by showing your children how much you love reading and discussing books with them.
- Ask and answer questions together: reading widely even if you think the material is too advanced for your child is a great way to introduce new words and concepts. Use this as a way to capitalise on children’s natural curiosity to explore and learn together.
Research clearly shows reading to children of all ages can bring major benefits to them. It is never too late to introduce it as a routine activity, setting children on an enjoyable and helpful path for life.