Becka is a toddler. She loves to point to something and name it. And, whenever she gets the name right, her parents are thrilled. She sees their happy reactions and that encourages her to point and name things over and over again. Her parents hope that it will give her a head start as an effective communicator.
Indeed, it is a good sign that Becka’s vocabulary is growing so quickly. For most children, vocabulary expands at a phenomenal rate during the first few years. And yet, learning new words is not the only sensational thing happening during this point-and-label stage. More critical than the number of words Becka knows is a huge discovery that she is making. Becka is figuring out that humans use words as symbols – words stand for things, feelings, happenings and ideas. In her brain, this is a cognitive leap.
At about the same time, Becka makes another big discovery. She sees that words can be captured in print. And, amazingly enough, she finds out that she can learn to read the printed word. She can even create her own printed words. All these revelations take place so smoothly and quietly for most kids that we, adults, take them for granted. Yet, I believe that if we realise how important these discoveries are to young children, we would see more clearly what is good for them. When it comes to the development of their minds, there is nothing quite like reading for fun.
Reading for pleasure
Most children are able to read reasonably well by the time they are in the upper primary classes. This hasn’t changed remarkably over the decades. The difference I’ve observed lies in the number of children who read for sheer pleasure. A person can start reading for pleasure at any age. But, just as learning to ride a bicycle or to swim is easier when younger, early childhood is the best time to be convinced that reading is an exciting activity.
If kids don’t catch the reading-for-fun bug when they are young, all sorts of other activities take over. Some of those activities —playing, talking and laughing with others, singing, dancing, creating art — are also very healthy for young children. They don’t usually get in the way of developing a love for reading. What does appear to be in direct competition with the habit of reading is the infatuation with screen activities like watching television and gaming. In many households, screen time has taken over reading for pleasure.
It’s a pity that fewer children appear to be reading these days. In my view, the habit of reading for pleasure has unique and, I dare say, unmatched benefits. Reading disciplines children’s minds because they have to focus and make meaning of text. Reading opens windows to the whole world and beyond. And, reading exercises children’s imagination. Because words on a page are flat and they keep still, kids have to fill in details not provided by the text in order to picture what is being said. And, well-written texts show the beauty of sentence structures and syntax in ways that only print media can. To me, these are possibly the greatest benefits that reading has for children.
What parents can do
Parents (or other caring adults) should read to babies and toddlers and read along with young children. Another powerful way to influence kids is to show by doing. If children were to see adults reading for fun all around them and hear us talking about books as enthusiastically as we do about our favourite foods, wouldn’t they be more likely to catch the reading bug? Go a step further by talking about library visits as treats. And, make them destinations, not hurried transit stops on the way to other places.
Unfortunately, I don’t believe doing all that is enough because the printed word has such a hard time competing with multimedia. Put a storybook and a television in front of a young child and the TV wins every time. That is why children should not have any screen time before the age of two years. After that, their screen time should be limited until they are preteens. Limiting screen time makes it far more likely that children will discover the joys of reading and make it a life-long habit.
Parents can also help their kids to schedule their time wisely. In our fast-paced society, it can be hard to make time for books. Other must-do activities — outdoor play, time with family and friends, schoolwork and even sleeping — are as important as reading for pleasure. Nevertheless, the real challenge is not so much in finding the time to read but rather in developing a deep-enough love for reading. I find that kids (and adults) who truly cherish reading manage to somehow or the other fit it into their schedules.
Children who are used to select their own reading materials from a young age tend to pick what meets their needs at that time. They may also see reading as fun when they have the freedom to choose when and what to read. That is to say, a child may pick a thriller because he is in the mood for suspense one day, prefer calming poetry the next day and feel like serious non-fiction on the third. (Parents, teachers and librarians have the responsibility of providing child-appropriate materials, of course.) Reading for pleasure becomes that much more enjoyable when we let moods rule.
Children need to know
In the not-so-distant past, you wouldn’t be a terribly disadvantaged child if you did not know what was happening out there in the world. That is not the case anymore. Nowadays, our lives are so connected in multiple ways to peoples and events in faraway places that kids do need to know enough about the world to make meaning of what is going on in their own lives.
To get world news, reading may be a safer way than watching TV broadcasts or surfing the internet. TV broadcasts and online information can be traumatic for kids because of the vivid and often repeated images. But, even newspapers and magazines written for adults or even older teens are typically not suitable for primary school students either. The content can be scary and unhealthy because of articles that have too much violence and sexual content.
Ideally, even nine year olds can start reading about world news if the articles are written specifically for kids by writers who understand that children need to feel safe and secure at all times. That is why parents and teachers need to be selective when choosing newspapers and magazines for children. Make sure that your kids are reading only what is suitable for them.