I have a first grader and a third grader at home. My first grader needs to do his twenty minutes of reading at night, and my older daughter likes to read on her own. Since all of us are tired by the end of the day anyway, is it fine that we aren’t reading to them anymore?
We’ve all been there – after long days of work and school and shuttling people to activities, finding time to read to children can be low on the priority list. And when children begin to read on their own, it’s especially easy to skip the family reading time. But the research tells us that it’s worth putting that closer to the top of the list. In fact, all too often – in homes and in classrooms – we stop reading to kids too early in their lives.
To answer this busy parent’s question—one that we get a lot—it makes sense to think about why children are reading independently, and why parents are reading to them. And the upshot is that both of these reading experiences matter a whole lot, for different reasons.
To read successfully, we need to be able to read the words in books, and to understand those words. Think of them as two different types of jobs the reader has to do well. There are other jobs, too, but at a minimum, words need to be read and understood.
- To read the words on the page, children need to practice. They get that “word-reading” practice in the early grades at school—they first learn about letters and the sound(s) each letter makes, and they also learn about how letter combinations (for example, th and ph) make different sounds. Teachers help children use these letter/sound skills to read whole words, starting out with simple words and moving to harder ones. At home, children can work on word-reading skills by spending lots of time reading simple and enjoyable books on their own. These early books are filled with easy words they need to be able to read automatically, so practice can make a real difference.
- To be able to understand the words they read, but especially understand the big ideas and concepts that words represent, children need exposure to lots of new words—and that’s where reading aloud comes in: when you read to them, you are allowing them to hear language and ideas that are much harder than what they can read on their own—but not at all too hard for them to learn! And when parents read to children, there are opportunities to talk about the ideas children are hearing about, clarify anything they don’t understand as they listen, and build up their knowledge of the world. While reading, parents often ask questions and make comments about the book, and talk with their children about the book in relation to their own lives, to past and future events, and to other books and stories. It’s an important chance to grow and stretch children’s minds, and helps them become strong readers themselves.
Those aren’t the only two jobs that readers need to do well, but they are critical to being a successful reader, and thinking about the distinction between the two helps with understanding why we need to read to children long after they are reading themselves.
So that means that the answer to the question above is a resounding, “YES!” Reading books to your child that are beyond what your child can read and understand on his own is always a good idea, for as long as he or she will listen! (And look for read alouds in your child’s classrooms through middle school.)