Dr Jamie Lingwood, a lecturer in Psychology at Liverpool Hope University, said: ‘Sitting down to read with your child is crucial for enhancing their language development. There’s evidence it could also make a significant difference to their future career prospects too.’
Moving away from bedroom reading, picking books with no words, making it a two-way conversation, and using books as a chance to reminisce about past events are just some of the helpful shared reading ‘hacks’ that might foster a child’s inner bookworm. And don’t be disheartened if your child wants to read the same book over and over again, either.
Dr Lingwood, a specialist in how parent-child interactions influence language development and was part of the BBC’s recent Tiny Happy People campaign, explained: ‘Shared reading is when an adult sits down and reads with a child is incredibly important. We call it ‘lexically diverse’ if you look at the language parents use during shared book reading.
‘It means the vocabulary children hear is very different to what they might hear in everyday conversation. It introduces exciting new words and concepts to the child, such as an owl being ‘nocturnal’, for example, and broadening the child’s vocabulary.’
‘They also hear more complex sentences or sentences with completely different rhythms, perhaps containing rhymes, which is completely different from how you might chat with a child while they’re simply playing with their toys.’
‘Psychologists talk a lot about joint attention when it comes to shared book reading. You can think of it like a triangle – where you’ve got the child, the adult and the book working in unison. And there’s evidence to suggest that those children who engage in this joint attention have more developed language skills at later ages.’
Dr Lingwood added: ‘Shared reading looks at children up to around six or seven years old, while my research has focused on four and five-year-olds. A recent survey suggested two-thirds of parents thought the pandemic had damaged their children’s language development.’ Some tips are:
Make it a conversation
Shared reading shouldn’t just involve looking at the text from start to finish, and it should be an interactive experience. It’s about sharing a book with a child or a group of children creating a conversation around it. The evidence suggests that you foster language development by doing this and asking the child lots of open questions about the book.
And we know that this language development is significant, as it’s shown to predict things like reading ages at school. It can even predict how successful you’ll be as an adult in terms of income. Research has also shown how shared reading protects against a lot of language difficulties and delays.
Don’t be too prescriptive
Mum might read a book entirely differently from how dad or grandparents might read it. The experience can vary a lot, and that’s a good thing. If shared book reading is a bit unfamiliar to a parent, starting by just reading the text together can be a good thing. From there, you can begin to make it more interactive.
Even books with no words can be a good thing
There are many different genres of books to choose from, and what I’d say is for the parent to be led by the child. If the child has a particular interest in a specific type of book, that’s great and something to be encouraged. And even picture books with either no or very few words in them can be a good thing.
An excellent example of this is Hug by Jez Alborough, which repeats the word hug on each page. It’s then down to the parent to create a story around this, starting a conversation with the child. It can be challenging for the parent to do this, but it’s an excellent opportunity to introduce this interactive element. And despite not having words on the page, children can still ultimately hear lots of lexically diverse language and complex grammatical structures as long as you talk around it.
Reading the same book over and over again
I hear this a lot from parents – My child wants to read the same book repeatedly. As an adult, what do you do? Do you read the book for the 35th time this week or encourage them to read something else? The good news is that a recent study suggests that reading the same book repeatedly can help with a child’s memory in terms of cementing knowledge of particular words. So, it can be quite beneficial, although I do sympathise with the parents, as I’ve had this experience with my niece.
Hardback vs e-books
Some parents might worry about whether a child should always have a physical copy of a book in front of them or whether reading together on a tablet is okay. I’d say that, right now, there’s mixed evidence.
Some researchers have suggested that traditional books might be better for alphabet knowledge, but we don’t know one way or the other yet. For me, it’s a question of whether or not a physical book or an e-book is better for your particular child; it comes down to preference. If a child struggles to get into books but is comfortable with electronic devices, reading a book on a tablet is great. You can try traditional books further down the road.
Bedroom reading is great – but won’t always work
When it comes to shared reading, little and often is the way forward, you don’t have to sit down and read with them for an hour at a time. Five minutes here and there is just as useful, particularly when it comes to keeping them motivated. And fit it around the structure of what works for you and your own lives. It might be that you choose a time towards the end of the day when you’re settling them down for bed.
But for many people, that won’t work because, by that point, the child is too tired to engage correctly. Again, it doesn’t have to be prescriptive, where the parent is sitting next to the child in bed. Pick a different point in the day. Or grab five minutes when you’re travelling on the bus together, for example. Find what works for you.
The recasting technique
If a child is reading to a parent, there might be points where they come across a word they don’t know or struggle to articulate. As a parent, should you let them struggle with it or quickly prompt them?
Dr Lingwood said: ‘I’d let them have an initial go at it. But one of the things we talk about in language development is the idea of ‘recasting’ and ‘expansion’. If a child says something grammatically wrong, you should recast it back to them instead of saying, ‘No, that’s incorrect. For example, if they said, ‘The dog jump on the sofa’. You can say, ‘Yes, the dog jumped on the sofa, didn’t he?’ It’s a good strategy to adopt in shared book reading.’
Try elaborative reminiscing
It might sound like a complicated phrase, but all this involves is getting the child to think about a time that relates to them, prompted by the book. So, if the book’s narrative is about going to the zoo and seeing lots of animals, you can stop reading and ask, ‘Do you remember that time we went to the zoo? Can you remember what animals we saw?’
It gets a conversation going, and it relates the story specifically to the child’s own experiences. Again, this process has been shown to boost language development and particularly for memory and vocabulary.
There are a growing number of books for children that talk about the pandemic. And it’s a great way of talking about something that has had a profound impact on young people. It’s been a confusing, complicated time for them and shared reading is an excellent way of explaining what has happened, how it has made people feel, and why it’s okay to have those feelings. Again, making it interactive allows the child to speak about their own experiences and relate this overwhelming experience to them.
Dr Lingwood said: ‘The jury is currently out on how audiobooks might prompt language development instead of more traditional shared reading. It’s something he’ll be researching in the coming months.’
He added: ‘There’s evidence to suggest that lots of families started using audiobooks during the lockdown, as well as relying more on electronic devices. The landscape of shared reading might have shifted slightly, and that’s interesting. I want to find out whether audiobooks can foster language development in the same way that traditional books do.’
‘And it’s about what parents do when they use audiobooks. Is it put on so a parent can go about their day, or is it used more interactively? For me, the best way to use an audiobook would be to make it more interactive where you stop and discuss what’s happening. But it’s different to a book to stop the device might be quite jarring. It might not be so straightforward. It’ll be interesting to see where this new branch of research takes us.’
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