In Jo's Blog

A paediatrician named Alastair McAlpine tweeted about a little project he had undertaken. He asked a bunch of his terminally ill patients what had made their lives thus far meaningful. His patients are children; they were dying and they had a lot to say. Go read the thread.

After pets, parents and ice cream, books were the top favourite. Specifically, being read to by Mom or Dad.

He tweeted:

ALL of them loved books or being told stories, especially by their parents: ‘Harry Potter made me feel brave.’ ‘I love stories in space!’ ‘I want to be a great detective like Sherlock Holmes when I’m better!’ Folks, read to your kids! They love it.

I run a foundation for kids with special needs in Dehradun and we have “reading-corners” in all our centres. Children are drawn to them as if by magic – it is as if those corners possess some invisible magnetic force that draws kids in.

And if there happens to be an adult around, ready to tell them a story – all the better.

Maybe someone has been researching the science. Because the experience seems clear: storytelling with your children and reading to your children show heartening results. And this is very different from plain old talking to them.

Just talking more to young children is widely seen to be beneficial for their development and growth. There are numerous programs in the US built upon Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s seminal research, conducted decades ago. They found that on average, children from working-class families entered pre-school having heard 30 million fewer words than children growing up in professional families. So simply talking more with their children became a standard prescription for young parents.

But is just talking enough? Dominic Massaro, a psychology professor at the University of California, doesn’t think so. Spoken language tends to be repetitive and a bit lazy, he believes. Most of us have a comfortable shorthand type of speech and a tendency to use the same words over and over again.

Written language, on the other hand, is rich and varied. The vocabulary in a simple picture book for children is usually far more sophisticated than typically employed by the parent who is reading that book out loud. And that is precisely the point. When we read out loud to children, we introduce them to words they would not hear otherwise, and in a context in which those words can be understood and adopted as their own. If the fish is ‘aghast’, and the story is compelling, ‘aghast’ jumps into a child’s toolbox, ready to be used again at the very next shocking moment.

Years ago, a Boston paediatrician named Barry Zuckerman started a program called Read Out and Read. He had a hunch that if parents would read to their children, those children would do better in school. They would be emotionally more stable, they would have better vocabularies and they would have stronger problem-solving skills.

So, he created a program in which paediatricians gave children books along with growth charts and vitamins. He taught parents the importance of holding their kids in their laps and reading them stories.

Dr Zuckerman, go to the head of the class.

I know it’s presumptuous to commend someone as senior as Zuckerman, but I can’t help it – he was right. He had zeroed in on something so basic, so fundamental, most people don’t even notice it. Most parents tell their children stories. Many of us read out loud to them. We don’t think about it, we don’t tick it off on our “to do” list. We just do it because that’s what we do.

Both of my parents read to us. So did my grandparents. There’s a long line. It’s a tradition. I don’t think they knew about the science. They didn’t have to. They could see the results for themselves. Nothing can calm restless kids or excite quiet ones like a story.

My Mom had a special gift for stories. “Give me three things,” she would say and we would shout out our suggestions: “An elf, a magic carpet and a bag of oranges!” or “A boat, a fire and a mountain!” Mom would then weave a story which contained those three elements and we would melt into it, certain that the world was full of magic and logic and whatever else we required.

She and Dad read to us and told us stories, and watched as our vocabularies grew and our imaginations took flight. We were textbook cases. We are all, every one of us, evidence of the importance of reading to kids. We all became readers ourselves. We all love to write and all of us read to our own kids. My three grew up on stories – now that they are adults, Anand and Cathleen read the way they breathe: it’s essential to them.

My third child, Moy Moy, she had severe disabilities and I read to her every night. Did any of it register? Did she understand my voice? Was she able to make sense of the plot lines, the stories, the narratives? Does it matter?

I don’t think so. I think the important thing here is what’s important for any child being read to: she heard my voice and she knew that I loved her. We sat together on the couch and I showed her the pictures and read her the words. She felt safe and secure, and ready to learn whatever she is capable of learning. Every child’s capacity is different. The important thing, as a parent, is to create the opportunity.

When I read to her, Moy Moy heard my voice. She listened to the story and she caught the meaning beneath the words: “You matter. You are important. This story – every story – belongs to you.”

A version of this post first appeared in The Wire as part of a series on early childhood development.

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