Reading makes you smarter is the conclusion of a research project which followed 1890 pairs of identical twins from the age of 7 to 16. The research team led by Dr Stuart Richie of Edinburgh University has shown that being an above average reader at age 7 is not only predictive of higher verbal ability, which we may have predicted, but also of higher non-verbal cognitive ability. This cleverly designed research was able to isolate the effect of genes and social/environmental factors by working exclusively with identical twins. Both reading and intelligence were tested at age 7 and again at 9, 10, 12 and 16 years old. Being an above average reader at 7 is predictive of gains in IQ by adolescence. What is particularly interesting is that any differences between twins who vary in reading ability can be put down to the impact of reading itself.
This is ground breaking research which suggests that the link between reading and intelligence is a 2 way process – skilled reading develops cognitive skills. It provides further evidence that IQ is not a fixed ability but can be stimulated by the experiences and knowledge gained from reading.
So how can we support children to become not only skilled but avid readers who choose to read deeply and often? If reading builds the brain we cannot afford to narrow the development of reading skills to what happens in school. This is a home/school partnership of the utmost importance.
Here are my top tips for supporting children’s reading in the early years.
1) Share your love of books. It is never too early to start reading to your child. Babies and toddlers enjoy the closeness and can look at the pictures while this delicious pattern of words flows around them. Sharing books is a wonderful way of enlivening communication and creating a love of language. Share books which are funny, sad, uplifting, creative, magical and just plain practical. Explore new worlds but also open their eyes to see what is there in front of them more clearly.
2) Focus on the language more than the print a rich and varied knowledge of language develops from reading but also feeds the desire to read. Many books for young children encourage a playful approach to language with jokes, wordplays and lots of exciting repetition. Books create a fusion between wonderful words and deep feelings by transporting you to new places in your imagination.
3) Offer variety experiment with new books and subject matter because books take you to places we can’t get to in the real world. They are a cheap ticket to new experiences.
4) Revisit old favourites. Some books are special and young children want to hear them over and over again. It may be the storyline they love or the rhythm and pattern of language which resonates, either way it is an important means to stimulate and build memory pathways.
5) Be a role model Let your child both see that you enjoy reading and hear you talk about what interests you. One little girl I knew was determined to learn to read the Sunday papers because this was an especially relaxed and happy time at home when Mum and Dad read out items to each other and there was lots of talk and laughter. She wanted to be part of that.
6) Quantity as well as quality. Don’t be tempted to restrict what your child reads. Avid readers like a broad and balanced diet including light reads as well as immersing themselves in an improving book.
7) Phonics. This is the nuts and bolts of reading which I think should both start and stay at school unless you are specifically asked to do some homework. The practicality of how you sound out and blend words isn’t straightforward and can cause both confusion and frustration. Focus instead on reading together.
8) For reading practice try Paired Reading. If your child isn’t yet a fluent reader but you don’t want to be restricted to their set reading book then this is a safe and supportive strategy to use. Paired reading blends reading in unison with times when your child chooses to read a section aloud independently. Here’s what you do:
- Follow the words with your finger as you read aloud and encourage your child to read with you. Your child may be a fraction behind you as he repeats what he hears when he isn’t decoding for himself. This builds confidence as well as fluency.
- Let your child choose when to go it alone. Agree a signal to stop. A gesture ensures you don’t lose the flow.
- Join in again when your child stumbles and continue to read together. Don’t correct or analyse the error other than to repeat the word in your normal voice as you join in.
9) Join the library cultivate a love of browsing and eagerly anticipate what delights may come home with you. Also consider swapping books you buy. Don’t let a book lie idle unless it is a much loved favourite. Share and recycle books with friends and family so that a constant flow of books comes into your home.
10) Provide space and time to savour books – many adults say they are too busy to read and a hectic lifestyle can work against becoming a fluent reader. Make sure your child has time to read especially at weekends and in the holidays. Families who are always on the move when not at work can crowd out the opportunity to read unintentionally. Create a quiet and relaxing space which is book friendly. While you can flick through a book in a busy room the chances are that your child will struggle to develop the deep concentration needed for fluent reading if there isn’t somewhere to go where they will not be interrupted.
This doesn’t assume that learning to read is an easy and smooth process. Seek help if your child is struggling and ask your school what they are doing and how you can support your child at home if they are faltering. Most of all don’t panic and do read together and have fun.