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Reading to Kids

Reading to Kids
Judith R. Johnston, Judith Johnston
June 18, 2007
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I don't remember learning to read, but I do remember reading in the oak tree behind my house, walking to school, and under the covers at night with a flashlight. I remember the summer reading campaigns at my local library and how proud I was of the world map with all the stickers representing books I had read about children elsewhere. And I remember my mother reading to usChristopher Robin when we were young, and tales of adventurewell through the school years. I can still see those summer books sitting on the mantel of our vacation cottage, and remember how tempting it was to sneak a quick look at the next chapter. They sit on a shelf in my living room now like the old friends that they are: Treasure Island, The Jungle Book, Kidnapped, and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.

I have no doubt that I learned much about books and book reading from my mother, and I know that books introduced me to new words and language registers. I also have been academically successful and remain an avid reader, especially of mysteries. Does this make me living proof of the value of early mother-child book sharing? This question turns out to be surprisingly difficult to answer.

In 1994, Scarborough and Dobrich reviewed 30 years of research on the consequences of reading to preschoolers. Given the strength and unanimity of common wisdom on the topic, they were surprised to find only 31 studies, great variability in results, and quite weak correlations between parental book reading and either language or literacy measures. At best, shared book reading appeared to explain only 6 to 8% of the variance in reading or language achievement. If other variables such as socio-economic status (SES) or ability were factored in, the effects were even smaller. Scarborough and Dobrich concluded that more research was needed to identify the aspects of shared book reading that are most important, and/or the other factors that might promote reading success.

This article looks at three studies that have followed this agenda. The fact that they report conflicting results will set the stage for some reflections on advice to families about book reading.

The Literacy Experiences of Bilingual Head Start Preschoolers

A team of researchers in the New York area wondered if patterns of bilingual language learning and use might make a difference in literacy outcomes (Hammer, Miccio, & Wagstaff, 2003). Perhaps children who have two "first languages" are more sophisticated literacy learners, or children who must spend their first preschool years learning English have less time for early literacy activities. Participants in this study were Spanish English bilinguals who had emigrated from Puerto Rico and whose children were enrolled in Head Start programs. For half of the families, Spanish was the predominant language at home, and children began communicating in English only after they entered preschool. For the other half of the families, the predominant home language was English and children entered the preschool program with communicative experience in both languages. The researchers asked parents to complete a questionnaire concerning the home literacy environment. Items included questions about the frequency with which adults in the family read for their own purposes, the number of books in the home, and the time that mothers spent reading to their children or teaching them pre-literacy skills such as the alphabet or counting. The two groups differed on several of these variables. Mothers whose home language was English were more likely to spend time teaching their children pre-reading skills; they also read to their children more than twice as often as mothers in the other group. Contrary to the researchers' expectations, however, these differences did not lead to corresponding differences in performance on the Test of Early Reading Ability (TERA; Reid, Hresko, & Hammill, 1989), which tests knowledge of the alphabet and print conventions, and ability to attribute meaning to printed symbols. During their first year in the Head Start program, children's standard scores on this measure declined in both groups, to an equal degree. Despite marked differences in patterns of language use at home, and in initial knowledge of English, children in both groups were falling behind the norms at a similar rate. There were no group differences in early reading abilities, and no evident relationship between parental book reading and literacy achievement.


Judith R. Johnston


Judith Johnston



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