Creating a love of reading
From a blog by the University of Wollongong, NSW, Austrialia
Excellent literacy is one of the fundamental life skills we can impart upon children. For a child, a book can open a world of possibilities. Books spark a child’s imagination, stoke their curiosity, develop their language skills and provide a window into worlds unknown.
Dr Elisabeth Duursma works at University of Wollongong in New South Wales Australia in the Early Start Research Institute. She focuses on the role of fathers in developing a child’s literacy and love of books, an area that has typically been overlooked in favour of the mother.
A number of years ago, while based at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Elisabeth was involved in a project collecting data from low-income families in rural Vermont, in the New England region of the United States. Elisabeth’s role was to interview the mothers. However, when she invited the fathers to also be involved, she found they were incredibly reluctant to share their experiences or views on their children.
“They were very low-income families. There were a lot of trailer parks,” Elisabeth recalls. “It was really interesting because I would be interviewing the mums and I could see a dad in the back, and I would ask if they’d also like to be interviewed and they would say ‘what I do doesn’t matter’. I started thinking about that more and more and realised that no-one was really interested in the father’s role. But I was. We had data from 800 men from low-income families from all over the US, so I began investigating that data and it became the basis of my thesis.”
Elisabeth says the perception that reading to a child is a mother’s job was deeply ingrained. But, Elisabeth says, once that barrier is broken down, the benefit to both the child and the father is immense.
“There is such a stigma, particularly among low-income families, that men are not involved in those aspects of children’s lives, that they’re in prison, they don’t care, but that’s not what I’ve found at all. I see book reading as a measure of a dad’s involvement. Men think they’ve got to do the physical play, but not all men like that. My father wasn’t like that. We’ve got to get past that stigma and show that it’s good for men to sit with their children and colour, or read, or do the things that are maybe seen as a mother’s job. And we have to give credit to those dads who do that.”
Elisabeth’s study of 800 fathers from low-income families in the US who read to their children found that it had a direct and positive impact on a child’s language development a year later, and two years later on their literacy development. Conversely, only a mother reading to a child had much less impact on their development.
How to explain this vast disparity between the sexes? It all comes down to the way the father tells the story. Elisabeth says men use much more complex language and take an abstract approach to their interpretation of a story. For example, if a ladder is mentioned in a book, a father will remind the child of the last time they saw or used a ladder in their work.
“Women seem to be teachers,” Elisabeth explains, “so their approach is much more about fact-checking. They ask the children ‘How many apples are there?’ or they ask them to name certain colours. Dads have much more of an impact on a child’s vocabulary. Women are so dominant in the early years of a child’s development and often, until a child gets to primary school, they are mainly exposed to women. It’s so powerful, especially for boys, to have a dad who reads to you or who is engaged with literacy."
Elisabeth is quick to stress that this does not mean mothers should abandon the cherished activity of reading to their children. Indeed, the act of sharing a book with a child is one of the best things a parent – male or female – can do for their development. And the earlier you begin, the better. Elisabeth, who took books to the hospital to read to her two babies in the days after they were born, says it is best to begin reading to children from a very early age to develop the habit.
“It is so great for a child’s development,” Elisabeth says. “Start early. From six weeks old, even if the baby doesn’t know what is happening they will enjoy the pictures and the attachment. Books expose babies to 50% more words than they are exposed to in daily life. When you think about it, how often do you hear words like ‘pineapple’ or ‘giraffe’ used on a daily basis? Children have to experience you reading to them and be surrounded by books.”
How do we help parents increase the love of reading in their children? You can maybe think of several ways but take a look at my previous blog; Increasing the time parents read to their children.
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