Parents take note: Reading to your preschoolers before bedtime doesn't mean they are likely to learn much about letters, or even how to read words.
A new study shows that while storybook time has developmental benefits, preschool children pay very little attention to the printed words on a page.
"There are all kinds of parents who are reading to their children believing that it's going to help their children to learn how to read," said Mary Ann Evans, a psychology professor at the University of Guelph and co-author of the study.
"That's true to an extent in that reading to your children will help them develop an understanding of storyline. But it's not necessarily helping them to learn how to decode the words on the page."
(Read the study abstract.)
This doesn't surprise me.
I never thought the point of reading to kids was to teach them to read. The most one can hope to do is foster a life-long love of reading and books.
I do not read to Helena every day. When we do read together, it's usually not at bedtime. That's not something I ever anticipated saying in regards to a child of mine.
When she was crib-bound and a captive audience, I read her a short book every night, one of a handful of her obvious favourites. Now that she's a little older, more verbal, I've let her exercise choice. We have a bedtime story every night for about a week, then maybe two weeks off before she decides to again include a book in her nightly preparations. Still, every night as I tuck her in I ask her if she'd like a story. "Non, mama. Pas un histoire. Bonne nuit."
We do, however, read books together in the morning, or more usually after supper. She arranges cushions and blankets, on the floor in the hallway or on the sofa, and gathers her friends about her. (Elmo usually sits in my lap.) Then she ceremoniously hands me her book of choice. It's nursery rhymes and sing-along books as often as it is my old paperbacks of Winnie-the-Pooh (with black-and-white illustrations so faded and tiny as to be nonexistent).
"Read," she commands.
Of course, there's not much reading going on. She counts the ducks in the picture's wallpaper background. She names objects, hypothesizing about their relationships to one another. A picture of a squirrel in a park leads to some anecdote or other, and we talk about our days. But if there's ever a lull in our converstation, she taps her finger on the text and tells me, "Read."
I've relinquished the romantic image I've always held of mother and child reading together. I've also realized that my own reading experience has always been a solitary one. I ensure she has every opportunity to develop a relationship with books. If nothing else, I lead by example, with my nose in a book of my own any spare minute she grants me.
Lately, Helena has been noticing labels, from Halloween candy wrappers to the tags on her clothing. "C'est ecrit He-le-na," she suggests hopefully, and I rejoice. She knows! She knows that those regular scratchings encode some mystery for her to crack.
If you want to teach your kid to read, point at the letters, the study suggests.
Helena is very good at jigsaw puzzles, at spatial problems, pattern recognition. To my mind, written text falls into the same category of analysis. And the more data available, the clearer the pattern that emerges. Written words are part of our backdrop. Whether Helena grows up to love reading remains a question mark, but there's no doubt that she will learn to read, and, I suspect, soon.
The point of storytime, on the other hand, is not the words on the page — it's a huge exercise in communication and comprehension. It's forging a bond, if not between a girl and books, between mother and daughter.