The more we learn about what’s best for our kids, the more we see how reading to them is at the top of the list.

Let’s consider the growing knowledge among us adults about reading books to children, when it should start, and how best to do it. When you finish what you read here, you will see how every young mind in your life – a child, grandchild, sibling, one in childcare or being babysat, a newborn, even one in utero – earnestly waits for this favor.

Let’s get some startling data out of the way, not to cause alarm, but to recognize what needs to be addressed: the US Department of Education now reports that fully one-third of kids enter school in the US “unprepared to learn” because they lack such skills as basic vocabulary, and sentence structure, to do well. As they start behind, they generally stay behind, and many are on a sure path to dropping out.

Experience with books as a child will change that. It makes a world of difference for kids who are raised in homes where they see parents or siblings reading for pleasure, and in homes with large numbers of picture books.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (APA) reports from their own research that consistently reading to your pre-school child has enormously positive results. It stimulates optimal patterns of brain development. It builds solid skills that last a lifetime in language, literacy and social-emotional abilities. Most interestingly, it will strengthen the parent-child relationship at a most critical time in the child’s development.

It has become more certain than ever that reading to kids gives them a language-rich exposure to books, pictures and the written word. The APA has documented how these early literacy skills promote school readiness. And they come up with the same sobering statistic as the US Dept of Ed: 1 in 3 school children start kindergarten without the language skills they need to learn to read.

Even more incredible, two-thirds of all school children in the US, and 80 percent of those living below the poverty line, fail to develop reading proficiency by the end of third grade. This is significant because reading proficiency by the end of third grade is a most important predictor of high school graduation. Reading to children, however, done often and patiently, shows a marvelous effect in the child’s reaching that crucial, third grade milestone. Moving on to a far better life lies within their reach.

Can this compare to the benefits of pre-kindergarten? That’s a hard question, as the comparison seems not to have been researched adequately. There are 1.5 million kids attending state and federally funded pre-K in 43 states. Among them, it has been shown that the quality of pre-K varies widely, even from one classroom to the next. A spreading question in many circles is whether and to what degree pre-K programs are lacking, and whether elementary schools fail to reinforce pre-K advantages.

Yet one trend is becoming apparent: the jump ahead for early grade-schoolers with a pre-K background seems to wither for many before the middle school grades. On the other hand, what shows durable, long-lasting benefits is frequently – four to five days weekly – reading to children at home, or at libraries, or friends’ homes – or anywhere – in their beginning years, the earlier the better. Indeed, reading aloud during pregnancy to the child in the womb now has measurable benefits.

And there’s more. Consider the recent Stony Brook Reading and Language Project. It tells us that how we read to pre-schoolers is as important as how frequently we read to them. It also explains the best way to read to them: read while having a dialogue with them. They call it “dialogic” reading, and it is a method that has gained worldwide recognition in a very short time.

Dialogic reading is more than straight reading from a book. This is not meant to sound technical, because it’s not. It starts basically with a pre-school aged child as young as one or two or older, a parent, and a book – preferably a picture book. With each page of the book, the parent/adult uses the P-E-E-R sequence: PROMPT, EVALUATE, EXPAND, then REPEAT prompt. So the PEER sequence means: Prompt a response from the child, Evaluate the response, Expand the child’s response by rephrasing and adding information to it, then Repeat the prompt to make sure the child has learned from the expansion.

Here’s an example: adult and child look at a page in the book of a fire truck. Adult then asks, “What is this?” (Prompt) while pointing at the picture. Child says “truck” and adult says, “That’s right.” (Evaluate). Then point out to the child, “It’s a red truck,” and “It’s a fire truck” (Expand). Finally, say the original prompt again, adding “Can you say fire truck?” (Repeat).

This simple method of dialogic reading to children is no more than children and adults having a conversation about a book. There’s nothing technical about that. Just be sure to keep it fun. Follow the children’s interest and try to avoid pushing them with more prompting than they can handle happily. Mix up prompts with some straight reading, and try to vary from reading to reading if it’s the same book. That’s another key point – we know that repeat use of the same book never seems to make it dull to kids (unlike for us). Dialogic reading with variations of that same book will make it even more special for them.

Dialogic reading has been the subject of a number of recent studies. The Puckett Institute’s Research & Training Center on Early Childhood Development reviewed ten of these studies. They concluded that children who regularly participated in dialogic reading gained significantly in expressive language, increased the length of spoken phrases, and showed varied and expressive vocabulary.

So when it comes to reading books regularly and properly to children, the science, common sense and practicality are all there. Kids by three years of age will know more words, and will take a surprisingly keen interest in the reading resources within the home, with or without pre-K.

Consider as well that reading to young kids helps avoid, or at least ease, childhood adversity – the toxic stress that hits many young children in ways that their families often cannot see, that in turn leads to significant learning disadvantages. By asking them questions from page to page, and prompting them to participate, you will see how it helps them become the teller of a story. Clearly it inspires kids to read themselves, encourages that adult-child bond, and even enables those first words. In a world of growing inequality, reading to the li’l ‘uns increasingly proves to be a lifetime equalizer.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg