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The importance of reading with children

Rose Shepherd / 19 February 2019

Find out how reading with children makes them smarter – and why pre-digested screen fodder starves the mind.

A grandfather reads a book with his granddaughter

In December 2017, a report titled Book ownership and reading outcomes revealed that one child in eight in the UK did not possess a single book. In its mission to change this, the registered charity World Book Day aims to provide every young person a book of their own by sending out 15 million tokens.

Children who own books, it is said, are 15 times more likely to read above the level expected of their age group. But this supposes that, once given a book, they will tear their eyes from their screens for long enough actually to read it – or to be read to. And the scientific evidence is mounting: it is vital to their development that they do.

The benefits of reading to children is the subject of a wide-ranging, erudite, engaging book, The Enchanted Hour – The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction, by Meghan Cox Gurdon, children’s book reviewer for The Wall Street Journal and a mother of five.

Some of those benefits are intuitive. You enclose your children – or grandchildren, nieces, nephews – in a magical circle of warmth and strengthen the bonds of love. You journey with them into the realm of the imagination, boost vocabulary, encourage empathy, enable them to relate to their own life experiences and to problem solve, while conditioning them to associate reading with pleasure.

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But the effects on a growing brain are only now being more fully understood. At Cincinnati Children’s Reading and Literacy Discovery Center, Gurdon met paediatrician Dr John Hutton, who uses MRI scans to study how reading affects children’s cognitive development. In one study Hutton’s team looked at brain activity in 28 children aged three to five as they listened to a story, heard a story while looking at illustrations, and, finally, watched a video. ‘The results,’ she says, ‘were breathtaking’.

When the children listened to a story, the most activity was seen in the areas of introspection (‘How does this relate to my life and understanding?’); there was little in the way of visualisation. But when they listened to a story while looking at pictures, as Dr Hutton expressed it, ‘Bam! All these networks [were] really firing and connecting with one another.’ Brain networks were working together, helping one another, reinforcing neural connections.

And when the children watched a video? Zilch. Nada. ‘It’s like the brain stops doing anything,’ remarked Gurdon. ‘Except for visual perception,’ Hutton replied. ‘They’re seeing the story… but nothing else is going on in terms of these higher-order brain networks. The brain just doesn’t have to do any work.’

So we see not just the value of reading, but how reliance on videos and the like is ‘a set up for atrophy’, as Hutton put it. ‘If what we know of brain plasticity is true, it will be harder for kids who grow up with underdeveloped networks to learn, to come up with their own ideas, to imagine what’s going on in stories and connect it with their own lives, and they’ll be much more dependent on stuff being fed to them, passively.’

The message could not be clearer: get reading. Just ten minutes a day can hugely enhance life chances.

Read Julia Donalson's tips for getting creative with kids

It’s never too soon to start reading with your grandchildren

Some 85% of brain development occurs in the first three years of life. And the more words babies hear in those first weeks, months and years, the better their language skills, giving them a clear advantage when they start school.

From Dr Hutton’s research we know, too, that, as babies’ eyesight improves, the greatest pay-back comes from reading while looking at bright pictures, perhaps asking questions (‘Can you see the mouse? The moon?) ‘Turbo-charging child development’, Gurdon calls it. And the message floats into the receptive infant brain: books are fun.

They're never too old to enjoy reading

For as long as they enjoy it, there is no reason to stop reading to children, even when they are themselves fluent readers. In a recent study, 89% of children aged six to eight said they enjoyed being read to. By age 15 to 17, that number had fallen – but only to 79%. After all, we find nothing odd in the idea of being read a short story on the radio.

‘Complicated and mysterious things happen inside people when we give them time to listen,’ writes Gurdon. ‘The trick is to make it happen.’

Tips for the storyteller

The late Roald Dahl wanted his stories to be shared, and at the whizzpopping Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, they have tips for the storybook reader.

Location, location

Choose a place with atmosphere, even somewhere a bit frightsome, such as a wood, if your tale is a spooky one. Dahl himself used to regale his family with scary tales in a dark, damp, railway tunnel.

Get to know the story

Especially with writers such as Dahl, who play with language, if you're reading aloud the first time you discover words such as ‘squiff-squiddling’, you risk tripping over your tongue.

Get in character

Develop voices for the different protagonists, perhaps squeaky, growly, comically posh.

Use props

For Dahl a bamboo cane stood in for the BFG’s dream trumpet, they say. And, ‘Something as simple as a wooden spoon could mix George’s medicine, swish like Miss Trunchbull’s riding-crop or paint glue onto the Twits’ ceiling.’

Provide something delumptious

Perhaps not tooth-rotting fizzy frobscottle. But how about a slice of giant peach? A ‘Drink Me’ potion when reading Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland? A little something, round about eleven, with Winnie the Pooh? A little food colour, et voilà, green eggs with ham for Dr Seuss.

All together now: "Once upon a time…" 

The Enchanted Hour by Meghan Cox Gurdon is published by Piatkus and is available on the Saga Bookshop.

Visit and join the campaign to get the nation sharing stories.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.