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Early Childhood: It's Important to Encourage Reading

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

There is a magical time between ages 3 to 7 when children expand out beyond verbal communication and start to develop written language skills as well. It's an amazing transformation. Very young children can identify letters and sound them out. Eventually, older children learn to identify common words, and then start to write and read on their own.

One of the most lasting ways caregivers can impact their children's overall success and joy is by instilling in them a love and passion for reading. Learning how to read and write opens up limitless opportunities for children, giving them an entirely new way to communicate, to expand their imagination, and to learn new information. Moreover, if children learn to enjoy reading, they will further develop reading skills on their own and not see it as a chore or difficult task to avoid.

Caregivers can encourage the love of reading in their children in many ways. First and foremost, adults should read in front of and to their children. Kids should see Mom and Dad reading pleasure books, recipes, how-to manuals, magazines, newspapers, and signs out in the community. Once children have started learning to read on their own, caregivers can encourage them along in this process by asking them to help identify street names, addresses, food labels, store signs, and so on. Next, books and reading should be incorporated into the daily life of the family. A nightly bedtime story or a weekly library trip can be a fun "reading ritual". In addition, many libraries also host free or low cost literacy events such as story readings and summer reading programs. Finally, age-appropriate books should be easily accessible to everyone in the home. For example, simple board books with lots of colorful pictures should be stored on low shelves within easy reach of toddlers. Older children should have bookshelves in their bedrooms (or other dedicated yet convenient book areas) for current reading material and library books that are next on the reading list.

Caregivers should not worry about buying the latest books at expensive prices. Free or inexpensive children's books can be obtained at used bookstores, thrift stores, or garage sales. As well, all families (and children who are old enough) should have library cards which offer free access to library books and media. As much as possible, trips to the library should allow children time to roam and explore the aisles and select materials that are new and interesting (as well as selecting favorite stories or authors).

Parents should not push their children too hard when they're learning to read. Many caregivers care so much about helping their children to read that they may give their children extra reading homework assignments or mandate a certain number of minutes that children must read every day. Though well intentioned, such assignments can backfire and end up causing reading to be seen by children as an onerous chore. Caregivers need to gage children's receptivity to reading and respond appropriately. While it is good to try to motivate children to be interested in important activities like reading, their enthusiasm for such activities needs to be kept as genuine and internally motivated as possible. Should they start feeling pushed, rushed, or otherwise forced to engage in cognitive tasks like reading, their enthusiasm may be squashed. As is the case when helping to promote other aspects of children's development, caregivers should take care to stay calm and relaxed while working with their children.

Caregivers who have concerns about their children's reading or writing skills should talk to their children's teachers for support and ideas about how to help. They should also make certain that children are not having problems due to a medical or physical problem such as poor eyesight or hearing difficulty. Children who continue to struggle with or to resist reading and writing even after their vision and hearing have been tested and corrected (if necessary) may have a learning disability. Testing conducted by an appropriately trained psychologist may be necessary to pinpoint the source of a particular child's problem.

Having a learning disability doesn't mean that a child is unintelligent. Children with learning disabilities have average or above-average IQ (intelligence) scores as often as do non-disabled children. What makes them different is that their brains simply process written or spoken information differently than other children. As a result, these children may benefit from specific non-mainstream teaching strategies and/or special classroom environments that are adapted to the unique ways they process written information. In many states, local public school districts are mandated to provide such special education to children who need it (although the quality of such special programs varies dramatically district by district). Talk with your children's teachers and with the school psychologist for more information.