A new study finds a "million word gap" between children who are read to a lot and those who aren't read to at all.

By Tina Donvito
Updated: April 23, 2019
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

April 9, 2019

It probably comes as no surprise that reading to young kids can help increase their vocabulary and literacy in preparation for starting school. But a new study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics highlights how great an advantage read-to kids may have. Children whose caregivers read to them five books a day from birth to age 5 were exposed to over a million more words than those who weren't read to at all.

Calculating the word gap

The authors came up with the idea for this study after they discovered in previous research that 23 percent of parents reported they never read with their kids at home, while another 25 percent read three or more times per week. "That got us wondering just how different the language and literacy environments of those kids were," says lead study author Jessica Logan, Ph.D., assistant professor of educational studies at The Ohio State University. "We wanted to get an estimated number of words kids would potentially be exposed to just during the shared book readings with their caregivers."

To do that, the scientists looked at their local library's lists of the 100 most circulated board books (for babies and toddlers) and the 100 most-circulated picture books (for preschoolers), and randomly selected 30 of each. They figured out the average word count per book and then calculated how many words kids would be exposed to depending on how often they were read to. "We estimate that for a family that's reading an average of five books a day with their child, that child will arrive at kindergarten having heard a cumulative 1,483,300 words from storybook reading alone," Dr. Logan says. In comparison, "for families that are reading one or two books a week, that child will have heard only 63,570 words from storybooks in that same amount of time."

How reading to kids impacts later skills

Although the study measures total words, not unique words, the results still suggest that children who are read to frequently hear many different types of words—more than in regular conversation. "There is some preexisting work showing that students are exposed to more complex vocabulary words through print compared to conversation," Dr. Logan says. "Books can be about places and things all over the world—or even out of this world!"

Previous research also clearly shows a link between being read to and later literacy development. "We know that children with better developed pre-literacy skills are more likely to become better, more fluent readers," Dr. Logan says. "Those skills include rhyming, awareness of the sounds in words, vocabulary, and print knowledge, which is the knowledge that print carries meaning and is distinct from the pictures." Take, for example, Dr. Seuss' Fox in Socks, she says, which features so many rhyming sounds.

This study also builds on previous research that explored the "word gap" between children in different socioeconomic classes. "This current study doesn't really speak to the differences between socioeconomic groups, but we do know that parents in lower socioeconomic groups have more demands on their time—in those contexts, sometimes reading is one of the things that happens less often," Dr. Logan says. "So I do think that exposure rates may systematically vary along socioeconomic lines, in part because of stress, pressures on time, and access to resources."

Ways to get in more reading

Reading five books a day together may seem like a daunting prospect, but this doesn't have to mean forcing your kid into a marathon book session. Grandparents, babysitters and older siblings can get in on the action; your child's preschool or daycare can also incorporate book reading. Take advantage of library story times, as well as the free books you can borrow there to take home. "Kids who have frequent access to books are more likely to want to read them," Dr. Logan says.

As for which books to read, variety is key. "My suggestion is to read lots of different kinds of books," Dr. Logan says. "Informational texts—books about real-life events or things—have lots of new vocabulary words and concepts that some kids will really enjoy. They can also be exposed to lots of words in fun fictional books—for example, in Click, Clack, Moo, Cows that Type by Doreen Cronin, kids learn about a strike when the barnyard animals all refuse to provide their services for the farmer until they get their electric blankets." Make reading a habit starting at birth, and as your child grows, let them direct what type of books they like.

Most importantly, foster a love of reading by keeping it a fun activity. "When thinking about how much to read, it's tempting to say, 'Just read more!,' but that is not the case," Dr. Logan says. "It's important to follow the child's lead—you don't want to force your child to read. Similarly, you don't want to use reading time as a punishment. A big part of shared book reading is developing children's interest in books, and using them as a punishment is counter-productive." It's not just about quantity: It's about sharing a special learning experience that's enjoyable and comfortable for both you and your child.

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