The Positive Impact of Reading on Children’s Development

The positive impact of reading on children’s development is common knowledge. Events like World Book Day promote literacy each year as the answer to many, if not most, of the problems our education system faces. But where has this idea come from? Is it a simple assumption that maybe doesn’t have a basis in solid fact?

Read on to find out what research has to say, how reading can help all aspects of your child’s development, and crucially: how to get children reading.

1) Research Findings

Well, it turns out that reading with your child is one of the best ways of giving them a head start. A report entitled ‘Reading for Change, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)’ by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that “Reading for pleasure is more important for children’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic status.”[1] This is big news since socio-economic status is well recognised as one of the most reliable indicators of educational attainment.

A Government paper, Research evidence on reading for pleasure, collated a large amount of research for the Department of Education. Their goal, of course, was to influence the policymaking process with scientific reasoning. Their summation was that ‘There is a growing body of evidence which illustrates the importance of reading for pleasure for both educational purposes as well as personal development.’[2]

The paper highlighted improved ‘educational success’ as one benefit of reading for pleasure, alongside ‘emotional and social consequences’. Events like World Book Day have always emphasised the educational benefits of reading for your children: but there’s more to it than a simple intelligence boost. What, therefore, are these other aspects of development that reading can help?

2) Emotional development

The American Academy of Pediatrics, unsurprisingly, encourages reading to your children from an early age.[3] Some of their research shows that literacy promotion ‘has some of the strongest evidence-based support that it can make a difference in young children and families’ lives. The conclusion is that it not only helps the children do well at school, but it has several ancillary benefits.

First, it helps children’s general language skills by the time they start school if they spend more time reading. It also allows parents to build a healthy, happy relationship with their children, which is essential for every aspect of their development. The Rose Review, a government study into the Primary School Curriculum generally, similarly found that “[a] deep engagement with storytelling and great literature link directly to emotional development in primary children.”[4] As much as we want our children to succeed in school, the only thing perhaps more important is a stable, happy emotional life. Reading with your children, therefore, kills these two birds with one stone.

A national director for the AAP, Perri Klass M.D., has said that “[a]lthough [improved literacy is] still tremendously important, the bigger picture now is to help parents build interactions with their children into their everyday lives because this can create nurturing relationships, which promote early brain development, early literacy, language development and school readiness.”[5] Perhaps even more importantly, the AAP also highlighted the importance of reading for stimulating children’s interest in learning more generally.

3) Root biological causes

What are the core root causes of the importance of reading?

Studies have found that reading to your children leads to improved biological brain function- that is, that reading changes the physical structure and operation of the brain. One study used MRI scans to observe the brains of three to five year olds. They compared brain function during reading to listening to white noise and found that their brains showed far greater activity during reading. Although it was only a small level study- only 19 children were involved- the results indicated that further research might yield interesting results.[6]

The fact that brain structure is altered is truly striking, although it makes sense since early childhood is when the brain develops the most. This means, by reading with them, your children are helped in the long term, not just the short term.

4) How to get your kids interested in reading

It sounds like an oversimplification, but one of the best ways to get your child reading is to expose them to a larger amount of books. A National Literacy Trust study looked into the effects of increased exposure to books on children and found that 80% of children who read at above-average levels for their age have access to more books. This was mirrored by the fact that 58% of children who read below the expected level owned no books.

The question is: how can we keep our kids interested in reading when the world of tablets, smartphones and TV is so instantly gratifying? Well, the trick is not to expect to hold their attention for as long as you might like. Ultimately, smartphone games and CBeebies are so popular because they understand that children, particularly toddlers under two years old, don’t have long attention spans anyway. So when it comes to reading to your kids, keep it short and sweet but regular.

The government has also offered tips on how to develop reading skills at an early age:[7]

  • Take time every day, even if just a few minutes, reading together with your child
  • Choose books that you will both enjoy, rather than what you feel they could necessarily most benefit from
  • Talk about the books that you read with your child
  • Read as you go about your day- adverts, signs and street names are practical examples
  • Purchase books and give them as gifts.

But there is only so much you can do at home. But, the good news is that organisations interested in improving literacy are affecting and improving the learning environment. The AAP recommends posters in classrooms, the distribution of books to lower-income areas, and more research on the topic.

Events like World Book Day feed into this increased awareness of literacy improvement.