Children and the reading habit


Dr. B.J.C.Perera MBBS(Ceylon), DCH(Ceylon), DCH(England), MD(Paediatrics), FRCP(Edinburgh), FRCP(London), FRCPCH(United Kingdom), FSLCPaed, FCCP, FCGP(Sri Lanka) Consultant Paediatrician


It was quite a few centuries ago that Sir Francis Bacon wrote "Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man". This of course applies to women as well but undoubtedly the greatest significance of this quotation is for children. The reading habit is one which, when properly developed, is an inexhaustible source of information that perpetually stimulates the growing mind of a child and leads to continuing intellectual growth of the developing child. The thinking process of humans, in addition to other intricacies associated with it, uses up the ability to interpret the symbolic expressions of thought that are depicted in written language. A well inculcated reading habit during childhood perpetuates the phenomenon to be sustained well into adult life. The ability to read is the core function that is fundamental to the processes of education and in that sense is crucial for the growth of the minds of young children. In fact, reading disorders in children, though somewhat rare, severely hamper their intellectual development.

A home filled with reading material is a good way to help children become enthusiastic and proficient readers. Many parents wonder as to what kind of books should be around in the house. The simple answer to this question is that there is no hard and fast rule and that any type of reading material is perfectly in order. The material provided should generally match the age and the stage of intellectual development of the child. The important thing is to keep a varied selection. It may be necessary to collect board books or books with mirrors and different textures for babies. Older children will enjoy variety such as fiction, non-fiction, poetry and even dictionaries and other reference books. In addition, a lot of children enjoy reading magazines, audio books, postcards from relatives, photo albums or scrapbooks, newspapers, comic books and material from the Internet

It is wise to keep sturdy books with other toys for easy exploration. Books near the changing table and high chair can be helpful distractions for younger children at appropriate moments. Plastic books can even go in the bathtub. As children grow, it is a good idea to keep age-appropriate books and magazines on shelves they can reach in their favourite hangouts around the house. These shelves should be made appealing, organized and some books ought to be placed with the covers facing out so that they are easy to spot. It is necessary to make sure that reading areas have good lighting. It is useful to change the reading materials often and to add seasonal books, rotate different magazines and include books that relate to what the children are interested in or studying in school. In a home with children of several ages, a wide variety of reading material is needed. If the younger ones tend to try out the material for the older children, so be it. It is definitely a good thing and the process can only yield richer dividends.

Whether the child is a baby, a pre-schooler, or old enough to read independently, finding time to read to them is important to developing literacy skills. There are many easy and convenient ways to make reading a part of every day, even when it is quite difficult to find time to sit down with a book. In fact, car trips, errands and even waiting time in checkout lines and the doctor’s office are all opportunities for reading. It is useful to keep books or magazines in the car, diaper bag or backpack to pull out whenever the child has to be in one place for a while. It is a very good practice to encourage older children to bring favourite books and magazines along wherever they go. Other reading moments to take advantage of throughout the day include time in the morning, before breakfast or getting dressed, after dinner when they are relaxed, bath time with plastic waterproof books and at bedtime. Bed time reading is a good and rewarding experience for both children and parents. Reading opportunities are everywhere and even reading signs aloud to a baby while driving is a useful exercise. Even routine tasks around the house like cooking can provide reading moments. With younger children, reading recipes aloud and asking older children to help by reading from a book how much flour or sugar to measure are useful ways of encouraging the reading habit. Even when one is trying to get things done, one could encourage reading. If a child complains of boredom when a parent is cleaning up for instance, one could ask him or her to read aloud from a favourite book to you while you work. It is also important that children get some time to spend quietly with books, even if it means bypassing or cutting back on other activities, like time in front of the TV or playing video games. It is definitely a splendid idea for parents to be avid readers themselves as children who see their parents reading are likely to join them and become readers too.

Even if they are still not able to read well, many younger children can understand stories that are read out to them. If a more challenging book interests a child it would be quite useful to read it together with the child. Younger children can look at illustrations in books and ask questions as they follow along. Reading aloud to a baby is a wonderful shared activity that the parents could continue for years to come. It is certainly a very important form of stimulation. Reading aloud teaches a baby about communication, introduces concepts such as numbers, letters, colours, and shapes in a fun way, builds listening, memory, and vocabulary skills and provides babies information about the world around them. Believe it or not, by the time babies reach their first birthday they will have learned all the sounds needed to speak their native language. The more stories that are read aloud to them, the more words the child will be exposed to and the better he or she will be able to talk. Hearing words helps to imprint them on a baby’s brain. Children whose parents frequently talk or read to them know more words by age 2 than children who have not been read to and kids who are read to during their early years are more likely to learn to read at the right time. When reading to a child, he or she sees the reader using many different emotions and expressive sounds. These foster social and emotional development. Reading also invites a baby to look, point, touch, and answer questions, all of which promote social development and thinking skills. As a result, the baby improves language skills by imitating sounds, recognizing images and learning words. But perhaps the most compelling reason to read aloud is that it makes a connection between the things a baby loves the most, the voices around it and the closeness to the reader and the books. Spending time reading to a baby also shows that reading is a skill worth learning.

Until the children are about 2 years old it is useful to think tactile and short. Thick board books with bright colours, bold simple pictures and few words are ideal. These books may include interactive elements, such as parts that move, items that invite touching and mirrors. Books with different textures, fold-out books, or vinyl or cloth books also are appropriate for babies and toddlers. Books that can be propped up or wiped clean are excellent choices. Many older toddlers of around 2 to 3 years, begin to understand how reading works and will love repetitive or rhyming books that let them finish sentences or "read" to themselves. From colours to numbers to how to get dressed, older toddlers love books that reinforce what they are learning every day. Around the time of 3 to 5 years, they start to enjoy books that tell stories. Their increasing attention spans and ability to understand more words make picture books with more complicated plots a good choice. Stories with an element of fantasy, from talking animals to fairies, will spark their imagination, as will books about distant times and places. It is worth trying out non-fiction books about a single topic of interest that the child likes. Since many kids this age are learning the alphabet and numbers, books with letters and counting are good choices. Those dealing with emotions, manners or going to school can help them to navigate some of the tricky transitions that happen during this time. For school age children just entering school and starting to read, one should look for easy-to-read books with vocabularies they know so that they can read them independently. Many book publishers indicate the reading level of books on the cover and may include a key to help the buyer understand those different levels. One could also choose books that are above a child’s reading level that one could read to him or her. It is ideal not only to look for books that relate to the child’s interests but also encourage exploration of new interests through reading about unfamiliar subjects. Children of all ages just love to giggle and books of silly poems, jokes or songs are sure to be a hit. Collections of fairy tales, children’s stories, poetry, or nursery rhymes offer a wide variety within a single book. Wordless books with imaginative illustrations can be fun even for children who know how to read. Looking at pictures and creating a story develops imagination and broad thinking. The bigger children are able to explore and understand different kinds of texts like biographies, poetry, and fiction. They can sort out expository, narrative and persuasive text in addition to reading to extract specific information such as from a science book. They are able to identify parts of speech and devices like similes and metaphors and correctly identify major elements of stories like time, place, plot, problem and resolution. They are able to read on a specific topic for fun, understand what style is needed and analyze texts for meaning. Many children reach for the same books over and over again. This is perfectly in order. Through repetition they can master the text and eventually sail through it with ease and confidence. Each new reading of the book may also help them understand it just a little bit better. That positive experience may inspire them to give new books a try. This is also a good enough reason why some children refuse to discard old books.

In the end, reading does make a person full and complete. It is now an established fact that a well developed and insatiable reading habit would help tremendously to improve the powers of vocal expression and writing skills of children. It is amazing how children become charmingly adept at verbal and writing skills through wide and extensive reading. A well read youngster is able to put down in writing even the most intricate and complicated of narratives which often surprise even those well versed in the prose of language. Wide reading during childhood does indeed helps to complete the final lap of the learning curve with regard to the different language competencies that single out some of the adults who excel in being so very adept, clear, succinct and expressive in the use of a beautiful language of any type and dialect.

The writer would appreciate feedback from the readers. Please e-mail him at

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