There is magic in stories. We all remember hearing them as children, and we loved them. Imaginary adventures set in faraway places. Tales about how the dishwasher isn’t working. It doesn’t matter! Whether made up by parents or read from books, kids love to hear stories.
Our recent work showed reading to children positively impacts long term academic achievement more than many other activity (including playing music with them, or doing craft). We found the more frequently parents read to their children, the better their children’s NAPLAN scores in different areas.
In our most recent study, we asked parents to read a wordless storybook to their three to five-year-old children titled The Wolf and Seven Little Goats. We also tested children in many areas of their important cognitive skills, such as language proficiency, memory, self-control, and friendship skills.
Through examining the different ways parents tell stories, we have pinpointed which elements of shared reading are most beneficial for children’s cognitive development.
1. Tune in to your child
Perhaps the most important aspect of reading to children is to tune in to your child. Listen to your child’s cues. Do they like the story? Do they know the vocabulary? Are they paying attention to the pictures more, or the text?
Try to coach your child, not to instruct them. Instead of saying: “look they are going to cook some food, maybe they are hungry”, you can ask “what are they doing?” or “why do you think they’re doing that?”.
Be sensitive about whether they are listening and engaged or uninterested and disengaged. If they are disengaged, are there questions you can ask to make them more interested? Do you think they’ll like a different type of story better? The best books for your child are the ones they enjoy most.
2. Ask questions
Parents who ask lots of questions engage in a more fun and informative way with their children. Ask them if they know the vocabulary, if they can guess what the characters are going to do next, and why they’ve done what they’ve done.
These questions are not only helpful because they help children gain new knowledge and ways of thinking, it also helps strengthen the emotional bond between parent and child. Children like to feel they’re a part of the task, not that they’re being told how to do things.
3. Go beyond describing images or reading text
For example, when the mother goat in the picture book comes home and sees the door to the house open, one parent said:
When their mother came home and was looking forward to seeing her children and hugging them and telling them a story, she suddenly saw that the door is open. She was shocked!
Another parent said:
The mother came home and saw the door is open; she went inside and looked for the children.
This parent is only describing the picture.
The first parent is imagining what is beyond the picture and text. This is a richer way to tell a story to children, and ultimately leads to better cognitive developmental outcomes for children. This is because it teaches abstract thinking, which is the basis for many of the higher order cognitive abilities such as problem solving and critical analysis.