Researchers agree that book reading is a powerful cultural influence in children’s literacy development. In the late 1990s, Catherine Snow, an American researcher, chaired a committee established by the US National Academy of Sciences to examine the prevention of reading difficulties in young children.
This committee undertook a synthesis of research on early reading development. They found that evidence of accomplishments related to skilled reading emerges early. Among other things, the committee reported that three-year-olds can engage in book-sharing routines with caregivers, comment on characters in books, and listen to stories. Three-to-four-year-olds, when being read a story, can connect information and events to life experiences, and show an interest in books and reading.
This research evidence provides strong support for those who advocate that reading to children has many positive outcomes. Reading can be fun, and can be a source of enjoyable shared experiences in a family. Reading with their parents and other caregivers can expand children’s imagination, knowledge and understanding. What kinds of texts provide the most productive reading experiences for children?
In the everyday world, children are surrounded by environmental print. In the supermarket and shopping centre, children and adults can discover a vast array of texts to read: signs, labels, directions, the text on product packaging. In the home, there are many different kinds of texts to be read: TV guides, fridge notes, newspapers, email messages, instructions for appliances, the text in computer games.
It is important for children to be exposed to print in many forms in their daily lives, and to recognise that print helps people to get things done. Even very small children can engage with environmental print, for example by looking for letters they know on items displayed on the supermarket shelves
Reading books, however, adds another dimension to this everyday experience of reading, and the research evidence indicates that this is important in literacy acquisition. What kinds of books should adults choose to read to children?
A prime consideration in choosing books is enjoyment. Picture storybooks such as the Hairy McClary series by Lynley Dodd and The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss can provide enjoyment over many readings. These two books, like many others, tell amusing stories but they also expose children to rhymes and sounds patterns in language: “Bottomley Potts all covered in spots, Hercules Morse as big as a horse and Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy”. When children hear, and remember the words of stories like these, they are building sensitivity to the sounds and patterns of language.
When adults and children share book reading they listen, talk about the story and characters, delight in repeating the words of the text. These interactions are pleasurable and stimulating and enhance language development.
Sometimes, it is the illustrations in picture storybooks that capture the attention of readers. The wonderful illustrations in Graeme Base’s The Waterhole, Alison Lester’s Magic Beach and The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle use visual language in various ways to extend the meaning of the written text. The shared exploration of the richness of the illustrations extends the imagination and helps children to see the world in new and different ways.
Books can be chosen because the children can make connections with their own lives. The dogs in Hairy McClary and the dreaded cat, Scarface Claw, resonate with children’s own encounters with animals.
A movie like Shrek reminds us that stories provide cultural knowledge that extends understanding of layers of meaning in a text. If a viewer of Shrek already knows Grimms’ fairy tales, they have access to different understandings than a viewer who has not encountered these tales. Reading the Grimm stories after seeing the movie has the possibility of enriching children’s appreciation of the ironies of Princess Fiona’s situation.
The many-layered connections between a contemporary movie such as Shrek and a range of traditional stories is a reminder that one very appropriate reason for choosing texts to read with children can be to link reading enjoyment to their current experience.