Babies can’t read, so you have to do it for them.
Not to worry, this post is not a diatribe about the obvious. Nor will I explore infant illiteracy. Rather, I want to raise awareness of the critical importance of reading to children. And spoiler alert: you should start a lot earlier than you think.
A few years ago, I joined the board of a non-profit focused on increasing access to high-quality education for children from birth to five in low-income areas. Prior to our first meeting, the executive director conducted a training for us newbies.
It was during that session that we were shown a slide. A slide that contained a seemingly mundane chart, but one that struck terror in my very being.
To the parents reading this, I would like to apologize in advance for the panic attack I am about to induce.
You, like me at the time, may have just noticed that all three of the cognitive peaks occur in THE FIRST TWELVE MONTHS. The sensory pathways peak at month four, language by month nine and higher cognitive function just before month twelve.
I called my wife immediately as I left the meeting to express a profound hope that we had done just enough in that first year as not to ruin our son. I mean, we waited almost thirteen years to have him and to screw him up right out of the gate, so to speak, would have been the most epic of epic fails.
Here is why this all matters: more than 1-in-3 kids begin kindergarten lacking the basic skills they need to learn to read. That means on their first day of school they are already behind. Think of what that does to the classroom dynamic, but more importantly, to a kid’s self-esteem and view of learning.
And it gets worse…
By the end of third grade, roughly two-thirds of children are not proficient in reading. Do you know the single most significant predictor of high school graduation and career success? You got it; reading proficiency. Unfortunately, this predictor is strongest at the end of the third grade. So by eight years old, your potential and opportunity set is largely determined.
Take a deep breath; there is hope.
You just have to catch them early. Like right out of the womb early. And it is really easy and only takes a few minutes. No training required and no special equipment needed. Just grab a book and you are ready to go.
See, the brain is like a game of Jenga. If you do not get the bottom part right, what you do on top doesn’t matter. Brain architecture and development skills are built from the bottom up, and start much, much earlier than you think.
By their first birthday, babies will have learned all the sounds needed to speak their native language. The more you read aloud, the better prepared they will be to talk. (But beware; when they find their voice, there is no off switch. Trust me.)
There’s a concept called serve and return. (It’s not just for tennis, you know.) This is the simple back-and-forth exchange between two individuals. It’s this interactive experience that begins to shape a child’s brain and sets the stage for the rest of their young lives.
Be mindful, though, multiple studies have found that hearing language from a TV just isn't the same. That goes for your phones and tablets, too. Even “educational” apps don’t really move the needle. For young children, the words have to come from a real live human.
Reading a book together is that silver bullet solution. In addition to language and cognitive development, sharing a book is the perfect opportunity to bond with a child. In those few minutes, they are given the undivided attention of the parent, relative or caregiver. That, in and of itself, is priceless.
It also teaches that reading is fun and not just a chore for school. Kids that are read to have higher levels of social-emotional development, and get more restful sleep. This is important, as it is during sleep that kid’s brains compile everything they learned that day.
When my wife learned she was pregnant, we polled the parents of all the well-adjusted children we knew. Certainly they had done something right, and we thought we could assemble their trade secrets and create some sort of – I don’t know – super-child. Reading was a consistent answer.
We took all of the input we had gathered and stitched together an approach that would work best for the two of us. Besides unconditional love and support and all of that “squishy” stuff, books were a big part of each and every day.
From the beginning, our son’s nighttime routine consisted of the 4 Bs: bath, boob, book and bed. While the elements of the routine are different now, the pattern is fundamentally intact. And at eight years old, reading is huge part of his life.
Now that you have had a little time to process all of this, I hope that your nerves have settled and that you, too, can see think of that chart and be inspired, not terrified. Okay, maybe still a little terrified, but at least now you know there is something you can do.
By simply adding reading to the daily routine of the youngest children, we can set up rising generations for unprecedented success.
Give the kid a running start.
This post was adapted from my IgniteDFW talk in 2017. Since the topic is evergreen, I wanted to use this forum to keep the message bouncing around out there in the world. The 10s of you that actually read this will be better for it.
If I Could Talk I'd Tell You by The Lemonheads
Do you have those bands or songs that conjure up specific memories or define a period in your past? When just a few bars heard immediately take you back in time? Well, The Lemondheads help define my college years, plus or minus a few in each direction. The voice of Evan Dando is like a time machine for me. Give this one a listen, and join me in the mid-1990s. Back when the ratio of hair-to-waistline was inverse to today. Goodbye 'freshman 15' and hello 'dad bod'.