Mike Throm & Justin Trevino
Loosely defined as “those people and organizations who, in exchange for benefits concrete and intangible, sponsor our abilities to read, comprehend, and compose,” sponsors of literacy are many and varied. A majority of people immediately recall their parents as sponsors of literacy when presented with the subject. James Paul Gee states in his treatise on literacy and linguistics, “Discourses are not mastered by overt instruction … but by enculturation into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse (Cazden, 1988; Heath, 1983). This is how we all acquired our native language and our home-based Discourse.” Simply put, we first learn our literacy in the home.
This brings about the age-old question of when we should start reading bedtime stories to children, and when we should teach them to read on their own. There is a wealth of scientific and scholarly evidence that shows reading bedtime stories to children familiarizes them with the elements of language they will need to utilize to read and participate in the “home-based Discourse” later in life. It can generally be said that parents should start reading bedtime stories to children before the age of three to effectively provide the literacy development needed for higher levels of intelligence.
Bedtime story books typically evoke imagery of a warm room illuminated by the soft glow of a night light, with parents reading until a child’s eyelids cease fighting to stay open. Sometimes referred to as “the golden hour,” bedtime stories have been a part of the nightly rituals of families long before Wednesday Is Spaghetti Day, by Maryann Cocca-Leffler graced the childhoods of many Americans. Books dedicated to children’s literacy in terms of English culture actually have their roots in the 18th century, with The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes by John Newbery being published in 1765. The premise of the story depicts an orphan girl who is determined to learn the alphabet and spread this “literacy capital” to others. She is rewarded for her deeds with an ideal marriage, and suggestively, a good life. This narrative suggests that early children’s book writers had an agenda based on motivating or at least instilling the notion that reading was important for a good life. Well-to-do citizens, aspiring to climb the social hierarchy of the time period, were enticed by the values the book eluded to, and as a result, The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes became very popular, with several renditions spreading throughout colonial America throughout the following decades.
Literacy is not confined to simply having the ability to read, and children’s book writers are completely aware of this. In the first wave of books for children, narratives were always centered around qualities, actions, or desires that were deemed appropriate for the culture in which they were distributed. For example, in the 1790’s a revision of Goody Two-Shoes was being circulated in the newly founded United States of America. The nation was in the midst of a culture and identity crisis following separation from Great Britain, and what better way to reinforce the ideals and reasons of why the country fought for independence, than by inserting key phrases into a children’s book?
Phrases like “Such is the state of things in Britain. Americans prize your Liberty, guard over your rights, and be happy” were used in reference to laws applying more favorably to nobles than to the peasant class in England. Children were being taught these ideals not only to serve them better in future discourses within America, but also to solidify a sense of unity.
The key to accomplishing the formation of a desired literacy in children, is to give them motivation, purpose, and direction. The intimacy of child to parent relationships as the primary socialization group for young readers has the most impact in facilitating reading development, and equally important, the comprehension of cultural content.
Maureen and Hugh Crago published the first in-depth study of a preschool child's interaction with picture and story books in Prelude to Literacy: A preschool child's encounter with picture and story in 1983. The Crago’s chosen profession is psychotherapy and they based their research model on earlier work by “a New Zealand librarian, Dorothy White, whose Books Before Five (1954) preserves a record of her daughter Carol’s reactions to the books she encountered in her preschool years.” Their study is comprised of their first-born daughter Anna’s reaction to picture books from six-months old to three years old, serving as a record of her experiences with pictures, words, and her parent’s actions in familiarizing her with literacy – before Anna learned to read.
For the sake of brevity, Crago’s study primarily records Anna’s introduction to words in the English language and their relation to objects in illustrations, thus providing Anna with a basic sense of literacy in the English language, and familiarity with the dialect used within the discourse of her home. Although the individual case studies provide for interesting reading, the key takeaways from the fieldwork are found in the Epilogue.
The reading of children’s books developed Anna’s literacy in preparation for attending school outside of the home at the age of five. Anna had become “a fluent reader since six, and not surprisingly has often tackled books that are longer and more sophisticated than would be normal for a child her age (she read all of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series at six.” Interestingly, Anna preferred not to hear books read aloud once she became literate, preferring to utilize her new skillset by herself without intervention from others. The Crago’s determine that a confluence of major developmental literacy events happened when Anna was four. She was able to evaluate illustrations “in terms of their match with reality,” could ask intelligent contextual questions regarding the stories, attached emotion to fictional scenarios, and most importantly was able to decipher the relationship between the reality she lived in and the fictional world in the storybooks.
Scholastic Incorporated, a major international publisher and seller of children’s books, sponsors third-party surveys of the reading habits of parents and children in different regions of the world. The latest Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report™: 7th Edition (2019) for the United States provides a number of insightful statistics on the current scope of reading to children. 77% of parents with children under five started reading aloud to their children before age one; 66% of children up to age two picked out the books they wanted read aloud, 97% of parents of children aged three to five believe reading aloud is extremely/very important to their children, and 87% of all routine reading aloud was performed at bedtime or at naptime.
Interestingly, a 2016 study by Bojczyk et al on the relation of child vocabulary and their readiness to read found that mothers who believed their children were less ready to learn the beginnings of reading, and who also endorsed children being active participants in the activity had higher-quality shared reading interactions compared to mothers who shared the same active participation belief but believed their children were ready to learn the beginnings of reading. This is most likely an academic way of comparing overactive parenting to more traditional parenting methods.
While it is conclusive that reading to children before their attendance to kindergarten or pre-k is extremely beneficial to literacy development, research also shows that there is an ideal way of reading that parents should adhere to. Streamlining the cognitive abilities of toddlers is due mainly to how parents read to them, not simply the act of reading. In an article by Joanna Blake and Nicholas Maiese entitled No Fairytale … the Benefits of the Bedtime Story, there’s a section titled “Not all storytellers are equal” that covers the subject. It’s admirable for parents to resist the urge of using child developmental television as opposed to reading, but for bedtime stories to truly shine, the practice of “dialogic reading” is an effective way to increase literacy. The concept is based on “… letting the child take the lead through the use of open-ended questions with adults giving informative feedback and adapting the interaction to the child’s level”. The point is to keep the child engaged, even if they can’t respond to the question just yet. Asking questions to a child who hasn’t learned to speak yet can yield great results by way of “triadic communication” which can help with word-to-object association. Around the age of 2, the child will be able to answer open-ended questions, and the reader can provide feedback which will create affinity between the child and reading. This process will serve the child well in the school environment, where teachers will consistently ask questions about the narrative of readings. The child will have not only experience in this practice, but also the confidence and motivation to raise their hand to answer the question.
Reading bedtime stories to children at a young age builds the foundation for their future literacy, and may help to increase their intelligence later in life. Researchers in the United Kingdom conducted a comprehensive study on 1,890 twins emanating from a single egg (the theory being they were more apt to be similar than twins formed from two separately fertilized eggs) in an attempt to determine if learning to read caused differences in intelligence. The study lasted nine years, and was designed to test “reading ability differences with subsequent intelligence differences” between pairs. The researchers determined that “significant paths were found emanating from reading differences as early as age 7, which may underscore the importance of early reading intervention (Ehri, 2012; Torgesen, 2004)." Their research also showed that the ability of one twin to read better than the other may allow for “abstract thinking skills to be gained via the process of taking on the perspectives of fictional or historical characters, or imagining other worlds, times, and scenarios.” The research further suggested “gains are magnified across time and across traits, causing children within a family to become more different than they otherwise would be (Plomin, 2011).” Encouraging good reading habits early in a child’s developmental years appears to have better results than waiting until the year before they start school.
Teaching children to read typically begins with the bedtime ritual of reading picture books together, and research tends to favor the notion children first learn literacy in the home. Children become familiar with their native language through associations made with pictures, words and the relations of these concepts to their world. This basic sense of literacy forms the ability of the child to participate within the primary discourse of the home, leading in turn, to the child's ability to engage in abstract thought. When parents involve the use of open-ended questions, the child remains engaged in the activity of reading, and begins developing associations with words and the objects and ideas they relate to. These abstract thinking skills may help influence higher levels of intelligence later in life.