It is conventional wisdom that reading to children early and often will have a positive impact on their literacy later on. Now, a study due for release by the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education answers the question of why and how being read to improves a child's own ability to read. The study, which began with an idea nearly 15 years ago, focused on finding out which aspect of the process was responsibly for improvement in reading skills.
It turned out that conventional wisdom was wrong. Just reading to a group of kids, as is often done in classrooms and libraries around the world, results in very little actual improvement in how well kids will read later on.
Although being read to did increase the kids' vocabulary, the gain didn't actually translate to improvement in their literacy level. To tease out what would, the researchers conducted experiments that tracked eye-movements of the kids, while they sat on their parents' laps as the parents read from the book held in the kids' eye-line.
They found that when you simply read a book to kids, they tend to ignore the print on the page. More than 90 percent of the time the children are focusing on the pictures, or they are looking up at the parent, she says.
Here, went the theory, was the answer: Learning to read is an incremental process; you become familiar with letters, then words; the practice of reading from left to right; and eventually you put all that together and begin to read. But if a child's attention isn't drawn to the printed word, then reading to a child won't necessarily make them more familiar with what it means to read.
The results thus pointed to the next line of inquiry: figure out an alteration to the traditional technique that would work to engage kids more in the process of reading and have a positive impact on their future reading skills. The research study laid out the following small change: the researchers would look at two groups – one being the control group where the teachers would read to their students as they have always done – where the reader would pause once every few minutes and ask students a specific question regarding the just-read passages while at the same time showing them the page that's just been read in order to draw their eyes to text.
It is hard to imagine that such a small adjustment would make any difference. It was a series of moments, questions and gestures. How much could that do?
So far, the kids have been followed for two years. They are now in first grade, and according to the most recent findings, which were published in the journal Child Development, even these small changes make a measurable difference.
"Children who focused their attention on print â¦ had better literacy outcomes than those who did not," says Piasta. "It was very clear."