In this age of computerized toys, sophisticated preschools and countless how-to child-care manuals, there’s an ancient parenting tool, requiring neither batteries nor Ph.D., that beats just about anything else:
The no-tech, once-upon-a-time bedtime story.
Scratch the psyches of most high-achieving students, and you’ll probably find “Pat the Bunny” in deep storage, read so often to them as babies that their parents seemed to sprout long ears and cotton tails.
Research into why children either thrive or flounder in kindergarten is leading psychologists back to the earliest, most intimate moments of babyhood.
And they are finding that rituals like the bedtime story and other picture-book-reading experiences beginning in the first months of life are among the most reliable predictors of success or failure for children in the first years of school.
“Indications are that the earlier parents start reading to their children, the better off they are,” says developmental psychologist Kathryn Fletcher, who’s leading a study for the University of Miami under the heading of “Emergent Literacy.”
“We’re seeing children coming to kindergarten with very different levels of emergent literacy skills,” she says. “Some are already reading short words, while others don’t know their ABCs or how to interact with a book.”
That early deficit can have a lasting impact.
“These children coming into kindergarten are already behind their peers, and there are indications that they don’t catch up,” Fletcher says.
How early should parents start reading to their children?
At six months, she says.
Fletcher recently conducted a three-week reading project involving 2-year-olds at the University of Miami’s Linda Ray Intervention Center, a research preschool for Miami babies whose mothers used cocaine during pregnancy.
Even in that brief time, Fletcher says, the babies, most of whom had little at-home storybook exposure, began to respond to her picture-books in the same way babies from middle-income families had.
“They started doing the same kind of things: pointing to pictures, and asking questions,” she says.
Those simple responses are just the tip of extremely complex preliteracy processes occurring in babies’ brains.
One part of it is the discovery that a book has an up and a down, a beginning and an end, and that turning the pages is important.
On a deeper level, the child also learns the concept of “print knowledge,” Fletcher says, meaning “there’s something on the page that the parent says. It’s different from the pictures.”
To make the learning happen, parents don’t need a library of books. Even one book goes a long way.
According to Fletcher, endless retelling of one favorite story is better than a constant series of new stories.
“The repetition seems to be important,” she says. “The babies don’t get bored.
“My experience is, after the babies have heard the book numerous times, they start to read along with me, even say the words before I do. Then they’ll put a hand over my mouth and say, ‘No, let me say it.”’
For children under 3, Fletcher recommends books that mostly consist of pictures, such as illustrations of pets, and have very short sentences and rhymes.
Most important of all: Readhings should be a loving ritual, not a drill, and enjoyed by both parent and child. The intimacy, the shared pleasure, she says, “leads to children’s increased interest in books.”
Fletcher hopes to extend her short project involving the Linda Ray children into a long-range study that tracks the literacy development of the babies into elementary school.
“There are a lot of reading-intervention studies with preschool-age children - 4- and 5-year-olds,” she says, “but there’s very little research of children at these younger ages.”
One thing, though, that researchers have learned about the miracle of literacy:
“It appears that this is something you only get from books. You don’t get it from TV or computers.”