Early Years

Reading to Toddlers Could Boost Literacy

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Reading to young children is a well-documented way to contribute to their cognitive growth and language skills during the preschool years.

But new research shows that reading to babies and toddlers yields promising results even before they’re old enough for preschool.

Researchers from five universities and from Mathematica Policy Research Inc., in Princeton, N.J., found that when English-speaking mothers in low-income households read to their very young children, the youngsters had greater language comprehension, larger vocabularies, and higher cognitive scores before the age of 2, compared with toddlers who were not read to very often.

Among Hispanic mothers who read to their children in Spanish every day, the children had greater language and cognitive development by the age of 3 than those who were not read to frequently.

The study appears in the July-August issue of the journal Child Development, and focuses on 2,581 families in the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project and a control group. A subgroup of 1,101 families was examined to study the relationship between reading and child outcomes in English-speaking and Spanish-speaking families.


Non-Hispanic white mothers reported reading more often to their children than those in other racial or ethnic groups. Mothers of first-born children, girls, and those in the Early Head Start program also reported more reading.

The researchers detected a “snowball model,” in which early reading by parents increased children’s vocabulary which then led to more reading to the children.

“This study shows relations between reading to children and children’s language and cognitive development begin very early and implies that parent-child bookreading and other language-oriented interventions for vulnerable children should begin much earlier than has generally been proposed,” writes Helen Raikes, the lead author of the article and a professor of family and consumer sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The researchers also recommend increasing access to picture books for non-English-speaking families.

Researchers from Columbia, Harvard, Iowa State, and New York universities participated in the study.

Vol. 25, Issue 43, Page 7

Published in Print: July 26, 2006, as Reading to Toddlers Could Boost Literacy
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