COLUMBUS, Ohio — Snuggling up with the kids for a bedtime story is worth a million in so many ways. But if you need more motivation, consider the results of a recent Ohio State University study that found reading five books a day to your children exposes them to about 1.4 million more words by kindergarten than those children who did not have books read to them.
“Kids who hear more vocabulary words are going to be better prepared to see those words in print when they enter school,” says lead study author Jessica Logan, an assistant professor of education studies at the university and a member of the OSU Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy, in a release. “They are likely to pick up reading skills more quickly and easily.”
The “million word gap” may be one reason we see differences in reading readiness and vocabulary development, she adds. But even if parents or caregivers read just one book a day, that still offers children the chance to hear about 290,000 more words by the time they reach kindergarten than if they never had story time. That’s a significant number.
Logan drew inspiration for this research because of what she learned in one of her previous studies: about half of all children in a national sample are seldom or never read to by their parents or caregivers. More specifically, about a quarter of children nationwide are read to only once or twice a week, while another quarter of children never hear a book read aloud by a parent or caregiver.
“The fact that we had so many parents who said they never or seldom read to their kids was pretty shocking to us. We wanted to figure out what that might mean for their kids,” Logan said.
So Logan and her research team worked with staff at the Columbus Metropolitan Library, using circulation statistics to determine the 100 most circulated books targeted at young children. Books that made the list included both board books (usually read to babies and toddlers) and picture books (usually read to preschoolers).
Of the 100 books, researchers picked 30 at random and counted the number of words in each book. They determined that board books average 140 words, while picture books average 228 words. The researchers made the assumption that children would be exposed to mainly board books through their third birthday and primarily picture books over the next two years leading up to kindergarten. They assumed that typical reading sessions included just one book and they gave credit to the parents who say they never read to their child, assuming that they do read at least one book every other month.
If the calculations are correct, children entering kindergarten may have been exposed to vastly different numbers of words. They found a 5-year-old who is never read to will have heard 4,662 words, versus 63,570 words for a child who hears books read once or twice a week. Increasing reading to between three and five times a week ups the number to 169,520 words, while reading just one book daily exposes a child to 296,660 words.
When five books are read daily, the number multiplies to an astronomical 1,483,300 words, the authors calculated.
“The word gap of more than 1 million words between children raised in a literacy-rich environment and those who were never read to is striking,” says Logan.
While other studies have suggested that some children experience gaps in exposure to conversational words, this reading vocabulary word gap is different from a conversational word gap and may have an entirely different influence on children.
“This isn’t about everyday communication. The words kids hear in books are going to be much more complex, difficult words than they hear just talking to their parents and others in the home,” Logan adds..
Children’s books, for example, may be about animals that live in habitats on the other side of the globe or even under the sea. This offers opportunities for concepts and words that would otherwise not be discussed in normal day-to-day household interactions.
“The words kids hear from books may have special importance in learning to read,” she said.
Logan thinks that the million word gap found in this study may even be conservative. Why? Because parents who read to their kids will often expand on the story and add even more ideas and elements in their “extra-textual talk,” especially if the book has been read multiple times. This can reinforce or even expand on vocabulary words.
To sum it up, reading to your kids is more than just fun. You are building imaginary worlds and boosting brain power. That should be enough to get any parent to pull out a worn copy of Goodnight Moon and cuddle up for another good read “in the great green room.”
The study’s results were published online in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.