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Johnson County
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Olathe, KS 66061

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Read With Your Children, Not to Them

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Research has found that reading with young children and engaging them can make a positive impact on the child’s future and their family. I can wholeheartedly agree with those findings. Some of my fondest memories are reading the newspaper comics with my Granddad as a child, as well as reading books with my sons when they were small.

An Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist in early childhood development at Kansas State University, Bradford Wiles, is focusing his research on emergent literacy and the effect of parents reading with their children ages 3 to 5 years old.

“Children start learning to read long before they can ever say words or form sentences,” said Wiles. “My focus is on helping parents read with their children and extending what happens when you read with them and they become engaged in the story.”

The developmental process, known as emergent literacy, begins at birth and continues through the preschool and kindergarten years. This time in children’s lives is critical for learning important pre-literacy skills.

Wiles encourages anyone with young children to read with them as a family at any time during the day, not just before going to bed. He also believes that it is okay to read one book over and over again, because the child can learn new things every time.

“There are always opportunities for you both to learn,” said Wiles, “and it creates a family connection. Learning is unbelievably powerful in early childhood development.” Engaging children is how they become active in the story and build literacy skills.

“There is nothing more powerful than your voice, your tone, and the way you say the words,” said Wiles. “We are finding that when parents read with their children instead of to them, the children are becoming more engaged and excited to read.”

Engaging the child means figuring out what the child is thinking and getting them to think beyond the words written on the page. While reading with them, ask questions, offer instruction, provide examples and give them feedback about what they are thinking.

Wiles said, “So, you start out reading, asking open-ended questions, offering instruction and explaining when all of a sudden, you aren’t reading at all, and they start to recognize those things they have seen in the books. And that’s really powerful.”

Wiles further explains the concept in a scenario where a mother reads a book with her 4 year old about a garden. Then they go to the supermarket and the 4 year old is pointing and saying, “Look, there’s a zucchini!” The child cannot read the sign that says “zucchini” but knows what it is because they read the book about gardens.

During this time called the nominal stage, the developmental stage where children are naming things, a child’s vocabulary can jump from a few hundred words to a few thousand words. The more exposure they’ve had through books and print materials, the more they can name things and understand.

The emergent literacy skills can set the stage for other elements. For example, by reading Judith Viorst’s Alexander, Who Used to be Rich Last Sunday with your child, you can introduce concepts about spending and saving money, decision making, and consequences. Viorst wrote a series of Alexander books. They were among our family favorites when my sons were young. Another life skill, resourcefulness, can be explored when reading Pigs Will be Pigs by Amy Axelrod.

What are your family’s favorite children’s books? How can you begin to read those books with your child to develop their emergent literacy skills?

Contact Us

Denise Dias
Family and Consumer Sciences Agent
Denise.Dias@jocogov.org