We recently shared an article from The Conversation about why children love to read the same book over and over again. I found the article so interesting I decided to reach out to the authors. Elisabeth and Jane replied right away (despite the time difference as they’re both in Australia) and they shared a bit of their knowledge with me. Their answers are so great, I’ve decided to share them with you in full. Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments!
Hi Elisabeth and Jane! Could you maybe tell me a bit more about yourselves and what made you want to focus on this line of study?
I am Elisabeth Duursma, a senior lecturer in Education at the University of Wollongong and a parent of two daughters (ages 10 and 13). I have a PhD in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University. I previously worked for a pediatric non-profit organization (Reach Out and Read) in Boston and at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. I have always been interested in literacy as I am an avid reader. While working on a large early intervention project with 3000 low-income families in the U.S. I had an opportunity to work with low-income fathers. I conducted a study on fathers' reading to their children and found that when fathers read frequently to their young children, this benefited their language, literacy and cognitive development. This has led to my interest in fathers and book-reading which is still a very under-researched area.
I am Jane Herbert, an Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Wollongong in Australia, and a parent of a 5-year-old who is an avid reader. I have a PhD in Developmental Psychology (University of Otago, New Zealand) and have conducted research in the US and the UK on how young children make sense of the busy world around them. I am now the director of the Wollongong Infant Learning Lab, and a research leader at Early Start, where we do research and community engagement to help children and families flourish. I work in this area because it amazes me how much infants learn through just watching and copying the actions and behaviors of the people around them. I love their natural curiosity, their confidence to try new things, and how they take forever to get bored of the funny things that adults do to entertain them (like blowing raspberries, playing peek-a-boo, or reading the same story over and over again).
So what do you think are the best ways to get kids involved in their stories? Asking questions or maybe having them repeat things back?
This depends a little on the child's age. With very young children it is great to engage them in the book by asking questions as you read each page, or having them find or label things in the pictures. Older children sometimes don't appreciate it if you stop reading and ask questions because they might just want to listen to the story. So maybe try having conversations about the book before or after reading it. For example, ask them to guess what the story might be about from the front cover, or ask them to retell their favorite part of the story. There is no one 'ideal' way to read or talk about a book but we do know that shared book-reading offers great opportunities for children to expand their vocabulary. Picture books contain far more complex words than everyday conversations (when was the last time you talked about a hippopotamus and a giraffe with a colleague at work?) so talking about what you are reading is a great way to increase children's vocabulary and help them learn about how print works.
You mentioned in your article that eventually kids will seek out new or more novel books. Is there any benefit in pushing that along, or is it better to let them move on by themselves? Is there some kind of time frame a parent can expect based on age?
As a parent, it can be a bit tiresome to read the same book over and over again. However, one of the most effective ways to help your child’s language abilities is to talk to him or her about the things that are their current focus of attention. This style of communication is called “contingent talk”. The requests for the same book show you what your child is interested in right now. Rather than moving your child on to new books that they are not yet interested in, you can introduce new ideas and words based around the characters or ideas in the book they are currently enjoying. To extend your child’s book repertoire, you could try introducing books that are somewhat related to their preferred book. For example, if your child loves “Goodnight Moon”, consider introducing another book about the moon, like “Papa please get the moon for me” by Eric Carle or a non-fiction book about the moon or space. Visit your local library together and see what captures their interest. In general, we would suggest having a wide range of different books available to your child, including nursery rhymes, fairy tales, fiction and non-fiction, and to just follow their lead. Usually, when children have completely mastered the text and the story, they will move on to the next book. There is not really a timeframe for this, but as children become more confident learners you will find they usually move on to new books more quickly. But remember that even as adults we sometimes find it fun to come back to an old favorite again!
How do different vehicles of storytelling affect a child's ability to learn from the material? That is, comparing books to TVs to just hearing a story without any visuals, etc.
It is harder for children to learn from 2-dimensional stimuli (like books and tv) than it is to learn from real-life interactions. But learning opportunities are increased if there is an adult present to add in additional vocabulary, explain unfamiliar ideas, or to relate what is being read/seen to the child’s own life experiences. Book reading is a highly interactive activity that can be adapted to the skills and interests of the child. You and your child can set the pace of the storytelling, going back to previous pages and rereading them at any time, or skipping ahead to your favorite page. You cannot do this as easily with more passive activities like watching TV or listening to an audiobook. In a high-quality picture book, the illustrations also support the text. As young children cannot read the words by themselves yet, the pictures help them interpret the story. The pictures might also give clues about how the characters are feeling or what is coming up next in the story. By looking together as a physical book, your child is also being exposed to early print concepts like where the story starts, the direction to read the text, or that sentences start with capital letters and usually end with a full-stop. All of these experiences are progressively building up your child’s early literacy skills.
I've heard that statistic that gets tossed about of the 30 million word gap for kids, that the more words a child hears when they're younger, the better prepared they are for school. Is there any truth to that, and if so, how does repetition fit into this theory?
Yes, that is true. A study done by Logan et al. (2019) found that when children were read five books a day, they entered Kindergarten having heard 1.4 million words more than children who were never read to. This difference translates into being better prepared to learn to read successfully. Children love repetition as it provides them the opportunity to master a text and learn new words. Repetition helps you remember things, think about when you are learning a new skill, the only way to learn it is to practice and repeat the same thing over and over. The same holds true for learning new words. It takes children time to learn new words so the more often the child hears a word, the more likely it is he/she will remember it and add to their vocabulary.
So, my sister is the best at using voices and making the story come to life for her kids. Is there any benefit to this beyond just entertainment?
Using voices can be an excellent way of engaging a child that has trouble sitting still or listening. It can also help children identify different characters and understand the story better. So there is definitely a benefit to it. However, that does not mean that you always have to use different voices.
If you just haven’t mastered using different voices in your reading (“I don’t have this skill either” - Jane), remember that there are plenty of other ways to be engaging. Animal sounds are always fun for children to hear and make. Speed up or slow down your reading according to what is happening in the story. Or if something suspenseful is about to happen in the story you could close the book suddenly. You could talk in a whisper when characters are telling secrets, or loud when they are yelling. This will help your child start to understand what print concepts like words written all in capitals or followed by exclamation marks mean. Remember that it is more important to have fun reading together, rather than feeling like you need to be the perfect entertainer.
How does music/singing play a part in this?
Music and singing are excellent ways of engaging children in language and set the stage for later literacy development. Songs make it easier to remember words and nursery rhymes are a great way to show children how you can play with language through rhyme. This can help promote children's phonological awareness or awareness of the sounds of a word. Children need to develop phonological awareness in order to learn to read. Very young children love listening to voices of familiar people, so talking and singing to babies exposes them to a wide range of language, which in turn helps their language development.
Lastly, what was your favorite book to read on repeat when you were little?
I loved a book written by Max Bolliger (Swedish author) and translated in Dutch (my native language) as De kleine reus en de grote reus about a little giant and big giant who travel to the yearly giant party and elect 'the giant of the year'. Of course, the little giant outsmarts the big one. - Elisabeth
My favorite book as a child was “Corduroy” by Don Freeman. This is a lovely story about a teddy bear for sale who was missing a button, and a little girl who fell in love with him. When my son was very little, we read “The Going to Bed Book” by Sandra Boynton together thousands of times, not just at bedtime. I still love it and know all the words off by heart. - Jane
- Jessica A. R. Logan, Laura M. Justice, Melike Yumuş, Leydi Johana Chaparro-Moreno. When Children Are Not Read to at Home. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 2019; 1 DOI: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000657