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Why Reading at Home Makes Such a Difference for Children Learning to Read

'When we read to our children, they are doing more work than meets the eye. "It's that muscle they're developing bringing the images to life in their minds"...researchers saw increased connectivity between - and among - all the networks they were looking at: visual perception, imagery, default mode and language.'  - Anya Kamenetz (2018) 

I am exploring the phenomenon of 'home reading' in this blog (see previous entries:  Snapshot: How Home Reading Became One More Thing on the 'To Do List' for Families (Sept. 8/19)   What Do Parents Need to Notice and Know about Home Reading? (Sept. 15/19)   Strategies for Home Reading with A Child - What Makes Sense for a Parent? (Sept. 23/19) Reading at Home with Early Readers (Sept. 29/19) Hopefully, these entries will help families support this enormously important and relatively untapped resource for helping children develop  as lifelong, successful readers.
I am always hopeful children are being read to at home from the time they are infants - hearing a parents voice, being cuddled on a lap to share a story - are enormously important aspects of social-emotional development and, in an ideal world, extending these read aloud experiences into a more child-centered opportunity for learning to read is a natural progression. In an ideal world - but, in truth, how many of us get to live in an ideal world?

Transitioning from read aloud to reading independently often takes a few years, to be honest. Hearing the language is the start of something amazing as parents read aloud to their child, and once they begin to take on the tasks of making sense of text, parents' reading to them is like a magical magnet that attracts them to increasingly complex text, ideas and genres they initially have challenges making sense of on their own. There are four distinct brain networks that work together to help children make sense of stories and written information - visual perception, imagery, default mode and language (Hutton, 2018). 

When we read aloud to our children, their language mode is activated and when we share the pictures with them, they begin to develop greater visual perception. The brain naturally connects the two to build imagery skills and strategies so children can virtually begin to 'see' a story or idea in their minds as we read the words to them. These images might mirror the pictures associated with the text, or extend to include other images that remind them of what is in the story and, ultimately, allow them to create original images spurred by the words they are hearing but completely original and of their own creation. The default mode network describes areas of the brain that become active outside the task at hand when a child's attention strays from concentrating on a task or activity (in other words, what children are thinking of when they are not focused on using listening, visual or imagination strategies and skills). The act of reading to a child reinforces the importance of staying attentive to the activity at hand, and this is where we want the default mode to be strongest - with working to stay focused on a task. 

At the same time, when parents are reading to children, there is a natural 'dialogic reading' taking place as well. This is the act of pointing out specific words or pictures, asking questions of children (such as: 'where is the mouse now?') This exchange between parent and your child helps build significant bonding between both, both emotionally and physically, which is essential for a child's healthy growth and development. Reading to and with a child has many benefits, academically, emotionally and physically. 

The most effective reading aloud activities involve both reading and sharing pictures associated with a text. This offers children immediate and obvious connections between text and pictures or photographs, and begins to foster greater acuity with both visual perception development and imagery. Moving from the stage of reading to a child to beginning to connect pictures and words is how we make the first steps toward learning to read, and this may be the stage a child is at as they enter Kindergarten and the first rumblings about 'home reading' begin to surface. 

Research has shown us that of all the options available for sharing stories with children, a parent reading to them and sharing the pictures in the book is the most effective. While many other options exist today for children to engage in stories - including audio books or animated online videos and stories - the evidence clearly indicates the most effective read aloud experiences involve reading text and sharing pictures. Hutton's research (2018) indicates this is the most effective strategy for activating all four areas of the brain networks needed to develop as successful readers, and further states 'with animation, it's all dumped on them all at once and they don't have to do any of the work...the imagery and default mode networks mature later, and it takes practice to integrate these with the rest of the brain. With animation, you may miss an opportunity to develop them." Children who are consistently exposed to animation rather than reading text with pictures may be at risk for immature development of brain integration of the visual perception, language, imagery and default network mode connections essential to becoming a proficient reader as a child grows. 

Reluctant readers - or those children who balk at trying to read words or engage in self-reading strategies - are often those most overwhelmed by the demands of processing language through these four brain networks. They struggle to generate mental pictures of what they are reading or being read and are much less reflective about story content or information. Usually they need the most practice with bringing the visual, verbal and imagery clues together and their default network mode generally is more distracted by other things so they lose track of what they are doing. Reluctant readers often need much greater exposure to these transitional kinds of read aloud, read aloud with pictures and dialogic reading as they attempt to build brain strengths in making sense of language through practice, practice, practice. 

Once a child has demonstrated they understand the connections between text and pictures, either with a parent or older sibling or grandparent reading to and with them, concrete associations between text and words (such as drawing, labelling, re-creating a story with loose parts, acting out a story, beginning to sequence a story in pictures and then words) all lead the early reader to a sense making, connected way of gathering meaning from text. These are the early stages of the home reading experience and do not require a formal invitation from a teacher for participation. Early reading books abound in libraries and bookstores, available for parents to use independently at home as they begin to foster these early reading skills through less formal but still highly beneficial acts of home reading. The teacher does not necessarily need to select a book for a student - a child is quite capable of choosing a book they are interested in and would like to share with a parent. Repeating the patterns of 'reading' text as the child engages with the story in a multitude of readings and experiences are essential for developing interests in learning to read and skills that will eventually bring all the learning networks in the brain together to become a proficient reader.

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal ​​

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Eric Harvie School

357 Tuscany Drive NW Calgary, AB, T3L 3C9
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Ms Lorraine Kinsman
Assistant Principal
Mr Benjamin Strand
Education Director
Mrs Prem Randhawa
Ms Trina Hurdman

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