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What are the benefits of children's books?

In this brief, learn why story time is key to children’s development. Explore how home visitors can help families set aside more time to read books with their children. Find the most up-to-date information to answer three prompts: “What does research say?”; “What does it look like?”; and “Try this!” Also, find Connecting at Home, an accompanying resource that offers easy-to-try tips for families to help children experience book reading at home.

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Research Notes

Story time is important for brain development, even for babies who do not talk yet. When you read with children, they are connecting the words you say to the pictures on the page and to the things in their world. All of those connections are brain connections!

The Take Home

  1. Even before they can talk, children need to hear language to support brain development.
  2. Reading and telling stories with children is a great way to expose them to a rich variety of words.
  3. With language, both quantity and quality matter.

What Does Research Say?

  • Infants pick up on language earlier than we realize. In fact, research shows that babies’ brains prepare to speak months before they say their first words. In order to complete this important brain preparation, children need to hear language.
  • Books provide a great opportunity for back-and-forth interactions with older children. This supports word learning and preliteracy skills.
  • The quantity of words that children hear is important for language development, but so is the quality of language that they hear. Quality of language can refer to word diversity and to the speech signal.
  • It is important to use new and different words for children to expand their vocabulary. Books often include words that adults would not otherwise use, like names of plants or animals.
  • Research shows that babies prefer infant-directed speech, or "parentese." The slow, exaggerated sing-song voice grabs babies’ attention and helps them identify individual sounds.

What Does It Look Like?

  • Although some infants will listen to books, other infants want to turn pages and chew on corners. That’s okay! Any interaction that infants have with books is good. As they get older, the interactions will become more focused and intentional.
  • Toddlers may like to hold the book and turn the pages. They may also like to help tell the story. Pause during stories that they have heard many times and let them fill in the missing words. Or ask them to tell you the whole story.
  • Dialogic reading is a type of interactive reading. When adults ask children questions, explain new vocabulary, and relate the story to a child’s life, they are engaged in dialogic reading. This helps young children develop important preliteracy skills, like story understanding and critical thinking.
  • You can use the words and pictures in the books you read to introduce new words and ideas to children. “This is a giraffe. Giraffes have spots and long necks. They like to eat leaves. Can a giraffe be a pet? No!” These interactions are important for growing children’s vocabulary.

Try This!

  • Make reading several times a day part of your routine. Children thrive in predictable environments. Daily reading time creates the consistency and sense of stability that children need. Reading the same books over and over also allows children to predict elements of the story and learn through repetition.
  • Reflect on how you use books with children. How might you encourage parents to use books for more than stories?
  • Reading is not the only way to use books to engage with children. Use the pictures in a book to tell your own story. Or encourage children to be the storyteller!
  • Enjoy story time! Reading is a great time to interact with children. As you read together, make funny sounds or sing songs that go along with the story. During home visits, encourage parents to do the same. Adjust your interactions to match children’s age, ability, and interests. This is how children learn best.
  • Reading to babies and young children in "parentese" makes it easier for them to learn a variety of new words. "Parentese" is linked to greater language growth in later childhood.
  • Connect families to the local library or other ways to access books in your community. Bring books on home visits and model dialogic reading for families.

Learn More

Connecting at Home

Reading with your child helps build language and thinking skills. Even before children can talk, story time helps build babies’ brains.

Enjoy Story Time Together

Make funny sounds or sing songs as you read or tell stories. Reading is a great time for back-and-forth interactions with your child. This is how children learn best.

Reading Daily

Pick a regular time to read to your child, like every morning or at bedtime. Routines help children thrive. They may even like to hear the same books over and over again.

Books Introduce New Words

Choose books in your home language that focus on different topics, like animals, noises, or shapes. This is a great way to expose children to a variety of words. Reading books with new words helps build your child’s vocabulary.

Create a Dialogue

Talk to your child about the pictures in the book. “See the duck? The duck is yellow! What else in this picture is yellow?” Storytelling can go beyond the words on the page. This helps children build language and thinking skills.

Parents hear it all the time: it’s important to read to your kids. But why exactly is that? And does it matter how — or when, or what — you read to them?

It makes sense that being read to would help kids learn to read themselves, and it’s true that being read to supports that crucial learning process. But the benefits of reading together — for kids and for parents — go far beyond literacy.

Language development

From birth, babies are hardwired to develop language skills, and consistent exposure to a wide variety of language patterns is what helps them do exactly that. “Just exposure to words is the single most important thing that you can do to help build the language pathways in your child’s brain,” says Laura Phillips, PsyD, the senior director of the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute. “Reading and exposure to words helps kids maximize their language and cognitive capacity.” Even the tactile experience of holding or touching a book supports babies’ cognitive development.

By reading to your child starting at a young age, even before they’re able to communicate verbally, you help lay the neurological groundwork for effective language use and literacy. That’s partly because books expose children to vocabulary and grammar that they wouldn’t normally hear. “When kids are with caregivers or parents, they’re exposed to the same language, the same vocabulary words, the same patterns of speaking, which is wonderful,” says Dr. Phillips. “But books allow them to hear new vocabulary and new ways of putting words together, which expands their ability to make sense of and use language.”

Research has found that young children whose parents read to them daily have been exposed to at least 290,000 more words by the time they enter kindergarten than kids who aren’t read to regularly. And depending on how much daily reading time kids get, that number can go up to over a million words. All that exposure likely makes it easier for kids to expand their vocabularies and understand the variety of texts they’ll need to read as they get older, both inside school and out.

Dr. Phillips notes that reading also helps kids build a wide base of background knowledge, which is especially helpful once they start school. Kids learn some of this from the books themselves, and some from talking with their caregivers during reading time (“We saw some of these animals at the zoo, remember?”). With more general knowledge — whether it’s about geography, transportation, nature, or countless other topics — kids have more context for the information they encounter at school and an easier time learning about new topics.

Empathy and emotional awareness

Aside from language and literacy, reading is also an important tool for helping children develop empathy. As kids read books about people whose lives are different from their own (and especially stories told from the perspectives of those people), they gain an appreciation for other people’s feelings, as well as other cultures, lifestyles, and perspectives.

Books can also help kids learn how to handle their own feelings in healthy ways. Seeing characters in books experience big emotions like anger or sadness lets kids know that these feelings are normal — and gives them a chance to talk about their own difficult feelings, too.

Parents can use reading time as an opportunity to foster kids’ emotional awareness and build their toolkits for handling feelings: “Have you ever felt as angry as the girl in this book? What would you do if you did?”

The parent-child bond

Having time to read with a parent or caregiver isn’t just about the activity of reading. It’s about having consistent, focused time together, without other distractions or demands. Even a few minutes of reading together gives both you and your child a chance to slow down, connect with each other, and share an enjoyable activity.

What’s more, that cozy time together has benefits for kids’ cognitive development, especially when they’re younger. The sensory experiences of sitting with a caregiver, hearing that familiar voice, and feeling a book in their hands are all important for kids’ brain development. “Hearing a book read over Alexa just isn’t going to give kids the same holistic benefit,” says Dr. Phillips.

When young children’s language capacities are developing, being exposed to words and language at the same time as those meaningful sensory experiences makes that exposure even more valuable. “The physical contact that you get from being held by your parent while you’re reading actually helps to engage neurons in the brain, which make kids more receptive to the language and the cognitive stimulation that they’re getting from that experience,” Dr. Phillips says.

What to read

Dr. Phillips notes that while being read to is beneficial for kids of all ages, the benefits are somewhat different depending on the child’s developmental stage.

“When you have a newborn, read whatever it is that you want to read, even if that’s the New York Times,” she says. “It’s just about having them hear words and sentences and language.”

As kids get older, content starts to matter more. “Reading books with relatable themes can lead to meaningful conversations about what’s happening in their lives,” Dr. Phillips notes. “The book can be a bridge to discussing something that a child might be experiencing themselves, and give you a way to broach a topic without saying, for example, ‘Are you being bullied at school?’”

Of course, reading whatever your child enjoys is just about always a good idea. When kids get the chance to follow their own interests, they internalize that reading is fun and rewarding, and they’re more likely to pursue reading on their own.

This applies even for young kids who want to read the same book on repeat. “It’s very common for toddlers and preschoolers to want to read the same book over and over again,” Dr. Phillips notes. “And that repetition is actually part of how they master language.”

And there’s no reason to stop reading to kids once they’re able to read themselves. Kids often enjoy hearing books a bit above their ability level, for example hearing chapter books when they’re still reading picture books on their own. Reading together through elementary school supports their developing literacy and gives you both a chance to stay connected as they grow more independent.

Any and all languages

Dr. Phillips emphasizes that all of these same benefits apply no matter what language (or languages) you’re reading to your child in. “Sometimes families who speak other languages at home are concerned their child won’t become proficient in English if they read to them in another language,” she says, “but I encourage parents to read to kids in whatever language they feel most comfortable reading in.”

While the vocabulary and background knowledge they learn might vary, any cognitive benefits the child gains in one language will apply to any other languages they speak or read as well.

E-books vs. print

Lots of kids’ books are available as e-books, but it’s not clear whether reading together with an e-book has all the same benefits as a physical print book. Some research indicates that parents and kids may interact more meaningfully when reading print books compared to e-books. And some experts contend that it’s harder for kids to slow down and read attentively on a screen, since they (and their parents!) are used to scrolling through digital material quickly.

That said, there’s no reason to swear off e-books entirely, especially if they make it possible for your family to read together when you wouldn’t otherwise manage it. For example, if you’re traveling or otherwise have trouble accessing a variety of print books, e-books can make it much easier to find engaging new material to read together.

The important part is making reading time meaningful, no matter the medium. Taking your time, sitting together, and talking with your child about the book can help them (and you) get a lot of the same benefits that you would from reading a print book together.

Making it work for you

As important as reading together is, it doesn’t have to be a picture-perfect routine. Reading at the same time every day — as part of a bedtime routine, for example — can be comforting and make it easier to build the habit of reading, but anytime your child is hearing language and connecting with you makes a difference.

Dr. Phillips notes that kids’ development happens in fits and starts, so kids who are gaining a lot of motor skills quickly might not be excited to sit in your lap and read. When that’s the case, it’s more helpful to meet kids where they are rather than trying to enforce rules that could make reading a less positive experience.

“I have a nine-month-old now and she has zero interest in sitting still in my lap while I’m reading a book,” says Dr. Phillips. “But I’ll sit and look at a book myself and then she’ll come over and look with me. I can point to some words, say some words, maybe she’ll take the book from me or maybe she’ll wander away and I’ll keep reading while she’s playing in the same room. Whatever you can do is great.”

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the benefits of reading to children?

The benefits of reading to children include helping them build language skills, learn about the world, and develop empathy and emotional awareness. Reading together also provides an opportunity for parents and children to connect.

What are the effects of reading on child development?

The effects of reading on child development include cognitive and emotional benefits, such as helping children develop language skills and literacy, build empathy, and learn how to handle challenging feelings.

Why should parents make it a habit to read to babies and young children?

Parents should make it a habit to read to babies and young children because it helps lay the neurological groundwork for effective language use and literacy. The sensory experience of being read to is also important for brain development. Reading to children is beneficial even before they’re able to communicate verbally.

What are the benefits of children's books?

Why Is It Important to Read to Your Child?


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