BY Meredith Flory

When i was pregnant with my first child, my friend Kylie sent me several articles concerning how we talk with babies, even in the womb. Her mother is an early childhood specialist and had come across research on the importance of talking to little ones as a predictor in education and success. One of these articles, “The Power of Talking to Your Baby,” appeared in the New York Times the same month that I gave birth to my daughter, sharing powerful evidence that the act of talking to infants and small children regularly was a major part of learning gaps we see in this country. The author wrote, “The greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school.”

Talk, Talk, Talk

Reading to toddlers and younger children seems like common sense, but what about before and after? How can we make sure that we are talking to our smallest babies and our older teens in a productive and efficient way?  

I asked parents and educators to share stories of how the simple act of reading and thinking aloud to children in these age ranges had affected behavior in the children they interact with. The advice and examples curated from this group offers up proof of how we can put the power of our voice to action.  

It may feel funny at first to start a habit of talking to your child about mundane things, but through it they learn vocabulary and the manners of carrying on a conversation. There’s even evidence that reading the same book or singing the same song repetitively to a baby in the womb can allow an infant to recognize those sounds and be comforted by that same story
or song once they are born. 

My mother, an elementary school teacher of many years, has observed that one of the negative changes of increased technology use is the loss of conversation in the car. When sitting in the carpool lane, she has noticed that parents are more likely to be checking their phones than talking to their child—a safety hazard and a missed opportunity. Time spent in the drudgery of day-to-day chores can turn into invaluable learning time when we simply talk about what we are doing.  

In the car? Discuss stoplights, colors of cars and where you are going with younger inquisitive toddlers and babies who love hearing your voice. Use it as a time to learn about older kids’ interests, inviting them to chose music and ask why they like it, or listening to an audio book or podcast you both might enjoy. 

At the grocery store? Talk about the meals you might cook, prices and numbers, or simply describe the items to your smallest ones. I will never forget the time I was explaining the different types of canned corn to my infant and received some very odd stares. Regardless of my embarrassment, it was a chance for her to hear a variety of adjectives.  

Read and Talk About What You’ve Read, a website run by the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP), points out that reading to your children allows for other conversation. They advise showing, how events in the book are similar to events in your child’s life. Don’t hesitate to stop to discuss when your child has a question or comment, as the book may help your child express her thoughts and solve her own problems.

Andrea Kilby, assistant principal at Pearl Sample Elementary School, was my department head when we both taught high school English. She is the first educator that advised me to read to teenagers in my classroom. She shared that the first time she ever thought to read aloud was a “spooky” book during the month of October in the last 10 minutes of class every day. She continued. Students “discussed what was going on in the book—it was a great experience. After we completed that book, we began another one. I did it because the students did enjoy reading, they were good at class discussions, but we needed something that was a little more high-interest. Once I started reading aloud, it was a hit.”  

Reading to her students became a part of her classroom because the act of reading together not only built community, but modeled good reading for students. She explains, “Hearing someone read always helps to build fluency—a lot of kids tend to struggle with this. When I read to my students, it really seemed like we all got along better. It is hard to explain, but I was reading something they enjoyed and wanted to be a part of.”  

Former educator, fellow writer and military wife, Stephanie Hutaff, agrees that her students appreciated hearing difficult texts read by someone “who wasn’t stumbling over vocabulary.” Hearing adults speak can increase vocabulary as children are exposed to words not used by their peer group, making it easier to recognize the words when reading.  

Read With Your Teens

Reading aloud with teenagers doesn’t have to only take place in a classroom. Andrea shared, “My daughter, Raeghan is 16. We actually read together now. She is a great reader and enjoys reading for pleasure. When I find something that I am interested in and think she will be, we do sit and take turns reading aloud. This summer we will read Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. It is a summer reading assignment for her and I have not read that. So, we will read most of it together. She likes it, because, again, we are able to discuss it and talk about what the discussion could be when she gets into class.”  

A family friend and retired guidance counselor, Deborah Finlay shares that she used to read her children’s summer reading assignments aloud as well, particularly when they were reluctant to get started. As the AAP puts it, “A child can listen and understand more difficult stories than she can read on her own,” helping students reach the next level in difficult texts.  

Cheryl Rauh, a writing instructor for Kansas State University shares that long after her parents stopped reading bedtime stories to her and her siblings, they still maintained the tradition of reading Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, around the holidays, and that while she would roll her eyes as her parents read aloud, she benefitted from the exposure, enjoying reading aloud and braving more difficult texts on her own—traits that have influenced her career choice. 

While reading aloud may be a nightly habit with younger children, it can be a special treat with teens for car trips, vacations or holidays. Having the opportunity to read aloud at home can make public speaking at school or work less scary for teens who struggle with their literacy confidence.  

Talking to our children is a large predictor of success, and it is the easiest thing we can do to encourage their learning and literacy. Let them hear not only instruction from you, but discussion of interests, the world around you, and what you are reading.

Meredith Flory is an Augusta-area freelance writer, military spouse and mother of two. She has a masters degree in children’s literature from Kansas State University and has taught high school and college English.

This article appears in the August 2016 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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