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Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

September 13, 2000

Reading with children rather than to them speeds development, researcher finds

Reading with children rather than the amount you read to them is the best way to hasten reading skills development later on in school, according to a new report by a University of Guelph researcher.

"We found that parents who engage their kindergarten or preschool children in activities with alphabet books, letters, learning letter sounds, spelling and printing are initiating a process that will lead to their children having improved levels of reading and spelling ability in grades 1 and 2," says psychology professor Mary Ann Evans, who followed more than 100 children from kindergarten through grade two. "By contrast, we found no benefit to later skill development from the extent to which parents read books to their children or have them listen to books on tape."

In their four-year survey, titled "Parental Involvement in Beginning Reading," Evans and a team of graduate students tracked 138 children and parents. The researchers found that children learn best through the practised acquisition of reading subskills they themselves practise, such as sounding out letters of the alphabet. "We found we could predict reading acquisition based on the earlier graphophonemic (phonic-based) activities in which the child had been engaged," said Evans.

Though she says her research finds no links between parents reading to children and later reading skills development, Evans says there are other benefits from the practice. "I think it's a wonderful activity. It can enhance a child's interest in books, it can motivate children and it's a great shared experience, but the amount of shared book reading doesn't appear to help children to learn to read because they are listening and not necessarily actively engaged in the process themselves." She said she plans to investigate the possible beneficial aspects of different ways of reading to children in a future research project.

Evans also found that a current trend of parents teaching children to read by copying everyday grown-up situations such as reading labels, public transit signs and brochures etc. similarly did not contribute to reading ability.

"This approach of bringing one's knowledge to the text to give meaning to words means that parents would be more likely to give contextual clues to allow the child to predict what the word might be, rather than clues for sounding out the word," she says. "We discovered that this latter approach is more successful in building reading development."

In the study, parents report spending on average three to four hours a week in shared reading with their child. "It is clear from the research that first and foremost, parents matter," said Evans. "Parents' attitudes towards reading and the type of reading activities they share with their children affect their child's subsequent reading skills development."

As part of the study, parents, children and their teachers were interviewed, each child's reading skills were assessed in kindergarten and grades 1 and 2, as were a variety of cognitive abilities at the outset of the study. Each year, home visits were also carried out.

When the project began, families were asked which parent assumed the prime responsibility for reading to the child. The result was that 128 mothers and 10 fathers formed the parental sector for the study. The gender breakdown is fairly typical, says Evans. "It's still considered a motherly activity in our culture," she says with a sigh. "The imbalance becomes even more pronounced if the child encounters difficulty in learning to read. Then it's virtually the exclusive domain of the mother to assist the child in overcoming those obstacles."

Prof. Mary Ann Evans Department of Psychology 519-824-4120, Ext. 3080

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