Cultivating a love of reading in young children

Children enter the world eager to learn, and research shows that when parents read daily to their children – especially in the first five years of their life – it promotes language acquisition, literacy development, and academic success at school. In celebration of Reading Month, explores the experiences of many Ismaili families who read to their children.

Salima Jaffer reading to her children, Keyaan and Mikyle. Photo: Rahim Jaffer
Salima Jaffer reading to her children, Keyaan and Mikyle. Rahim Jaffer

The shout “bedtime!” at the end of the day is greeted with cheers at the Jaffer household, thanks to a fun ritual that the whole family looks forward to – reading together.

“Reading a story to the children is part of our daily bedtime routine,” says Rahim Jaffer, of Vancouver – father to 5-year-old Keyaan and 22-month-old Mikyle – “so much that Keyaan won't go to sleep unless he's had a chance to read a story, even a short one.”

Children are like sponges: eager to learn. Research indicates that when soaked with the right kind of learning – such as reading – the benefits can resonate long after the book is closed. Parents can improve their children's chances of being successful at school, simply by being active and regular readers to them.

But what evidence supports this belief? In a report called The Effect of Family Literacy Interventions on Children's Acquisition of Reading, Dr Monique Sénéchal, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, did a review of 14 intervention studies, representing 1 174 families. She found that parent involvement does have a positive impact on children's reading acquisition.

“Reading books to young children exposes children to ideas, concepts, and language that can be novel, more varied, and more complex than those typically introduced during parent-child conversations,” says Dr Sénéchal “Indeed, there is an association between the amount of shared reading at home and young children's vocabulary.”

Start Early

The magic of reading:
A mother's account

Little Aanyah Abdullah discovers the magic of reading. Photo: Shaila Abdullah
Novelist Shaila Abdullah tells how just as her parents cultivated a love of books in her from a young age, she in turn shared this love with her daughter, Aanyah, from the moment she was born. Today, at six-years-old, Aanyah is the one reading to her mother!
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In today's society, where the bar for both success and competence is much higher than ever before, it is imperative that children acquire linguistic and cognitive skills long before entering elementary school. By the age of five, children differ markedly in their success in reaching the required developmental goals.

Laila Ladha of Texas, who is an avid reader to her 9-year-old daughter Alina, offers great advice to other parents: “From day one when your child comes home from the hospital, start reading to him or her,” she says. When her daughter was an infant, Ladha would take time out from her hectic schedule to sit down and read to her while the baby would touch the pictures. Today Alina is an advanced reader and currently enrolled in a gifted and talented programme at her elementary school.

“Reading aloud to children should begin in the womb,” says Sanil Sheriff, an instructional facilitator at an elementary school in Texas and Dean of the Learning the Language Program that helps cultivate a love of reading in young children through music and storytelling. Sheriff personally conducts such sessions for children preschool-aged and older, and is passionate about the subject. “Reading aloud to children opens their minds up to the world and builds their sense of inquiry, leading to a higher level of thinking.”

A few minutes a day to develop a habitual reader

Consistency is the key when it comes to making a commitment to read to your child, whether it is for 15 minutes, 30 minutes or interspersed throughout the day. It is also important to note that it is never too late to start, and that the commitment should not end when children begin to read on their own. It is imperative that older children are encouraged to continue the practice.

Young children might not have the patience to sit for longer lengths of time. “Sit them down on your lap and read for 30 seconds or even a minute,” advises Sheriff. “Involve them in the story by asking leading questions.” Then, gradually increase the time as their interest peeks.

Keyaan Jaffer reads “Brown Bear” to his younger brother, Mikyle. Photo: Rahim Jaffer
Keyaan Jaffer reads “Brown Bear” to his younger brother, Mikyle. Rahim Jaffer

Jaffer notes how reading to his children from an early age helped improve their language, vocabulary and grammar skills and developed their imagination. He and his wife Salima have also observed that having an older sibling interested in reading usually rubs off on the younger one as well. “Keyaan is now able to read simple stories to his little brother and they both really enjoy it,” he says.

Nazim Karim of California, who is also the editor of The Ismaili USA, notes how reading to his two sons – Alykhan and Jamil – every evening for 30 minutes, paid off in the long run. Both the boys, now in their twenties, are voracious readers and write extremely well.

“My wife used to sing nursery rhymes and lullabies from the day they were born and used to show them the pictures as she sang to them,” said Karim. “Sometimes we had to pull them away from their books just to get them to sit at the dining table.”

Ladha's advice to other parents is to devote at least a few minutes each day to read to their children. “At bedtime, forget all chores,” she advises. “The result might not be seen instantly, but the day you see it, I guarantee you will feel proud in cultivating the love of reading in your children.”

Tips for parents

The following are tips for parents to develop healthy reading habits in their children:

  • Make reading a bonding time. Choose a book or two to read with your children as a way to spend quality time together rather than sit in front of the television. If your child has a favorite TV show, check out a book from the library that features the characters from that show.
  • Be regular in reading. Read regularly to your children and lead by example by being a reader yourself. When your children see the importance of reading in your life, chances are they would take it seriously too.
  • Visit libraries and book stores. Make regular visits to the library and bookstores with your children and help them choose books that interest them.
  • Make reading fun. When sitting with a book, discuss the visual portions of the book with your children. Younger children also respond with enthusiasm to animated expressions and special sound effects.
  • Make reading rewarding. As special incentive for good behaviour or on special occasions, reward your children with extra reading time or books. Consider putting your children into summer reading programmes. The completion of most of those programmes is rewarded with books.