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Walter: Reading Out Loud to Your Kids While Riding on the Bus or Waiting at the Laundromat? Phone Apps and Ebooks Make It Easy

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When my two children were growing up, we had a ritual. Every night, even if I was exhausted from a long day at work, I would read to them before they went to bed. Their favorite book was Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Sometimes they would be very still listeners; other times, they would jump up and down like wild things themselves. Either way, we were building the habit of reading — together. 

We talked about what the characters were doing in the book, having conversations that built vocabulary, helped my children think about what they were reading and instilled in them the confidence to ask and answer questions.

During the first year of the pandemic, 69 percent of parents were reading aloud to their children, according to the U.S. Census. But even though schools were shuttered and COVID-19’s learning disruptions could set kids back by as much as four months in literacy, that number was only a 5 percentage point increase over the previous year, before schools were shuttered. With data like this, and with less than 20 percent of teens participating in leisure reading, it is critically important that every parent make sure their children see the importance of reading every day.

Thankfully, cultivating a culture of reading out loud to children is easier than ever, with increased accessibility of digital and print resources. Even though demands on parents have never been greater, especially in traditionally under-resourced families where they may have to work multiple jobs, reading at home can be done using devices we almost all already have in hand — our phones — without any significant additional financial investment.

Children ages 8 to 10 spend an average of six hours a day in front of computer or smartphone screens, so screen time on a device that already contains an e-reader can easily be turned into an opportunity to learn and read. My organization, Worldreader, has helped over 19 million children and youth around the globe improve their educational outcomes and lives through access to digital books on free and easy-to-use apps. From the Bronx in New York City to the Texas-Mexico border, we partner with community-based organizations to distribute our BookSmart app, a digital library of hundreds of bilingual books paired with short, easy to follow family engagement discussion prompts.

Other apps, like Homer and Reading Eggs, offer similar services to make reading out loud a normal part of a child’s day. Imagine you are waiting at the laundromat, or riding on a bus. Instead of filling that time by letting your children play on a phone or tablet, you can pull up a book, take five minutes to read a story out loud and then spend a few more minutes talking about the story. This not only increases engagement with your children, but normalizes reading as an everyday activity. In fact, a study published in the Review of Educational Research found that ebooks with accompanying questions or activities drastically enhance children’s reading comprehension.

Beyond heightened literacy and confidence, reading out loud to children plays an important role in improving social skills development. Research shows that social emotional learning has a wide range of benefits, including self-awareness and relationship skills; reading out loud helps children think about the characters, process their feelings about them and reflect on situations the character is facing. Parents can guide sometimes tough conversations by being strategic about which books they choose to read and incorporating activities to further engage their children. 

Children whose caregivers read at least five books a day with them enter kindergarten having heard about 1.4 million more words than kids who were never read to. 

Parents and caregivers have it in their power to share the gift of literacy and ensure that all children have the confidence and ability to read.

Kristen Walter is director of U.S. programs at Worldreader.

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