It seems counter intuitive to say that you should read the same book to your child over and over again, surely it’s a case of the more the better, right? Actually no! Literacy is best developed through repetition of the same books. I can hear the sighs of defeat from parents exhausted by the 857th performance of Guess How Much I Love You! Hang in there Mom and Dad you’re doing your kids a favour!
The ‘less is more’ rule was a very hard lesson for me to learn because I just love books. ALL the books! In another life I was a children’s librarian so I could hardly wait to dive into the world of children’s literature with Alfie. I wanted to fill his world with strangers and stories, far off places and fresh winds. Alas, this was not to be, at least not right away.
Once a child is established in their language development and literacy skills they are free to explore a more varied literary diet. I would never suggest limiting a child’s access to books. We visit the library once a week and I rotate our book shelves depending on interests/seasons/whims but we also have a core group of books (about 10) that we read several times a day! As we become frustrated by our child’s self-imposed restricted book diet we must remember to follow the child!
Repetition is favoured by the child and beneficial for the following reasons.
Comfort and Confidence
Repeated actions bring comfort and enjoyment to children, think about how a child will start to giggle when they know you’re going to tickle them? Or how peekaboo becomes more exciting the longer you play it? Half the enjoyment for children is knowing what’s coming. Familiar situations and repeated actions allow them to feel safe and confident because they are in full in control of the situation. When they share the same story with you a few times it allows them to join you in the role of story teller, they become powerful in their newly acquired competency, strong in their capabilities, they become your equal. This early sense of accomplishment and self assurance will serve them well as they grow older and need self belief in order to attempt new things.
Straight forward so far, but surely to learn lots of words you need to hear lots of words. Almost right! A baby needs to hear the same word 1,000 times before they learn it, this number reduces as a child gets older (though it’s worth remembering that it rarely dips below 50 for those with dyslexia), so reading the same story over and over is a powerful way to expand a child’s language to include those words. Imagine you’re learning a new language. There are twenty books each using mostly the same vocabulary just in different stories. Is it easier to learn those words by hearing twenty different stories or by repeating one twenty times? This approach is backed by science, so you know it’s true!
Phonic awareness (the tiny sounds which combine to form words) and the phonic map (the mechanics of how to put these sounds together to make the same word do different thing) are something dear to my heart. Language is (unfortunately) made up of grammar. Hearing the same words in the same pattern over and over allows children to understand how sounds work together to make different parts of speech (e.g. knowing that an adverb usually ends in -ly before they even know what an adverb is). Hearing you read aloud means that they will start to build their phonic knowledge from a young age, this empowers them to articulate themselves well once they start talking. The ability to articulate clearly is directly related to a child’s cognitive ability to process new information, which I think you’ll agree is a long way from their ABCs.
Comprehension and Empathy
The more a child hears a story the more they will understand from it. With each repetition they will gain a deeper level of comprehension. As a story is repeated a child will also begin to relate to the story much more strongly. Watch a child’s response to a story evolve as the repetitions build. Something that might have been frightening or stressful on the first reading is fully understood and absorbed into the child’s emotional repertoire by the 10th. Listen out for your child explaining the character’s emotional response back to you, this is a hugely important feat in their emotional development and one which takes time to mature. “But it’s only The Very Hungry Caterpillar” I hear you cry, “What is there possibly left to understand?” Not much for you who is thinking at an adults pace and not working on the areas we’ve already mentioned, though if you ask me how a story about a gluttonous caterpillar turns into a lesson in healthy eating, biology, self belief, perseverance, care of the environment as well as days of the week and mathematical sequencing I will never know. Bravo Eric Carl!
As always you don’t need to take my word on any of this, The Center for Early Literacy Learning has a published a study comparing the literacy and speech skills of children who experienced repeated readings of the same books against those who had lots of new books – guess who showed a stronger set of skills? Read it here. next time you can’t face going on one more Bear Hunt or running in panic from the Gruffalo yet again, keep calm and read on!