From what age should parents start reading to a child? General wisdom holds that it can be as early as the womb – the sounds and rhythms of a parent’s voice are retained by a foetus, who will often look up once born to the source of his parent’s voice. But what of the storytelling structure – the understanding in a child that something is being related to them, events in the abstract that can be imagined as having happened? When does a child really begin to understand the stories we tell her, and the words that form this delicate and exquisite entertainment?

A recent study in the journal Child Development has found that the conception of the elements of a story may begin much earlier than we might have imagined. Two experiments conducted with three to five year old children found that when an experimenter read a word to the children in the context of a story, and then a puppet read it, but replaced a word with a different but related one (for example, saying ‘dog’ instead of ‘puppy’), the child often corrected the puppet. When this happened in the context of a drawing, the children were much less likely to correct the puppet. The researchers believe that this outcome suggested that even young children who cannot read have some idea that a written word can stand for a specific linguistic unit.

What might this mean to parents who read to their children? There is certainly an argument that elements of written and verbal structure are forming connections in a child’s developing mind, and these cannot help but be enhanced by exposure to reading from printed words. Indeed, a study last year by Dominic Massaro, a professor emeritus in psychology at the University of California, suggested that reading aloud to children will introduce a richer vocabulary to them than simply having conversations with them, as stories often expose children to a wider range of words than we habitually use in casual conversation.

Likewise, what can we take from early childhood research on literacy? Certainly, that reading early and often is important to their development. Studies in the US indicate that only 58% of parents read to their children on a daily basis, and a significantly smaller proportion of African-American children, Hispanic children and children living below the poverty line experience a daily story. Given that:

(1) Literacy advocates have long pointed out the correlation between literacy and future academic success, along with the socio-economic impacts that flow on from it, and

(2) Reading aloud to children on a frequent basis is a recognised way to promote early literacy development in children,

~ the magic and wonder of reading is something that ought be actively encouraged amongst families with a view to creating habits around literature and the sharing of stories.

Access to stories – in particular, enabling quality stories for these families who may otherwise be less inclined to read as a daily habit, is equally important to ensuring early regular reading, and seeing its flow-on benefits to children, families and societies as a whole.